Issue 8 |

Counting the threads of time: The Khipus of the Incas

by on September 20, 2016


The cold and windswept Andean highlands are an unlikely place for humans to live in, much less build an advanced civilisation that would turn out to arguably be the most successful in all of the pre-Columbian Americas. In only a hundred years, the Incas managed to forge an empire that at its largest extent was bigger than modern-day France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Poland combined, stretching from Colombia in the North to Chile in the South, and ruling over an estimated 12 million people with diverse cultures and languages. Amazingly, the Incas did all this without the wheel, the use of iron or steel, or a written language, which were once thought to be indispensable for empire building in the so-called Old World. In spite of all this success, this great Incan empire vanished almost as quickly as it expanded, conquered by rapacious and ruthless Spanish conquistadors looking for gold and to spread the word of their god.

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A Khipukamayuq, a professional Incan khipu weaver and decipherer, displaying a khipu (Source)

Given that they had no written language, most of what we know of the Incas come from Spanish records, which detailed their way of life, architecture, and other achievements through a distinctly colonial lens. However, historians and archaeologists are currently beginning to unearth the fascinating ways in which the Incas managed their vast empire, most importantly the use of unique Khipus (Quipus in Spanish) which were complex knotted instruments made from spun threads, in order to transmit information in a wholly innovative manner unheard of and unseen in other parts of the world.

Writing: Legacy of the Mesopotamians and the Chinese (and some Mesoamericans)

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Two systems? Writing on the right and Khipus in the illustration on the left (Source)

Most, if not all, readers would be familiar with the various writing systems currently used in Asia, Europe, and Africa, ranging from alphabets such as Latin and Cyrillic, logographs as exemplified by Chinese characters, and abugidas as used in Arabic and Hebrew. However, in spite of their diversity, all of these descend from the writing systems developed either by the Mesopotamians around present day Iraq, or the Chinese, around the Yellow River valley in northern China. In the Americas, only the Mesoamericans, who were people living in Central America, including the Maya and the Olmecs, developed writing (unfortunately, records of this have also been destroyed by the Spanish). All of the aforementioned systems are two dimensional representations of verbal speech, which could be stored and transmitted again long after the initial words were spoken by someone.

It is generally agreed by historians and archaeologists that writing first arose from the need to keep accounting records of transactions in a complex society, which was only beginning to take root after humans settled and developed agriculture. From noting down how many cows Naram-Sin owed Liu Shen, the type of information encoded in the writing gradually became more intricate, such that by the time of the Egyptians and Greeks, poetry was able to be written down and appreciated far and wide. But what about the Incas?

Inca unwritten, but spun?

That the Incas never developed written language has perplexed many an anthropologist and historian, as such complex empires usually needed a way of storing and transmitting information to coordinate the day-to-day administration of the society. The Incas, however, were not completely devoid of such mechanisms.

Khipus, popularly termed “talking knots”, were long thought to be accounting tools, as they resembled abacuses in their structure and use. Khipus were made of a group of cotton or alpaca wool threads of different colours spun or knotted together. A single khipu might contain up to 2,000 threads and many more knots, and the method of tying these knots as well as their relative positions could encode different bits of information, which meant that khipus could store and display this in 3 dimensions.

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An intuitive system (Source)

Inca nobility were taught how to read khipus in their educational institutions, but because of the array of ways in which information could be presented in khipus, professionals called Khipukamayuqs were also employed by the Inca state to specially create and decipher the knots and threads.

From Spanish records, Khipus were understood to have been used extensively in the empire. There are numerous reports of them being used in Inca colcas, or state-run warehouses, to keep track of the number of crops and reserves that were available for distribution (the Inca state having practiced an early form of a centrally planned economy). Khipus were also known to have been used to record the annual mit’a (tax) obligations of citizens, who contributed labour and skills in place of money, which the Incas also did not use.

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Khipukamayuqs making records with their khipus (Source)

As khipus were mostly found to have been used to record numerical information (e.g. quantity, size), researchers initially believed that they were merely used for accounting, or as mnemonic devices to assist in recalling certain facts, but did not contain complex ideas in and of themselves. However, in 2005, a report in the journal Science by anthropologist Gary Urton and mathematician Carrie J. Brezine noted that one particular khipu had a series of knots at its start which did not correspond to any number, but seemed to be a unique signifier whose meaning has yet to be identified. According to Dr Urton’s research, one of the likely answers was that it represented the name of the place where the khipu came from, a village near Lima called Puruchuco.

Extrapolating from this, Dr Urton postulated that khipus contained a form of binary code which was capable not only of encoding numbers, but also complex ideas and concepts: in other words, a three-dimensional system to record language that went beyond two-dimensional writing. This was a very controversial idea, but there were Spanish records to support Dr Urton’s position: some Spaniards had noted that a group of Khipukamayuqs had previously been convened to decipher and tell the Incas’ extensive history from the khipus that they had. A Spanish priest had also recounted that a group of Spaniards had come across an Inca man, who quickly hid his khipus from view when he was encountered. When interrogated, the man confessed that his khipus had recorded all the atrocities and massacres that the Spaniards had inflicted upon the Incas, and that the world was going to see their sins laid bare. Incensed, the Spaniards proceeded to burn his khipus, along with countless others throughout the empire. In doing so, they ensured that the khipu system would never be passed down to future Incas and that the full range of secrets of the khipus, including whether they did indeed encode language, would long be hidden from modern eyes.

Regaining the lost wisdom of the Incas

khipus 5

The Milky Way, or Mayu, was an important part of Inca cosmology, seen as the gateway to the underworld, “travelled by spirits, deities, and shamans in trance” (Bahnhart, 1994) (Source)

In spite of, and maybe even due to, all that has been lost, archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians are still working feverishly to gain a better understanding of the full range of information that khipus contained, and to confirm if khipus indeed were a means to communicate. Peru has a wealth of ancient monuments, sites, and artifacts that may yet show just how advanced the Incas were, perhaps making use of their superior knowledge of textiles and their singular obsession with weaving to develop a corollary to writing that did not even occur to the minds of those we usually consider the pioneers of our modern civilisation. Who knows: maybe one day the tales that Mother Llama told to Baby Llama as they trundled through the life-giving Mayu (or Milky Way) may finally be rediscovered, long after they were left ensconced in the amazing khipus of the Incas.

Further Reading (N.D.) Quipu. Retrieved from

Bahnhart, Edwin L. (1994). The Milky Way as the path to the underworld: A comparison of pre-Columbian New World cultures. Palenque, Mexico: Maya Exploration Centre.

Mann, Charles C. (2003). Cracking the Khipu Code. Science, 300, pp. 1650-1651. Retrieved from

Urton, Gary. (2003). Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Wilford, John N. (2003). String and Knot, Theory of Inca Writing.  Retrieved from

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