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Quipus or khipus (sometimes called talking knots) were recording devices used in the Inca Empire and its predecessor societies in the Andean region. A quipu usually consisted of colored spun and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair. It could also be made of cotton cords. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. Quipus might have just a few or up to 2,000 cords.

Quipu is the Spanish spelling and the most common spelling in English. Khipu ( ) is the word for "knot" in Cusco Quechua (the native Inca language); the kh is an aspirated k. In most Quechua varieties, the term is kipu.

Data contents

Most of the information recorded on the quipus consists of numbers in a decimal system; see The encoding system below.

Some of the knots, as well as other features such as color, are thought to represent non-numeric information, which has not been deciphered. It is generally thought that the system did not include phonetic symbols analogous to letters of the alphabet. However Gary Urton has suggested that the quipus used a binary system which could record phonological or logographic data.

In the early years of the Spanish conquest of Peru, Spanish officials often relied on the quipu to settle disputes over local tribute payments or goods production. Spanish chroniclers also concluded that quipus were used primarily as mnemonic devices to communicate and record numerical information. Quipucamayocs (see below) could be summoned to court, where their bookkeeping was recognised as valid documentation of past payments.


Representation of a quipu
Quipucamayocs (Quechua khipu kamayuq, "khipu-authority"), the accountants of Tawantinsuyu, created and deciphered the quipu knots. Quipucamayocs could carry out basic arithmetic operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. They kept track of mita, a form of taxation. The Quipucamayocs also tracked the type of labor being performed, maintained a record of economic output, and ran a census that counted everyone from infants to "old blind men over 80". The system was also used to keep track of the calendar. According to Guaman Poma, Quipucamayocs could "read" the Quipu with their eyes closed.

Quipucamayocs were from a class of people, "males, fifty to sixty", and were not the only members of Inca society to use the quipu. Inca historians used the quipu when telling the Spanish about Tahuantinsuyu history (whether they only recorded important numbers or actually contained the story itself is unknown). Members of the ruling class were usually taught to read the quipu in the Inca equivalent of a university, the yacha-huasi (literally, "house of teaching"), in the third year of schooling, for the higher classes who would eventually become the bureaucracy.(See: Inca education)

Suppression and destruction

The Spanishmarker quickly suppressed the use of the quipu. The Conquistadores realized that the Quipucamayocs often remained loyal to their original rulers rather than to the King of Spain, and Quipucamayocs could lie about the contents of a message. The Conquistadores were also attempting to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism. Anything representing the Inca religion was considered idolatry and an attempt to disregard Catholic conversion. Many Conquistadores considered the quipu to be idolatrous and therefore destroyed many of them.

Status today

Today only 600 Inca quipus survive, and about 15 or 20 quipus – probably not the surviving ones – were transcribed as Spanish colonial documents. No correlation between a surviving quipu and a transcribed quipu has yet been found. More primitive uses of the quipu have also continued in the Peruvianmarker highlands. Some historians believe that each quipu could only be read by the Quipucamayoc that had made it. If this is true it cannot be considered a form of writing, but rather a mnemonic device. Many historians, however, have attempted to decipher the quipu: the Tawantinsuyu was a powerful empire prior to its conquest, and an opportunity to learn more about the Inca side of the story could possibly reveal an entirely new link to the past.

In 1994, Frank Salomon conducted a study in the Peruvian village of Tupicocha, where quipus are still an important part of the social life of the village. As of 1994, this was the only village where quipus with a similar structure to pre-Columbian quipu were still used for official local government record-keeping and functions, although the villagers did not associate their quipus with Inca artifacts (Salomon 2004).

The encoding system

Marcia and Robert Ascher, after analyzing several hundred quipus, have shown that most information on the quipus is numeric, and these numbers can be read. Each cluster of knots is a digit, and there are three main types of knots: simple overhand knots; "long knots" consisting of an overhand knot with one or more additional turn; and figure-of-eight knots. In the Aschers' system a fourth type of knot—figure-of-eight knot with an extra twist—is referred to as "EE". A number is represented as a sequence of knot clusters in base 10.
  • Powers of ten are shown by position along the string, and this position is aligned between successive strands.
  • Digits in positions for 10 and higher powers are represented by clusters of simple knots (e.g. 40 is four simple knots in a row in the "tens" position).
  • Digits in the "ones" position are represented by long knots (e.g. 4 is a knot with 4 turns). Because of the way the knots are tied, the digit 1 cannot be shown this way and is represented in this position by a figure-of-eight knot.
  • Zero is represented by the absence of a knot in the appropriate position.
  • Because the ones digit is shown in a distinctive way, it is clear where a number ends. One strand on a quipu can therefore contain several numbers.

For example, if 4s represents four simple knots, 3L represents a long knot with three turns, E represents a figure-of-eight knot and X represents a space:
  • The number 731 would be represented by 7s, 3s, E
  • The number 804 would be represented by 8s, X, 4L
  • The number 107 followed by the number 51 would be represented by 1s, X, 7L, 5s, E

This reading can be confirmed by a fortunate fact: quipus regularly contain sums in a systematic way. For instance, a cord may contain the sum of the next n cords, and this relationship is repeated throughout the quipu. Sometimes there are sums of sums as well. Such a relationship would be very improbable if the knots were incorrectly read.

Some data items are not numbers but what Ascher and Ascher call number labels. They are still composed of digits, but the resulting number seems to be used as a code, much as we use numbers to identify individuals, places, or things. Lacking the context for individual quipus, it is difficult to guess what any given code might mean. Other aspects of the quipu could have communicated information as well: color coding, relative placement of cords, spacing, and the structure of cords and sub-cords.

Some have argued that far more than numeric information is present and that the quipu are a writing system. This would be an especially important discovery as there is no surviving record of a written Quechua predating the Spanish invasion. Possible reasons for this apparent absence of a written language include an actual absence of a written language, destruction by the Spanish of all written records, or the successful concealment by the Incan peoples of those records. Historians Edward Hyams and George Ordish believe quipus were recording devices similar to musical notation, in that the notes on the page present basic information, and the performer would then bring those details to life.

In 2003, while checking the geometric signs that appear on drawings of Inca dresses from the "First Brand Chronicle and Fair Government" written by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala in 1615, William Burns Glynn found a pattern that seems to decipher some words from quipus by matching knots to colors of strings.

The August 12, 2005 edition of the journal Science includes a report titled "Khipu Accounting in Ancient Peru" by anthropologist Gary Urton and mathematician Carrie J. Brezine. Their work may represent the first identification of a quipu element for a non-numeric concept, a sequence of three figure-of-eight knots at the start of the quipu that seems to be a unique signifier. It could be a toponym for the city of Puruchuco (near Limamarker), or the name of the quipu keeper who made it, or its subject matter, or even a time designator.

Beynon-Davies considers khipu as a sign system and develops an interpretation of their physical structure in terms of the concept of a data system .

Current locations of quipus

According to the Quipu Database Project undertaken by Harvard professor Gary Urton and his colleague Carrie Brezine, 751 quipus have been reported to exist across the globe. Their whereabouts range from Europe to North and South America. Most are housed in museums outside of their native countries, however some do reside in their native locations under the care of the descendants of those who made the mystery knot records. The largest collection of all is found in western Europe at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlinmarker, Germanymarker with a reported 298 quipus. The next largest collection in Europe can be seen at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Munichmarker.Pachacamacmarker in Perumarker and the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropologia e Historia in Limamarker, Peru each house 35 quipus and the Centro Mallqui in Leymebamba, Peru holds a collection of 32. The Museo Temple Radicati, Lima, Peru houses 26, the Museo de Ica, Ica, Peru has 25 and the Museo Puruchuco, Ate, Peru has 23. While patrimonial quipu collections have not been accounted for in this database, their numbers are likely to be unknown. One prominent patrimonial collection held by the Rapazians of Rapaz, Peru was recently researched by University of Wisconsin–Madisonmarker professor, Frank Salomon. The Anthropology/Archaeology department at the University of California at Santa Barbara also holds one quipu.


Quipus are now preserved using techniques that will minimise their future degradation. Museums, archives and special collections have adopted preservation guidelines from textile practices. Quipus are made of fibers, either spun and plied thread such as wool or hair from camelids such as alpacas, llamas and camels, or cellulose like cotton. The knotted strings of the quipus were often made with "elaborate system of knotted cords, dyed in various colors, the significance of which was known to the magistrates" Fading of color, natural or dyed, cannot be reversed, and may indicate further damage to the fibers. Colors can darken if attacked by dust or by certain dyes and mordants. Quipus have been found with adornments such as animal shells attached to the cords, and these non-textile materials may require additional preservation measures.

All textiles are damaged by ultraviolet (UV) light. This damage can include fading and weakening of the fibrous material. Environmental controls are used to monitor and control temperature, humidity and light exposure of storage areas. The heating, ventilating and air conditioning, or HVAC systems, of buildings that house quipu knot records are usually automatically regulated. Relative humidity should be 60% or lower, with low temperatures. High temperatures can damage the fibres and make them brittle. Damp conditions and high humidity can damage protein-rich material. As with all textiles, cool, clean, dry and dark environments are most suitable.When quipus are on display, their exposure to ambient conditions is usually minimized and closely monitored.

Quipus are also closely monitored for mold, as well as insects and their larvae. As with all textiles, these are major problems. Fumigation may not be recommended for fiber textiles displaying mold or insect infestations, although it is common practice for ridding paper of mold and insects.

Damage can occur during storage. The more accessible the items are during storage, the greater the chance of early detection. Storing quipus horizontally on boards covered with a neutral pH paper (paper that is neither acid or alkaline) to prevent potential acid transfer is a preservation technique that extends the life of a collection. Extensive handling of quipus can also increase the risk of further damage. The fibers can be abraded by rubbing against each other or for those attached to sticks or rods by their own weight if held in an upright position.

When Gary Urton, professor of Anthropology at Harvardmarker, was asked "Are they [quipus] fragile?", he answered, "some of them are, and you can't touch them - they would break or turn into dust. Many are quite well preserved, and you can actually study them without doing them any harm. Of course, any time you touch an ancient fabric like that, you're doing some damage, but these strings are generally quite durable."

Ruth Shady, a Peruvianmarker archeologist, has discovered a quipu believed to be around 5000 years old in the coastal city of Caralmarker. It was in quite good condition, with "brown cotton strings wound around thin sticks", along with "a series of offerings, including mysterious fiber balls of different sizes wrapped in 'nets' and pristine reed baskets. Piles of raw cotton - uncombed and containing seeds, though turned a dirty brown by the ages - and a ball of cotton thread" were also found preserved. The good condition of these articles can be attributed to the arid condition of the 11,500 feet (3,500 metres) elevated location of Caral.

Even when people have tried to preserve quipus, corrective care may still be required. Conservators in the field of library science have the skills to handle a variety of situations. If quipus are to be conserved close to their place of origin, local camelid or wool fibres in natural colors can be obtained and used to mend breaks and splits in the cords. Even though some quipus have hundreds of cords, each cord should be assessed and treated individually. Quipu cords can be "mechanically cleaned with brushes, small tools and light vacuuming". Just as the application of fungicides is not recommended to rid quipus of mold, neither is the use of solvents to clean them. Rosa Choque Gonzales and Rosalia Choque Gonzales, conservators from southern Peru, worked to conserve the Rapaz patrimonial quipus in the Andean village of Rapaz, Peru. These quipus had undergone repair in the past, so this conservator team used new local camelid and wool fibers to spin around the area under repair in a similar fashion to the earlier repairs found on the quipu.

The use of knotted cords elsewhere


The use of knotted cords to as a means of record-keeping is described in some Chinese texts.
"In Early Antiquity, knotted cords were used to govern with. Later, our saints replaced them with written characters and tallies.
In the ancient past, during the time of Rang Cheng, Xuan Yuan, Fu Xi, and Shen Nong, people tied knots to communicate. For a major matter, use string to tie a big knot; for a minor matter, tie a small knot. The number of knots corresponds to the number of matters to be dealt with."

Jewish Tallit

The traditional Jewish tallit has knots in a 7–8–11–13 winding pattern, which has been variously speculated to encode gematrical information regarding the Hebrew name of God or the Jewish mitzvot.

The quipu in popular culture

In literature

The treasure hunt of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novel Inca Gold centers on the decryption of a quipu's message.

In The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, the blinded wise ones use quipu to store all their knowledge in a vast unlit library.

In "Letters from a Peruvian Woman", Zilia treasures her quipus.

In Ian Watson's The Martian Inca, a renascent Inca civilisation deciphers the quipu coding scheme, and the modern Inca revolutionary movement uses the quipu for secret communications.

There is an Argentinian publishing house called Ediciones Quipu.

In Patrick O'Brian's "The Wine Dark Sea", Stephen's Peruvian guide is warned of a possible ambush high in the Andes via a messenger carrying quipus.

In film

Several imagined examples of quipu usage occur in the animated series The Mysterious Cities of Gold.

In the April 27, 2007 episode of Numb3rs ("The Art of Reckoning"), a character uses a quipu to keep a private journal. He misidentifies the quipu as Aztec in origin.

See also


  1. Fernando Murillo de la Serda. Carta sobre los caracteres, 1589
  2. Robertson, William Spence (1922) - History of the Latin-American Nations
  3. Beynon-Davies P. (2009). Significant threads: the nature of data. International Journal of Information Management. 29(3). 170-188
  4. "Origins and evolution of Chinese writing systems and preliminary counting relationships" Accounting History, Nov 2004 by Lu, Wei, Aiken, Max. [1]
  5. "What does the 7-8-11-13 windings pattern mean?" Rabbi Scheinerman's Home Page [2]


External links

Discovery of "Puruchuco" toponym

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