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Dictionary Definition

quipu n : calculator consisting of a cord with attached cords; used by ancient Peruvians for calculating and keeping records

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Quechua khipu (via Spanish)


  1. a recording device, used by the Incas, consisting of intricate knotted cords

Extensive Definition

Quipu or khipu (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 also consisted of cotton cords with numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base 10 positional system. Quipus may have just a few strands, but some have up to 2,000 strands.
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.

Information recorded

It's generally thought that during the development of the system, there was no attempt to represent phonetic sounds as most writing systems do. The quipu have yet to be fully deciphered, and there are a variety of theories as to how much information they contain. There is currently a theory put forward by Gary Urton that the Khipus represented a binary system capable of recording phonological or logographic data.


Quipucamayocs (Quechua khipu kamayuq, "khipu-authority"), the accountants of Tawantinsuyu, created and deciphered the quipu knots. Quipucamayocs were capable of performing simple mathematics, basic arithmetic operations such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing information for the indigenous people. This included keeping 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 Khipu with their eyes closed.


Quipucamayocs 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 recorded important numbers or actually contained the story itself is unknown). Members of the ruling class were usually taught to read the quipu as part of their education. (See: Inca education)
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. Also, Spanish chroniclers concluded that quipus were used basically as mnemonic devices to communicate and record information in the numerical format. Quipucamayocs could be summoned to court, where their bookkeeping was considered legal documentation of past payments.

Suppression and destruction

The Spanish quickly suppressed the use of the quipu. The Conquistadores realized the Quipucamayocs often remained loyal to their original rulers rather than 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 quipu survive, and about 15 or 20 were transcribed as Spanish colonial documents, but no correlation with the transcriptions has yet been found. More primitive uses of the quipu have also continued in the Peruvian highlands. Some historians believe only the Quipucamayocs that made the specific quipu could read it. If this is true it cannot be considered a form of writing, but rather a mnemonic device. Many historians, however, have attempted to convert the quipu into a decipherable language because the Tawantinsuyu was such a powerful Empire prior to its conquest by Spain; learning 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 khipus are still an important part of the social life of the village. This was the only village where khipus, with a similar structure to pre-Columbian examples, still function in the government, although the villagers do not associate their khipus with Inka artifacts, and they do not change the knots (Salomon 2004).
Nowadays the word Kipu is also used in the Quechua translation of Windows XP. The word Kipu stands for 'File' within the well known menu structure in Windows.

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 turns; 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 is especially important as there is no surviving record of a written Quechua from before the Spanish invasion, either because there was no writing system, the Spanish destroyed all records, or because the Incas hid their records from other civilizations or cultures.
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 1695, 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 "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 Puruchuco (near Lima), or the name of the khipu keeper who made it, or its subject matter, or even a time designator.

Locations of khipus

According to the Khipu Database Project undertaken by Harvard professor Gary Urton and his colleague Carrie Brezine, 751 khipus 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 Berlin, Germany with a reported 298 khipus. The next largest collection in Europe can be seen at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Munich. Pachacamac in Peru and the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropologia e Historia in Lima, Peru each house 35 khipus 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 khipu 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-Madison professor, Frank Salomon. The Anthropology/Archaeology department at the University of California at Santa Barbara also holds one quipu.

Preservation issues

In preservation (library and archival science), theory and practice go hand and glove in maintaining artifacts and the intellectual record while providing access for future generations. Issues of preservation of khipus are addressed using the most appropriate techniques that will allow the artifact to endure with the least amount of artifactual degradation as possible, for years to come. Museums, archives and special collections have adopted preservation guidelines from textile practices. Khipus are made of fibers either from a protein, such as spun and plied thread like wool or hair from camelids such as alpacas, llamas and camels or from a cellulose like cotton. The knotted strings of the khipus were often made with "elaborate system of knotted cords, dyed in various colors, the significance of which was known to the magistrates" Preservation of color, natural or dyed, is an issue that can not be reversed if fading has already occurred and may indicate further damage to the fibers. Colors can darken with the onset of dust as well as with the use of certain dyes and mordants. Khipus have been found with adornments such as animal shells attached to the cords and these non textile materials may include additional preservation steps.
All textiles are damaged by ultraviolet (UV) light. This damage can include fading and weakening of the fiberous material. Environmental controls are used to monitor and control temperature, humidity and light exposure to storage areas. The heating, ventilating and air conditioning, or HVAC systems, of buildings that house khipu knot records are usually automatically regulated. Relative humidity should be 60% or lower with cool temperatures to compliment. High temperatures can increase embrittlement and deterioration of the khipu fibers. Damp conditions and high humidity levels can cause unwanted conditions when a protein rich material is present. As with all textile, cool, clean, dry and dark environments are most suitable. When khipus are on display their exposure to normal ambient conditions is usually minimized and closely monitored.
Khipus are also closely monitored for mold, as well as insects and their larvae. As with all textiles, these are major issues. Fumigation may not be a recommended method for fiber textiles displaying mold or with insect infestations, although it is common practice for ridding paper of mold and insects.
Storage is often a time when damage can occur to a collection. The more accessible items are during storage, the higher the chances of early detection. Storing khipus 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 khipus can also increase the risk of further damage. The fibers can be abraided 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 Harvard was asked "Are they [khipu] 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 Peruvian Archeologist has discovered a khipu believed to be around 5000 years old in the coastal city of Caral. It was discovered quite well preserved 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 - still uncombed and containing seeds, though turned a dirty brown by the ages - and a ball of cotton thread" were also found preserved. The reason for the well preserved khipu and other artifacts, can be attributed to the arid condition of the 11,500 feet elevated location of Caral.


Even when prevention and stabilization attempts have occurred, corrective care may still be required. Conservators in the field of library science have a skill set to handle a variety of situations. If khipus are to be conserved close to their native origin or birth place, local camelid or wool in natural colors can be obtained and used to mend breaks and splits within the cords. Assessment of each individual cord, even though some khipu have been recorded to have hundreds of cords, is required and conserved individually. Khipu cords can be "mechanically cleaned with brushes, small tools and light vacuuming". Just as the application of fungicides are not recommended for ridding khipus of mold, neither are the use of solvents for cleaning and ridding khipus of dirt. Rosa Choque Gonzales and Rosalia Choque Gonzales, conservators from southern Peru, worked to conserve the Rapaz patrimonial khipus in the Andean village of Rapaz, Peru. These khipus 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 khipu.


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 quipu for secret communications.
There is an Argentinian publishing house called Ediciones Quipu.

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 quipu to keep a private journal. He misidentifies the quipu as Aztec in origin.

See also


  • Andean Worlds: Indigenous History, Culture and Consciousness
  • Code of the Quipu: Databook
  • Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics, and Culture
  • Quipus and witches' knots; the role of the knot in primitive and ancient cultures
  • The Secret of the Peruvian Quipus
  • The Cord Keepers: Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village
  • Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records
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quipu in Bulgarian: Кипу
quipu in Czech: Kipu
quipu in German: Quipu
quipu in Spanish: Quipu
quipu in Esperanto: Kipuo
quipu in French: Quipu
quipu in Icelandic: Hnútaletur
quipu in Italian: Quipu
quipu in Dutch: Khipu
quipu in Japanese: キープ (インカ)
quipu in Norwegian: Quipu
quipu in Norwegian Nynorsk: Quipu
quipu in Polish: Kipu
quipu in Portuguese: Quipu
quipu in Romanian: Quipu
quipu in Quechua: Khipu q'aytu
quipu in Russian: Кипу
quipu in Finnish: Quipu
quipu in Swedish: Quipu
quipu in Chinese: 奇普
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