Pre-Columbian Gallery
Khipu, late 15th-early 17th c.
Centro Mallqui, Leymebamba, Peru.

In the Andes, many pre-Columbian peoples relied upon an elaborate system of knotted cords and oral recitation for keeping records. These cords, known as khipus, were made of cotton and camelid fiber. Khipukamayoc, or readers of the khipu, could extract counts of llamas in the pasture as well as historical narratives from these cords. To date, the precise codes used to record information remain unclear. More certain is that the grouping of cords along the main string, the color of cords, the number, size, spacing and direction of the knots were all significant.

Even after the Spanish introduced alphabetic writing with Christianity and other new practices in the 16th century, Andeans continued to make and use khipus. Early in the colonial period, khipus were brought into court to support indigenous testimonies. And Jesuit accounts of the 17th century describe some Andeans using khipus in confession, with knots prompting the memory of sins.

This particular khipu was recently excavated in Laguna de los Cóndores in Leymebamba, Peru. It was found with colonial-era burials, and thus offers material evidence (beyond that of written records) that past practices of pre-Hispanic origin were neither forgotten nor ignored by native Andeans in viceregal Perú. This khipu also makes clear how, at least in this Andean community, such items were worthy of interment (and thus preservation) alongside the bodies of ancestors.



Altieri, Radamés and Carol Mackey, 1990. Quipu y yupana. Lima: Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, Ministerio de la Presidencia.

Quilter, Jeffrey and Gary Urton, eds. 2002. Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Salomon, Frank. 2004. The Cord Keepers : Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village. Durham: Duke University Press.

Urton, Gary. 2003. Signs of the Inka Khipu: binary coding in the Andean knotted-string records. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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