Posts Tagged ‘Khipu’

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The khipu is a pre-Inca writing system, as can be seen by this Midddle Horizon Period cord-keeping (600-1000 AD). Photo by Gary Urton.

Although khipus – the knotted string devices used by the Incas to record everything from population counts to songs commemorating heroic kings – look relatively simple to the casual observer, they are in fact quite complex. Basically, a khipu (usually of cotton, rarely of alpaca) consists of a main cord from which dangle a series of pendant cords, studded with single, long, or figure – 8 knots. Encoded in the strings and knots is information that apparently played a fundamental role in the “reading” of khipus: the type of fiber used, the color of the fiber (wether natural or dyed), the direction in which the fiber was spun, how the spun fibers were plied, how the colored cords were combined, how the pendant cord was attached to the main cord, and the position of the knot on the pendant cord.

In is book Decodificación de Quipus (Banco Central de Reserva del Perú / Universidad Alas Peruanas, 2002) William Burns Glynn refers, after the statement of spanish colonial officers and chroniclers, that a huge library in Cusco was full of writting records. The name of this library was Poquencancha, and in it were find three ways of writting: the tocapus, or the cloth spelling, the khipus and large painted notice boards. Furthermore, Glynn states that the Inca really knew a fonethic writing system, seen through the quillcas and in the case of a consonant-numeric relation, exposed in the khipus. In its very interesting book of research, after a first chapter that proposes the relations between numbers, consonants and colors, Glynn, in a second chapter, poposes to decipher ten khipus of diferent sources and subjects, after a very detailed explanation.

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William Burns Glynn interpretation of the geometric symbols in the Inca tocapu with written meaning.

There are two types of khipus: numerical and narrative. Numerical khipus recorded economic and demographic data such as, for example, the resources of newly conquered lands, their “paster lands, high and low hills, plough lands, estates, mines of metals, salt works, springs, lakes and rivers, cotton fields, and wild fruit-trees, and flocks… All these things and many others he [the Inca] had counted, measured, and recorded,” wrote Garcilaso de la Vega in the early seventeenth century, adding “they had special accountants for all the affairs of peace and war, for the numbers of vassals, tributes, flocks, laws, ceremonies, and all else that had to be counted.” As Garcilaso observed, the knots on the cords of numerical khipus were arranged in order of units, tens, hundreds, thousands and so on, and, as modern search has shown, the types of knots and their position on the cord indicate numerical value.

Narrative khipus, on the other hand, recorded prose and poetry, but how the information was registered and how the khipus were read is a matter of ongoing debate. “Treating their knots as letters, they chose historians and accountants… to write down and preserve the tradition of their deeds by means of the knots strings and colored threads, using their stories and poems as an aid,” wrote Garcilaso. Chaski messenger running in relay along the Inca road network often carried khipus, conveying information from the capital to the provinces, and vice versa. Khipukamayuaqs (“Inca’s noble accountant”), resided in every village, and their number was in proportion to its population, and however small, it had at least four and so upwards to twenty or thirty.

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 Inca khipu. Source: Comunicación y Culturas. Miguel Peyró.

At the small administrative center of Puruchuco near Lima, Harvard’s Khipu Database Project (KDB) studied seven of twenty-one khipus found buried in an urn (one of the few excavated khipu caches with provenance). Their research revealed numerical matches among the khipus, indicating an accounting hierarchy and showing how information may have been passed from the provinces to the capital. Equally significant, the khipus share an arrangement of knots at their starting ends that may have denoted the place name, “Puruchuco.” Khipukamayuqs were certainly among those buried at the looted cliff side tombs at Laguna de los Cóndores in Chachapoyas, where archaeologists uncovered some thirty-two khipus at two distinct burial sites. There, the KDB Project analyzed a particularly fascinating and apparent “calendar” khipu consisting of 762 pendant strings; 730 of the strings are divided into 24 groups of approximately 30 pendants each, suggesting that it cover a span of two years, perhaps a record of the region’s labor quota. Two other khipus from the same cache match some of the numerical data encoded in the calendar khipu.

In the early decades of the invasion, the Spaniards relied on knotted records for the fundamental economic and demographic data they needed to set up the colonial administration; khipu records proved especially key to the dozens of Spanish officials who crisscrossed the empire on fact-finding missions known as visitas. Information from khipus also fueled narratives such as the chronicle of Juan de Betanzos of 1551 – 57, and the 1570 account of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, who based his history of the Inca empire on interviews with more than 100 khipukamayuqs. In spite of early Spanish reliance on khipus, by the late 1570s information gleaned from khipus began to clash with the Spanish written word, especially in lawsuits (instigated by an increasingly savvy native population familiarized with the Spanish penchant for legal proceedings and bureaucracy). And so in the early 1580s, khipus were denounced as “idolatrous objects” and order to be burned. Many early Spanish chroniclers lauded the ingenuity of the string records and the skill of their makers and keepers, the khipukamayuqs, but not one explained exactly how khipus were read, made a drawing of a transcribed khipu (with knot and word equivalents), or, better still, left us an actual khipu with its transcription (a so – called Rosetta khipu).

(Main source: The Incas, Craig Morris / Adriana von Hagen. Thames & Hudson, London 2011)


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