Incan Khipu and Storehouses

Date: 1615
Owner: Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen
Source Type: Images


The Incan bureacrat on the right-hand side of this picture is showing a khipu inscribed with the quantity of various goods in these storehouses to a superior official. Khipus are believed to have recorded the amount of commodities being produced, traded, or stored--potatoes, for example--as well as acting as a readable text for those who knew its symbolism, translators known as khipukamayuqs. Colonial records suggest that khipus communicated the type of item being cataloged, the quantity of each item, and the value or price of each item. Khipus may have even contained verbs denoting the actions involved with these goods, such as their transfer, sale, or inheritance (Urton 1998).

Most historians consider khipus to have been the primary medium for organizing and centralizing the vast Incan territory around the person of the emperor (known as "The Inca"), who was the ritual and actual locus of power. Spanish chroniclers suggested that khipus fulfilled all the data needs of the empire: census, calendars, inventories of weapons and goods, tribute records, genealogies, criminal trials, herd records, and simple postal messages (Salomon 2004). In the traditional literature relating to the Black Legend of the Spanish conquest, the conquerors destroyed thousands of khipus as demonic. Yet the fact that they recognized the many practical aspects of these woven records suggests that they were destroyed to undermine the communication of the Incas.


Urton, Gary. "From Knots to Narratives: Reconstructing the Art of Historical Record Keeping in the Andes from Spanish Transcriptions of Inca Khipus." In Ethnohistory, Vol. 45, no. 3 (Summer, 1998), p. 409-438.

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

CITATION: Drawing 132, Storehouses of the Inka. In Guaman Poma, Felipe. Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno. 1615. Courtesy of the Royal Library of Denmark.