Inca Khipu

Date: c. 1500
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Artifacts


This antique khipu shows clearly the nuances of a fully spread Incan message-cord. Many different methods were used within a single khipu to convey a variety of messages, though their precise meanings are still conjectural at best. They are created by attaching smaller strings to a central cord--anywhere from three to two thousand strings can be part of a single khipu. Most of these are pendant cords, meaning they run down from the main cord, while a few--known as top cords--run crosswise. The direction of the strings is integral to their meaning. Furthermore, each pendant or top cord can contain up to eighteen subsidiary cords that can be positioned at up to ten levels.

Color and knotting are also part of the inscriptive (or "lexigraphic") code of the khipus. Some scholars believe that color was used to differentiate messages within a single khipu and knots were used to connote digits. The three types of knots--single, long, and figure 8--stood for a digit and each cluster of string for a power of 10. Empty spaces stood for zero, itself an advanced mathematical concept, one seen throughout pre-Columbian Latin America, but rarely in other parts of the world. With so many variables and no translational text such as the Rosetta stone, it is no wonder that the meaning of khipus remains shrouded in uncertainty.

CITATION: Peruvian Khipu for Counting. 0018965. Courtesy of The Granger Collection, NY.