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Inka History in Knots

Inka History in Knots
Reading Khipus as Primary Sources

The world’s leading authority on Inka khipus presents a comprehensive overview of the types of information recorded in these knotted strings, demonstrating how they can serve as primary documents for a history of the Inka empire.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

April 2017
Active (available)
319 pages | 6 x 9 | Hardcover is a library cloth edition, no dust jacket | 13 color and 48 b&w photos, 12 b&w illus., 10 b&w maps, 1 color chart/graph, 14 b&w charts/graphs, 3 b&w tables |

Inka khipus—spun and plied cords that record information through intricate patterns of knots and colors—constitute the only available primary sources on the Inka empire not mediated by the hands, minds, and motives of the conquering Europeans. As such, they offer direct insight into the worldview of the Inka—a view that differs from European thought as much as khipus differ from alphabetic writing, which the Inka did not possess. Scholars have spent decades attempting to decipher the Inka khipus, and Gary Urton has become the world’s leading authority on these artifacts.

In Inka History in Knots, Urton marshals a lifetime of study to offer a grand overview of the types of quantative information recorded in khipus and to show how these records can be used as primary sources for an Inka history of the empire that focuses on statistics, demography, and the “longue durée” social processes that characterize a civilization continuously adapting to and exploiting its environment. Whether the Inka khipu keepers were registering census data, recording tribute, or performing many other administrative tasks, Urton asserts that they were key players in the organization and control of subject populations throughout the empire and that khipu record-keeping vitally contributed to the emergence of political complexity in the Andes. This new view of the importance of khipus promises to fundamentally reorient our understanding of the development of the Inka state and the possibilities for writing its history.


2018 PROSE Award in Biological Anthropology, Ancient History & Archaeology

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Outline of the Book
  • Part I. Background
    • 1. What Can We Learn about the Inkas from Study of the Khipus?
    • 2. A Brief Introduction to Tawantinsuyu—the Inka Empire
  • Part II. Reading Khipus in Social, Political, and Religious Registers
    • 3. Cord Notes for Describing an Inka-Era Village on the Southern Coast of Peru
    • 4. The Ancestors’ Calendar: Laguna de los Cóndores, Chachapoyas, Northern Peru
    • 5. Constructing the Records of the Palace of Puruchuco, Lima Valley
    • 6. Accounting for the Oracle: Record Keeping at Pachacamac, Lurín Valley
    • 7. The Iconography of Inebriation: Engraved and Sculpted Khipu Bars
  • Part III. Imperial Accounting
    • 8. What Did the Ceque Khipus Look Like?
    • 9. Accounting in the King’s Storehouse: Inkawasi, Southern Coast of Peru
    • 10. Counting Heads in Tawantinsuyu
  • Part IV. Colonial Khipus
    • 11. Accounting for Demographic Collapse?
    • 12. Khipus from a Colonial “Revisit” to the Santa Valley: The “Rosetta Khipu”?
  • Part V. Summary and Conclusions
    • 13. Structure and History in the Khipus
  • Appendix. A Khipu Inventory
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Cambridge, Massachusetts

A recipient of both MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, Urton is the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous books and edited volumes on Andean/Quechua cultures and Inka civilization, including Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records.



An Unexpected Career

Having spent the past twenty-five years studying Inka khipus, I sometimes think about the day I first saw one of these marvelous objects. I was in the study at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, DC, and I cannot call to mind precisely what the occasion was, but someone had brought a fine khipu to a meeting and had set it up at one end of the room. I remember the sun slanting in through the window behind where it lay, a wan (wintery?) shaft of light falling on the cords and knots. I recall approaching the object, which was spread out on a board at a gentle incline, and being completely mesmerized and somewhat mystified. It was of a medium-brown spun and plied cotton. I know I was impressed by how tightly twisted the strings were and how solid and businesslike the knots appeared. It struck me that whoever had made this object certainly knew what he or she was doing. I was particularly impressed by the knots; they were tied very tightly, with each knot in a group snugged up close to its neighbors. The ribs of what I now know as long knots were expertly made, with the turns of cord within the knots pulled tightly up against each other, as they coiled around the body of the string. What a fine piece of cord making and knot tying this was! Some individual had made this thing, and it struck me at the time that this was perhaps as close as I had ever come to engaging with the mind, body, and spirit of an Inka person.

I don’t know why this khipu impressed me more than the sight of other Inka objects—textiles, pots, or metal objects—had done. I had seen many examples of these other, equally finely made objects, and I had admired them greatly; however, none affected me more than that first khipu. Was I perhaps destined to study khipus? In fact, there was nothing inevitable to the path I have chosen; to the contrary, this particular career course is not only surprising but even contradicts a far earlier experience.

The confession I make now is one I have made to only a handful of people during the “khipu studies” phase of my academic career. When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Portales, New Mexico, I spent a year or so in the local chapter of the Cub Scouts. I enjoyed my time as a Cub Scout very much and learned many interesting things. I ended up, however, rather unceremoniously dropping out before I passed through all the stages required to attain the much sought-after rank of Eagle Scout, denied that achievement because I could not master a certain craft activity: tying knots. I dimly remember almost weeping from frustration while attempting to knot pieces of string, although those were not even terribly complex knots.

Having made this most embarrassing admission, I now make a second one, which is that I did not enter khipu studies—the examination of knots!—from some conscious therapeutic or compensatory motive to expiate my earlier failure to tie knots. In fact, it was only after I had been working with khipus for more than a decade that one day, while deep in the bowels of a museum somewhere in Europe (in Berlin, I think), as I sat bent over a khipu, recording the numbers of cords and knots, I recalled that I was in fact, and quite ironically, focusing my life’s work on a task that had utterly defeated me during the early years of my childhood. This realization stunned me at the time; however, I must admit that I don’t really understand why my life’s work took the peculiarly “bent” (given my earlier reaction to knots) course it did any better today than when this realization first came to me more than a decade ago. Whatever the larger lesson may be, I would like to think that this particular tale suggests that the unexamined life is indeed worth living, for I have had a most rewarding and fulfilling career focusing on a task that was one of the sources of greatest frustration—second only to the more sustained and agonizing frustration of stuttering severely—during my youth.

This book is my attempt to sum up and reflect on what I have learned about Inka khipus and Inka record keeping over the past two and a half decades of research. If something should come of it in the end that throws light onto one individual’s curiously inappropriate preparation for such a study, so much the better, especially if the result takes the form of demonstrating once again that one is better off facing one’s fears and frustrations than avoiding them.

A Wider View on the Challenge of Studying Khipus

Having made these confessions, I ask, how can one justify spending a quarter of a century studying knots that were tied into strings by people of another, long-dead civilization? What makes this a topic worthy of a life’s study? To begin with, as far as we can tell, what these Inka “knot makers, organizers, and animators”—khipukamayuqs—were doing was a version of what I am doing as I type this text out on my computer; that is, they were making signs, using strings, knots, and colors in a rule-bound way to store information—in a manner akin to what we refer to as “writing”—that could be accessed by knowledgeable people able to retrieve it in a process similar to what we call “reading.”

“Writing” and “reading”—innocent and familiar enough words. I believe, however, that we must immediately disabuse ourselves of the notion that these two common words now refer to anything like the mental operations the khipukamayuqs employed when they tied knots in khipus and interpreted the meanings of those colorful cords and knots in some manner of spoken performance. I make this claim about the semantic dissimilarities between how we think about writing and reading and what the Inkas thought about their version of these activities without being able to clearly state and precisely define exactly how the two technologies and the semantic values and performative practices attached to them differed. I believe, however, that they were very different, and one of the objectives of this study here is to chart some of the fundamental ways in which they did so and, more importantly, to describe the nature of the khipu side of this (non-)equation.

To return to personal history for a moment, I have often pondered whether one of the things that initially attracted me to the khipus was the fact that, as a (former) stutterer and someone who spent a large part of my youth and adolescence unable to communicate with ease (to the point of often just not speaking, so as not to stutter and thereby embarrass myself and others), I likened the as-yet-undeciphered knot records of the khipukamayuqs to someone who cannot communicate and is unable to speak—a severe stutterer. I knew from my own experience that although I could not speak with ease, I had a lot of thoughts in my head as well as some ordinary amount of knowledge, but I could not on most occasions produce that information via speech; it was trapped inside me, waiting for when I might finally be able to speak clearly and smoothly. I finally overcame my stuttering. Perhaps my commitment to studying the khipus will help another person who cannot speak, at least not in a way that anyone living today can decipher or understand.

What do these ancient Andean masters of recording and communication, the khipukamayuqs, wish to tell us but can no longer say, because we have been unable to decipher their records? What do they have to tell us about their world? How can we unlock the actions, thoughts, and motivations—if not the words—of these extraordinary technicians of string recording? I propose that we allow the khipukamayuqs’ handiwork to speak for them—by studying the khipus as closely and in as much detail as possible. Rather than relying on what Spanish colonial observers had to say about what they saw and thought about what the khipukamayuqs were doing, we should privilege the string records themselves, following every cord’s twists, turns, and color changes in the corpus of the some 923 khipus that I have inventoried to date around the world. The knot records constitute the only available primary sources not mediated by the hands, minds, and motives of the conquering Europeans. Close study of these records will be the principal method that I will pursue in this work. By the end, it is my hope, we will have found ways to facilitate communication with, and by means of, these extraordinary devices, the Inka khipus. Outline of the Book

This book is organized into five sections, each of which aims at exploring a different aspect of the many khipu studies I have carried out, either on my own or with colleagues,1 over the past almost quarter-century. This outline follows the series of section headings and the chapters found therein.

Part I: Background

The two chapters in part I provide basic introductory material as an aid to reading the main body of khipu studies presented in this work, which is the substance of parts II to IV. Chapter 1 surveys the key issues that researchers confront in the study and analysis of Inka khipus and what I see as the main questions to be addressed in pursuit of an understanding of the role of khipus in the consolidation and maintenance of state power in Tawantinsuyu. Chapter 2 provides a summary of the rise of the Inka state and the structure and organization of the empire just prior to its defeat at the hands of the Spanish invaders in 1532. This overview will give the reader an understanding of the governing institutions and structures of Tawantinsuyu, which, it is argued, constitute the principal structural and organizational forms that are incorporated in the khipu records.

Part II: Reading Khipus in Social, Political, and Religious Registers

The five chapters in this section focus on close readings and analyses of individual khipus or groups of khipus from different regions around Tawantinsuyu. The basic trajectory moves from local khipu accounts to those employed for more general, regional-level cord keeping. Chapter 3 concerns the analysis of what I argue was a census khipu detailing the inhabitants of a village in the region of Atarco, in the Nazca region, in Inka times. Chapter 4 analyzes several khipus from Laguna de los Cóndores (the Lake of the Condors), which is in the region of Chachapoyas, in northern Peru. The largest khipu at the center of this analysis seems to be a compilation of six lower-level, local khipus whose data were sent to a central cord keeper. Chapter 5 pertains to what I call an “accounting hierarchy” among seven khipus found in an archive in the grave of a (possible) khipu-keeper in Puruchuco, which is located on the south bank of the Rimac River, on the central Peruvian coast. Chapter 6 looks at the impressive collection of khipus recovered from the large regional ceremonial/pilgrimage site of Pachacamac, in the Lurín valley, just south of the Rimac River valley. Chapter 7 details several khipus that display sculpted figures on wooden bars to which khipu cords are attached. Most of these samples appear to pertain to the production and consumption of chicha (corn beer), probably in relation to state tributary work parties.

Part III: Imperial Accounting

The three chapters in this section focus on imperial-level accounting practices. Chapter 8 is a speculative construction of what I argue would have been the structure and organization of a pair of khipus that recorded the ceque system of Cuzco. Chapter 9 is a description and analysis of twenty-nine of thirty-four khipu samples recently excavated by Dr. Alejandro Chu at the Inka storage site of Inkawasi, which is in the Cañete valley, on the southern coast of Peru. This chapter analyzes many Inka state accounting practices that had not previously been encountered before the discovery of this khipu archive. Chapter 10 attempts a reconstruction of what imperial census khipus looked like and how they might have been organized. The methodology used is to compare early colonial census accounts with comparably structured information recorded on extant khipu accounts.

Part IV: Colonial Khipus

The two chapters in this section focus on khipus that pertain to colonial-era cord recording. Chapter 11 analyzes a segment of an extraordinary khipu from Laguna de los Cóndores in which, it is argued, is contained a record of early colonial demographic collapse in the Chachapoyas region. Chapter 12 is an analysis of six khipus found in the Santa River valley that appear to constitute the cord record from a seventeenth-century revisita (a recount of the population preparatory to setting a new tribute obligation) of a village in the Santa River drainage consisting of six ayllus (social/kin groups). It is argued that this link between khipus and a colonial document may be a key for decipherment of the khipus.

Part V: Summary and Conclusions

Chapter 13 argues that what has emerged over the previous twelve chapters of the book provides basic material for writing an Annales-style history of Tawantinsuyu. The Annales historical tradition, which was dominant primarily in French history writing of the mid- to late twentieth century, provides a highly appropriate form of history writing for the kinds of data recorded in the khipus discussed in this book—i.e., primarily statistical and quantitative records from Inka state administration. This may be the appropriate form of history writing to be pursued by students of the khipu records of Tawantinsuyu.


"This volume goes a long way toward explaining and interpreting Inca khipus as encoded political, social, ritual, and economic structures, and as such, is essential reading not only for all Peruvianists and students of ancient civilizations, but also, because of the book's code-breaking arguments related to binary coding, hierarchy, and markedness, for scholars in those areas as well."

“This book will be read and cited for decades. Urton’s work is absolutely brilliant.”
Sabine Hyland, University of St. Andrews, author of The Chankas and the Priest: A Tale of Murder and Exile in Highland Peru

“My overall impression is one of astonishment and admiration at the insights that Urton has been able to gain through his copious knowledge and meticulous approach. No one else in the world is as well-informed or -positioned to write on this subject.”
Terence N. D’Altroy, Columbia University, author of The Incas: Second Edition