Between The Knots, Untying The Mystery Of Incan Khipus

Khipus are an ancient language system in the form of wool or cotton strings with knots. There is an intricate relationship between the knots, the where the type and location of the knot denotes meaning. The way the khipus’ are woven with colored strands and twisted together also add a layer of meaning. We have about 900 khipus discovered to date, and a very rudimentary understanding of them. There is even a Harvard database to document and compare them, but the context of this language system has largely been lost… Until recently.

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Khipus before it has been cleaned and untangled. Credit William Neuman/The New York Times

At a site called Incahuasi, about 100 miles south of Lima, Peru, researchers have been excavating 29 khipus right in the very place where they were used… An agricultural processing place, where it seems they were used as accounting books. The khipus were found right under the the peanuts, chili peppers, beans, corn and other items that went in and out. Incahuasi means “House of the Inca emperor.” It was a late 15th to early 16th century city used as a base of operations for the Inca invasion of Peru’s southern coast. This storehouse was probably used to keep provisions needed to maintain the large number of troops deployed in the invasion.

This has been a very important finding, kind of like the Rosetta Stone of Pre-Columbian, because as implied, prior khipus were found in graves, buried adjacent to scribes who created and used the devices. Many others are in the possession of collectors or museums, stripped of information relating to their meaning.


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Patricia Landa, an archaeological conservator, painstakingly cleans and untangles the khipus at her house in Lima. Credit William Neuman/The New York Times

These Incahuasi khipus are kept in the unassuming brick house of Patricia Landa, an archaeological conservator, whose lives in residential neighborhood of Lima. Along with a scattering of artifacts from other excavations, including two mummies of a dog and child, other human remains, and textiles and sherds delicately rolled up in paper, the khipus are under her protection. She painstakingly cleans and untangles them and prepares them for researchers to decipher.

The researchers, Drs.  Gary Upton and Alejandro Chu, believe these khipus can help us understand more complex ones that document Incan history. You can read more about unravelling this Incan mystery on the New York Times article.

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