We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Narrative Threads

Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu

Edited by Jeffrey Quilter and Gary Urton

Publication Year: 2002

The Inka Empire stretched over much of the length and breadth of the South American Andes, encompassed elaborately planned cities linked by a complex network of roads and messengers, and created astonishing works of architecture and artistry and a compelling mythology—all without the aid of a graphic writing system. Instead, the Inkas’ records consisted of devices made of knotted and dyed strings—called khipu—on which they recorded information pertaining to the organization and history of their empire. Despite more than a century of research on these remarkable devices, the khipu remain largely undeciphered. In this benchmark book, twelve international scholars tackle the most vexed question in khipu studies: how did the Inkas record and transmit narrative records by means of knotted strings? The authors approach the problem from a variety of angles. Several essays mine Spanish colonial sources for details about the kinds of narrative encoded in the khipu. Others look at the uses to which khipu were put before and after the Conquest, as well as their current use in some contemporary Andean communities. Still others analyze the formal characteristics of khipu and seek to explain how they encode various kinds of numerical and narrative data.

Published by: University of Texas Press

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

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

pdf iconDownload PDF (59.5 KB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (55.1 KB)
pp. vii-ix

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (40.0 KB)
pp. xi

This book is the outgrowth of a round table held at Dumbarton Oaks in 1997. We thank Angeliki Laiou, then director of Dumbarton Oaks, for supporting that round table. JaniceWilliams, who served as assistant to the director of Pre-Columbian Studies, was essential in organizing the myriad details that brought scholars from many different locations toWashington, D.C., for the...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (84.9 KB)
pp. xiii-xix

In 1922, the founder of modern Mesoamerican iconographic research, Eduard Seler, died in Berlin. Although a number of important advances in the study of Maya hieroglyphic writing had already been accomplished, the field was still in its infancy.1 A year later, in 1923, L. Leland Locke published The Ancient Quipu or Peruvian Knot Record, in which he presented the basic understanding...

Part One. Background for the Study of Khipuandquechua Narratives

pdf iconDownload PDF (22.8 KB)
pp. 1

read more

1. An Overview of Spanish Colonial Commentary on Andean Knotted-String Records

pdf iconDownload PDF (168.0 KB)
pp. 3-25

One of the most intriguing, yet enigmatic, topics of study pertaining to pre- Columbian civilizations of the Andes concerns the device known as the khipu (Quechua: ‘‘knot’’) or chino (Aymara: ‘‘knot record’’). Khipu were bunches of (often) dyed, knotted strings that were used by the Inka and other populations throughout the empire for recording a variety of different types of information...

read more

2. Spinning a Yarn: Landscape, Memory, and Discourse Structure in Quechua Narratives

pdf iconDownload PDF (191.4 KB)
pp. 26-49

Can a study of the cognitive and discursive principles at work in the telling of oral traditional stories in Quechua contribute to our insights into how the transmission ofmessages through the khipu might have operated? During the conference proceedings upon which this volume is based, the verbal component of the khipu-reading performance and the role of memory in activating the knowledge stored in the knots and strings were much commented on....

Part Two. Structure and Information in the Khipu

pdf iconDownload PDF (22.7 KB)
pp. 51

read more

3. A Khipu Information String Theory

pdf iconDownload PDF (12.0 MB)
pp. 53-86

The chroniclers of the Spanish Conquest of Peru provided both eyewitness and word-of-mouth reports on the many uses of the plied and knotted-string information devices called khipu that the Inka used. Although these reports have varying degrees of credibility, the discovery, in the centuries since the conquest, of actual khipu from the Inka Empire provides material substance...

read more

4. Reading Khipu: Labels, Structure, and Format

pdf iconDownload PDF (878.3 KB)
pp. 87-102

Beginning some thirty years ago, my collaborator (an anthropologist) and I (a mathematician) began an extensive investigation of Inka khipu. Our work included firsthand study of over 215 khipu spread throughout thirteen countries, in thirty-four museums and private collections. Recognizing the fragility and importance of the artifacts, we recorded and published detailed...

read more

Inka Writing

pdf iconDownload PDF (339.1 KB)
pp. 103-115

Within the company of civilizations, the Inka have, for too long, been set apart as the one civilization without writing. Here I show that the Inka did indeed have a writing system. To begin, I retell the story of the first major confrontation between Spaniards and the Inka—an encounter in which a book played a key role....

Part Three. Interpreting Chronicler's Accounts of Khipu

pdf iconDownload PDF (22.7 KB)
pp. 117

read more

6. String Registries: Native Accounting and Memory According to the Colonial Sources

pdf iconDownload PDF (228.3 KB)
pp. 119-150

The present chapter,1 based on the Spanish chronicles and other colonial documents, represents an introduction to the types of accounting registers devised by Andean societies, as well as to the new uses to which they were put at the time of the European conquest of the New World. The analysis is very straightforward in the case of the khipu used for accounting purposes, but it...

read more

7. Woven Words: The Royal Khipu of Blas Valera

pdf iconDownload PDF (409.4 KB)
pp. 151-170

In 1750, Raimondo di Sangro, prince of Sansevero, published a curious book entitled Lettera apologetica. In this work, di Sangro reflected on the history of writing and, in particular, on the relationship between the mark of Cain described in the Bible (Genesis 4:50) and early textile-based writing methods. Among the more unusual passages in this book is the description of a...

read more

8. Recording Signs inNarrative-Accounting Khipu

pdf iconDownload PDF (948.3 KB)
pp. 171-196

Writing about writing is a particularly vexed example of the general relationship, experienced by humans in all cultures, between acting, on the one hand, and commenting on that action, on the other hand. There are not, in fact, many examples of the parallelism between ‘‘doing the thing that we are commenting on’’ in the performance of, and commentary on, most other forms...

read more

9. Yncap Cimin Quipococ’s Knots [Includes Image Plates]

pdf iconDownload PDF (21.7 MB)
pp. 197-222

The knot records that the Inka called khipu have fascinated scholars and laymen alike for centuries. But despite such long interest, our understanding of these assemblages of strings is still quite limited. The chief questions scholars of the Andean past ask about them often concern issues of how they were ‘‘read’’ in the past and how we may or may not be able to read them today. In this chapter, I discuss some issues relating to the study of khipu. My discussion...

Part Four. Colonial Uses and Transforamtions of the Khipu

pdf iconDownload PDF (22.8 KB)
pp. 223

read more

10. ‘‘Without Deceit or Lies’’: Variable Chinu Readings during a Sixteenth-Century Tribute-Restitution Trial

pdf iconDownload PDF (483.7 KB)
pp. 225-265

The study of khipu has traditionally reflected the dominant role of Cusco at the center of the Tawantinsuyu, or ‘‘Four-fold Whole,’’ which was the Quechua name used by the Inka for their empire. As a prime instrument of state administration and royal hegemony, the khipu tradition was raised by the Inka to new levels of sophistication, power, and flexibility. Yet khipu predated the Inka Empire by at least a thousand years. Moreover, in the south,...

read more

11. Pérez Bocanegra’s Ritual formulario: Khipu Knots and Confession

pdf iconDownload PDF (995.7 KB)
pp. 266-290

In this age of electronic memory devices—telephone message machines with personal ‘‘reminders’’ built in, caller ID gadgets that remember who just called (even though we didn’t pick up the phone and even though they didn’t say a word), e-mail that’s stored forever in bottomless computer pits (retrieved in cases of harassment or to increase severance pay in layoffs), digital radio...

Part Five. Contemporary Khipu Traditions

pdf iconDownload PDF (22.7 KB)
pp. 291

read more

12. Patrimonial Khipu in a Modern Peruvian Village: An Introduction to the ‘‘Quipocamayos’’ of Tupicocha, Huarochirí

pdf iconDownload PDF (5.4 MB)
pp. 293-319

This chapter concerns a central Peruvian community that owns and ceremonially uses inherited cord records in perpetuating kinship corporations directly continuous with those of Inka and perhaps pre-Inka times.We know of these corporations because the village in question, San Andr

read more

13. The Continuing Khipu Traditions: Principles and Practices

pdf iconDownload PDF (996.2 KB)
pp. 320-347

Few people realize that khipu—knotted cords used to record data—are still used in the highlands of Peru. Khipu were the principal devices used in the pre-Hispanic Andes to process information. Although khipu predate the Inka by at least four hundred years (Conklin 1982), they are associated chiefly with the Inka, who flourished from ca. A.D. 1400 until 1532, when the Spanish...


pdf iconDownload PDF (39.5 KB)
pp. 349


pdf iconDownload PDF (102.5 KB)
pp. 351-363

E-ISBN-13: 9780292787834
E-ISBN-10: 0292787839
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292769038
Print-ISBN-10: 0292769032

Page Count: 391
Illustrations: 66 b&w figures, 14 tables, 14 color illus. (cloth edition only)
Publication Year: 2002

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