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Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 294-311

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Writing Without Words/Words Without Writing:

The Culture of the Khipu

The University of Texas, Austin
Inca Myths. By Gary Urton. (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1999. Pp. 80. $12.95 paper.)
Narrative Threads: Accounting And Recounting In Andean Khipu. By Jeffrey Quilter and Gary Urton. (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2002. Pp. 391. $45.00 cloth.)
Signs Of The Inka Khipu: Binary Coding In The Andean Knotted-String Records. By Gary Urton (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2003. Pp. 216. $40.00 cloth.)


The khipu (knotted string recording device) is one of the most enigmatic and recondite artifacts originating in the Pre-Columbian Andes.1 Because of its rarity—there are approximately 600 known specimens, mostly Inka, dispersed in museum and private collections and held in community custody or laboratory storage2 —the khipu remains unfamiliar to the general public. Veritable khipu are, to my knowledge, not available for purchase for the collector nor do local artisans reproduce legitimate khipu for the craft trade in Peru and Bolivia. A glance at the cover photographs of Signs of the Inka Khipu and Inca Myths (a museum specimen of a khipu and a llama offertory figurine, respectively), illustrates the challenge of reproduction in the one and the relative feasibility of replication in the other. While the style of [End Page 294] the llama effigy is zoomorphic, the khipu has not been an easily recognizable artifact to the uninitiated. Thus, not until the fundamental studies of L. Leland Locke (1923) and Ascher and Ascher (1978), which examined the structural composition of khipu, did this recording instrument enter into the scholarly discourse of Andean studies, and, by way of Mathematics of the Incas: Code of the Khipu (Ascher and Ascher 1997), could the interested reader learn about khipu through instructions for constructing one.3

The current reprise of khipu culture is largely based on the monograph of record on the khipu (Urton 2003), in which Urton presents a comprehensive description and analysis of the structure and deployment of this means of registry, and which leads him to posit an advanced theory of Inka practices of computation. Complementing Urton's exegesis, the citations in this essay refer to various aspects of khipu use in Andean society as provided through the multidisciplinary approaches of contributors to Quilter and Urton (2002), and by Urton regarding the role of myth in Andean history (Urton 1999).

How Were Khipu Constructed?

Khipukamayuq (the keepers of the knotted string recording device) most probably fashioned their own instruments.4 In fabricating khipu these recording specialists first selected the material prepared for the task: camelid or cotton fibers in their natural hues or dyed with organic ingredients according to a color code. While artisans other than khipukamayuq may have carried out the first two preparatory steps (selection of fibers and the tincture of yarns)5 the khipu-maker was responsible for the construction process: weaving the primary cord; spinning the yarn in either of two directions (to the right, Z-spun, or to the left, S-spun); plying the strings according to the two directional alternatives, respectfully S-spun/Z-plied and Z-spun/S-plied, and in some cases, replying strings; attaching the spun and plied strings (pendant cords) to the primary cord by either verso or recto placement; knotting the string in three ways with simple, figure eight or long knots; organizing knots in either odd or even numbers; and tying the knots within decimal categories on strings. Recording began at the moment the [End Page 295] khipukamayuq attached the strings to the primary cord and continued during all of the nine construction steps that yield encoded information.6 The decision-making aspect of khipu construction meant at the outset that the khipukamayuq chose between one of the paired aspects of each feature. These choices entailed a reasoning process, which Urton hypothesizes was based on the concept of ever-present pairs in Andean culture, and, in respect to khipu, a concept...


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