Decoding the Khipus.

An exciting piece by Katherine Davis-Young for Atlas Obscura:

There are many ways a college student might spend spring break. Making an archaeological breakthrough is not usually one of them. In his first year at Harvard, Manny Medrano did just that. […]

With the help of his professor, Gary Urton, a scholar of Pre-Columbian studies, Medrano interpreted a set of six khipus, knotted cords used for record keeping in the Inca Empire. By matching the khipus to a colonial-era Spanish census document, Medrano and Urton uncovered the meaning of the cords in greater detail than ever before. Their findings could contribute to a better understanding of daily life in the Andean civilization. […]

Urton says he and other researchers in the field have always had a general sense of what the khipus represented. Many, they could tell, had to do with census data. Others appeared to be registers of goods or calendar systems. But, until recently, none of the khipus Urton studied could be understood on a very detailed level. If the khipus held messages or cultural information beyond just numbers, the meanings were opaque to modern scholars.

A turning point came when Urton began looking into a set of six khipus from the 17th-century Santa River Valley region of Northwest Peru. One day, Urton picked up a book and happened to spot a Spanish census document from the same region and time period. […]

It was an exciting enough coincidence that Urton mentioned it to his undergraduate students at the end of class in the spring of 2016. For Medrano, who was sitting in the lecture hall that day, it was too enticing of a lead to ignore.

“I walked up to him and said, ‘hey, spring break is coming up, if you need someone to put a few hours into this, I’d be happy to take a look,’” Medrano recalls. […]

Medrano noticed that the way each cord was tied onto the khipu seemed to correspond to the social status of the 132 people recorded in the census document. The colors of the strings also appeared to be related to the people’s first names. The correlations seemed too strong to be a coincidence. After spring break, Medrano told his professor about his theories. […]

Medrano worked with Urton over the next several months and the two compiled their findings into a paper which will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Ethnohistory in January. Medrano is the first author on the paper, indicating he contributed the bulk of the research, something Urton notes is extremely rare for an undergraduate student.

Sabine Hyland researches Andean anthropology at the University of St. Andrews. She has read Medrano and Urton’s forthcoming paper and describes their discoveries as “thrilling.”

“Manny has proven that the way in which pendant cords are tied to the top cord indicates which social group an individual belonged to. This is the first time anyone has shown that and it’s a big deal,” Hyland says.

Urton is now optimistic that the six khipus examined in the research could serve as a key to decode the hundreds of others he has in his database.

This is why we can’t decide in advance who’s allowed to work on what, and I very much look forward to seeing what further discoveries are made! (Khipus, or quipus, previously on LH.)


  1. marie-lucie says

    Exciting news!

  2. After the excitement of your last post on this, I predict we’re now going to have a wave of people saying /xipu/!

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    If this is a Harvard student, I hope that khipu for quipu can’t be blamed on an ungainly Yale romanization system.

  4. That looks really interesting. I definitely want to see the evidence in the paper though.

  5. Trond Engen says

    Knot the quipu of secrets it used to be.

  6. marie-lucie says

    Me too!

  7. David Marjanović says

    Fascinating! And so arbitrary – someone must have deliberately invented these things.

    If this is a Harvard student, I hope that khipu for quipu can’t be blamed on an ungainly Yale romanization system.

    😀 It’s aspiration, for those kinds of Quechua (…Qhichwa) that have three series of plosives (plain, aspirated, ejective) instead of just one. They all have a robust velar-uvular distinction to which surrounding vowels adapt.

  8. Trond Engen says

    someone must have deliberately invented these things

    Or it developed from family decoration ribbons or some such.

  9. Marja Erwin says

    Wasn’t there a previous decypherment in the 90s? Had that one failed, or had that succeeded with this untangling more loose ends?

  10. Marja: I read an article a few years ago dealing with a similar subject: beside the knotted cords apparently dealing with accounting (something long suspected but not deciphered in the detail described above), there apparently exist a smaller number of thin cords bearing little squares or other attachments which might be compared to with written messages.

  11. The quoted portion above left out a graph I think is pretty important:

    >A turning point came when Urton began looking into a set of six khipus from the 17th-century Santa River Valley region of Northwest Peru. One day, Urton picked up a book and happened to spot a Spanish census document from the same region and time period.

    >“A lot of the numbers that were recorded in that census record matched those six khipus exactly,” Urton says.

    In other words, they’ve known how to read the numerical information on khipus for quite a while, (apparently based at least in part on a living tradition among Andean herdsmen) and Urton somehow figured out exactly what text this khipu could be used in conjunction with. To me, that seems like the real breakthrough.

    The Harvard Gazette version rolls the ball a bit further, explaining that Medrano figured out that righty and lefty knots at the top of each string encode “moiety.” Moiety is a “social status,” as Atlas Oscura puts it, but if the North American version is relevant, moiety is binary and not class-based. You have to marry someone from the other moiety, to avoid inbreeding. In that setting, neither moiety could ever consistently be higher class, because that would require high class males to take low-class brides, and vice versa. So we learn only so much from this. It may be less important that we learn moiety is encoded, and more important that we learn that the khipu is indeed encoding further information about individual people.

    Atlas Oscura says the string colors ‘relate’ to the first name of the individual referred to. This has me intrigued about naming conventions in colonial Peru. What information could a khipu give about a first name short of providing the name itself? First letter/sound? Declension? Name type? (ie, names derived from animals v. those derived from gods/saints, or from personal characteristics.) Spanish vs. Quechua?

    I’m hoping they’ve only released a teaser giving a taste of larger revelations coming with the journal article.

    EDIT – now I’m more confused. The Harvard Gazette article does say that Medrano hypothesized that the knots encoded moiety. But that hypothesis can’t be part of the breakthrough, since Sabine Hyland had already made that assertion in a series of papers. She is quoted as saying he ‘proved’ it. Hmm.

    I’ll just leave it at being intrigued to see the paper and get a better understanding of what Medrano figured out.

  12. Matt McIrvin says

    My impression from other stories is that there are many different kinds of quipus and the detailed encoding may vary from place to place and group to group. Some, if I recall correctly, have no knots in them at all (aside from the knot to the top cord) and seem to encode non-numeric information in the cord colors, possibly as a kind of phonetic-logographic script.

  13. Matt McI: This is the type of thing I was referring to above.


  1. […] Hat notes how one student made substantial progress of decoding the ancient khipus, knotted string records, of the Incan […]

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