Latin American Studies Quipu
by
Galen Brokaw
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0175

Introduction

The quipu (also khipu) is a system of knotted, colored, cotton or camelid fiber cords used by the Incas and other Andean cultures to record information. The earliest known quipus, which were used by the Wari culture during the second half of the first millennium CE, appear to employ primarily chromatic patterns created by wrapping different colored threads around the cords of the quipu. The much simpler color patterns in later Inca quipu are produced by the use of colored cords rather than thread wrappings. The most prominent conventions employed by Inca-period quipu also involve cord configuration and knots tied into the strings using a decimal place system. Wari quipus remain completely undeciphered, and the only portion of the Inca-era quipu that has been deciphered is the decimal place system through which knots recorded numbers. The quipu is normally implicated in responses to what has been called the Inca paradox: the fact that the Incas developed a highly complex and extensive empire without a form of writing, at least as that term is normally defined. The prominence of the numerical dimension of the quipu has been used as a basis for dismissing this medium as a mnemonic device that, while not writing, made possible the level of socioeconomic and political complexity that characterized the Inca empire. While such arguments emphasize the numerical function of the quipu, colonial sources indicate that it was used for a wide variety of purposes, including tribute and storehouse records, censuses, laws, and even histories. Some scholars have used such sources to argue that the quipu was in fact a form of writing. Since the 1990s, interest in the quipu has grown as evidenced by an increase in the number of publications by a greater number of scholars working on this topic. Work on the quipu exhibits several trends or approaches: 1) detailed physical descriptions of quipu in museum collections; 2) decipherment projects; 3) research that explores the history of the quipu; and 4) textual analyses that focus on the characteristics and implications of the discourses associated with quipu transcriptions from the colonial period. The continued use of quipus in indigenous Andean communities, most often as patrimonial objects, has also attracted the attention of investigators. These quipus serve as the basis for ethnographic research into the communities that have preserved them, but in some cases they may also provide valuable clues about the nature of Prehispanic and colonial quipu.

General Overviews

Given that our understanding of how quipus work is fairly limited, general introductions to the quipu focus primarily on the physical characteristics of this device, the nature of the decimal system, and/or the historical contexts of its use. Early discussions of the quipu in Locke 1923 and Radicati di Primeglio 2006 are still useful. But Ascher and Ascher 1981 produced a much more comprehensive introduction to the khipu as a physical object, what is known about how it worked, and the theoretical possibilities of the medium. Urton 2003a is a more recent, updated, bilingual introduction to the quipu. Urton 2003b proposes a new approach to the quipu, arguing that this device employed a much more diverse set of conventions as part of a binary code. Brokaw 2005 presents a detailed critique of Urton’s binary code theory. Urton 2008 presents a historical overview of scholarly work on the quipu and discusses future directions for quipu research.

  • Ascher, Marcia, and Robert Ascher. Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics, and Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    A detailed description of the physical features of the quipu, its known conventions, and how it might have represented different types of information. This book is an obligatory starting point for scholars; its clear style makes it perfectly accessible to non-specialists.

  • Brokaw, Galen. “Toward Deciphering the Khipu.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35.4 (2005): 571–589.

    DOI: 10.1162/0022195043327381E-mail Citation »

    An in-depth discussion, analysis, and critique of the seven-bit binary code theory proposed by Urton 2003b. Argues that while most of the individual binary features identified by Urton may have had conventional values, the proposed seven-bit binary code is both internally contradictory and externally uncorroborated.

  • Locke, Leland. The Ancient Quipu or Peruvian Knot Record. New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1923.

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    The first in-depth, book-length study of quipu. Provides a general physical description of the quipu, and explains the decimal place system used to record numbers. Includes a compilation of excerpts from published texts that deal with the quipu from colonial times through the early 20th century. See entries in Descriptions of Quipu and Quipu Decipherment.

  • Radicati di Primeglio, Carlos. Estudios sobre los quipus. Edited by Gary Urton. Lima, Peru: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos/COFIDE/Instituto Italiano di Cultura, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    A compilation of Carlos Radicati’s seminal studies of the quipu. Radicati describes the physical features of the quipu, but he also explores the conceptual field to which the quipu and other Andean signifying practices belonged.

  • Urton, Gary. Quipu: Contar anudando en el imperio Inka/Knotting Account in the Inka Empire. Santiago, Chile: Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, 2003a.

    E-mail Citation »

    A brief, but updated description of the quipu, produced as a catalog for a quipu exhibit at the Chilean Museum of Precolumbian Art.

  • Urton, Gary. Signs of the Inka Khipu. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003b.

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the issue of mnemonics. Then describes seven binary features of the quipu and argues that they functioned in a seven-bit binary code. See Brokaw 2005 for a detailed critique of this theory. It is important to note that the conventional significance of individual binary features, for which there is some evidence, is not necessarily dependent upon the theory of a seven-bit binary code, for which there is no evidence.

  • Urton, Gary. “Andean Quipu: A History of Writings and Studies on Inca and Colonial Knotted-String Records.” In Guide to Documentary Sources for Andean Studies, 1530–1900. Vol. 1. Edited by Joanne Pillsbury, 65–86. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    A detailed overview of what colonial sources say about the quipu, and a summary of modern research on this medium. Concludes with a discussion of future directions for research on the quipu.

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