In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Quipu

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Quipu Conventions
  • Middle Horizon Quipus
  • The Quipu in Inca Administration
  • Archaeological Quipus
  • Quipu Transcriptions
  • Colonial Quipus
  • Ethnographic and Patrimonial Quipus
  • Quipu Variants and Anomalous Specimens
  • Quipu Collecting and Early Research
  • Quipu Cataloguing and Digitization
  • Ethnographic Analogy, Data Science, and Quipu Decipherment

Latin American Studies Quipu
Manuel Medrano, Galen Brokaw
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0175


The quipu (also khipu or kipu) is a device of knotted and colored strings of vegetal or animal fiber used by the Incas and other Andean cultures to record information. The earliest universally recognized quipus, which were used by the Wari culture from at least the ninth century CE, employ primarily chromatic patterns created by wrapping different colored threads around the cords. Later Inca quipus appear to make use of colored pendant strings rather than thread wrappings. Other notable Inca quipu conventions include cord groupings and knots tied into the cords, in most cases using a decimal place system. Wari quipus remain almost entirely undeciphered; in Inca quipus, the only established decipherment is that of the decimal knot system. Functional quipu use would persist for centuries following the Spanish conquest in 1532 CE in a range of agropastoral, administrative, and ritual settings through the mid-twentieth century. The quipu is often invoked in responses to the so-called 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 typically defined. Scholars in the twentieth century often dismissed the quipu as a mnemonic device that, while not writing, enabled effective socioeconomic and political administration. However, colonial sources claim that the quipu was used for a variety of purposes beyond tribute and storehouse accounting, including the recording of censuses, laws, genealogy, and even history. Such assertions have led some to argue in favor of a division between numerical and narrative quipus. Since the first international quipu conference in 1988, research on the topic has expanded to encompass a variety of themes and initiatives. These comprise the history of quipus, including their historical circulation as museum objects; archaeological excavations of quipus; detailed physical descriptions of specimens in museums and private collections, including their digitization and incorporation into databases; textual analyses of colonial-era quipu transcriptions; and decipherment projects, which have increasingly leveraged the tools of data science. In addition, a handful of Andean communities retain quipus as patrimonial objects. These have informed ongoing ethnographic research, while also providing valuable clues about the nature and recording conventions of pre-Hispanic quipus.

General Overviews

The physical characteristics of quipus, their descriptions in colonial writings, and the nature of the Inca decimal system are the focus of most general introductions to the subject. In Locke 1923, the first book-length quipu study, Locke’s decipherment of numerical knots is presented alongside an international inventory of forty-some specimens, as well as dozens of pertinent excerpts from colonial and modern texts. More detailed descriptions of quipu elements and construction techniques appear in Radicati di Primeglio 2006 and Ascher and Ascher 1981. Radicati’s introduction to quipu studies couples a comprehensive bibliography of previously published specimens with observations regarding quipu components, the so-called mnemonic and writing theories, and quipucamayocs (cord keepers). The Aschers expand Radicati’s descriptive work in emphasizing quipus’ logical-mathematical properties. Among the fully up-to-date introductions, Medrano 2021 surveys the quipu’s known history and provides an overview of global quipu research. Salomon 2013 discusses both historical variation and continuities in quipus. Interdisciplinary study is stressed in Arellano Hoffmann 1999, which situates quipus within a theory of Inca systems of notation. Chirinos Rivera 2010 leverages colonial-era recordings of quipu information (see entries under Quipu Transcriptions) to identify striking principles of numerical proportionality that may have been active during Inca times.

  • Arellano Hoffmann, Carmen. “Quipu y tocapu: Sistemas de comunicación inca.” In Los Incas: Arte y símbolos. Edited by Franklin Pease G. Y., Craig Morris, Julián I. Santillana, et al., 215–261. Lima, Peru: Banco de Crédito del Perú, 1999.

    A survey of quipu traditions that includes discussions of quipu chronology, quipu inventories, and interdisciplinary decipherment work, among other topics. An overarching aim of this chapter is to introduce a theoretical framework of Inca notation systems, one that is expansive enough to incorporate alternatives to alphabetic writing.

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

    Describes the physical features of the quipu, its known conventions, and how it represented information through logical structures. Also includes commentaries on arithmetic relationships identified by the Aschers in quipus around the world. This book is an obligatory starting point for scholars; the clear style makes it accessible to nonspecialists.

  • Chirinos Rivera, Andrés. Quipus del Tahuantinsuyo: Curacas, Incas y su saber matemático en el siglo XVI. Lima, Peru: Editorial Commentarios, 2010.

    A three-part monograph focusing on the mathematical practices of Andean record keepers. The first part uncovers principles of numerical proportionality in colonial-era quipu transcriptions, while the second part, a discussion of yupanas (pre-Hispanic calculation devices), reconstructs how the proportional values may have been obtained. Particularly impressive is Part 3, in which Chirinos Rivera illustrates several case studies of surviving archaeological quipus with his own handmade facsimiles.

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

    The first book-length quipu study. Provides a physical description of the quipu and explains the decimal knot system used to record numbers (first reported in Locke 1912; see entry under Quipu Collecting and Early Research). Includes a compilation of excerpts from published texts that deal with the quipu from colonial times through the early twentieth century. See also entry in Quipu Conventions.

  • Medrano, Manuel. Quipus: Mil años de historia anudada en los Andes y su futuro digital. Lima, Peru: Planeta, 2021.

    A comprehensive survey of the quipu written for nonspecialist readers. The book covers the thousand-plus-year history of the quipu, the state of the art in quipu research, and a proposal for the broader use of quantitative techniques in quipu decipherment going forward. An appendix lists the locations of 1,386 quipus in worldwide collections—the largest inventory compiled to date (see entry in Quipu Cataloguing and Digitization).

  • Radicati di Primeglio, Carlos. “Introducción al estudio de los quipus.” In Estudios sobre los quipus. Edited by Gary Urton, 59–154. Lima, Peru: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2006.

    The first book-length study of the quipu published in Peru, in collaboration with the Corporación Financiera de Desarrollo and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura. Originally appearing as an article and a 1951 book, the version referenced here, compiled in 2006, is freely available online. Radicati, who dedicated decades to quipu research, suggests that thorough physical descriptions of the surviving specimens should precede attempts at interpretation.

  • Salomon, Frank. “The Twisting Paths of Recall: Khipu (Andean Cord Notation) as Artifact.” In Writing as Material Practice: Substance, Surface and Medium. Edited by Kathryn E. Piquette and Ruth D. Whitehouse, 15–43. London: Ubiquity, 2013.

    DOI: 10.5334/bai.b

    A concise, two-part discussion of known quipu traditions through the lenses of continuity and change. The section on continuities surveys almost a dozen “material constants” of the medium—including portability, lightness, articulation, and expandability—that facilitated the expression of meaning.

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