UB Professor Works to Unravel Mysteries of Khipu: Colored, Knotted Strings Used by the Ancient Incas

By Donna Budniewski

Release Date: December 5, 2003 This content is archived.


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Research by UB's Galen Brokaw focuses on khipu, an elaborate system on colored, knotted strings that the ancient Inca may have used to record information.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Although the ancient Inca are renowned for their highly organized society and extraordinary skill in working with gold, stone and pottery, few are familiar with the khipu -- an elaborate system of colored, knotted strings that many researchers believe to be primarily mnemonic in nature, like a rosary -- that was used by the ancient conquerors to record census, tribute, genealogies and calendrical information.

Because the Inca didn't employ a recognizable system of writing, researchers like Galen Brokaw, assistant professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures in the University at Buffalo's College of Arts and Sciences, have focused on the khipu as a way to further illuminate Inca history and culture. Brokaw doesn't adhere to the strict view held by some researchers that the khipu is solely mnemonic in nature, instead maintaining the possibility that these intricate specimens are historiographic in nature.

Deciphering the mysteries of the khipu, which consists of a primary cord from which hang pendants of cords, depends upon researchers discovering a Rosetta Stone of sorts that would allow them to decode the meaning of the cords and knots.

Cord color and the direction of twist and ply of yarn appear to denote specific meanings, but whether or not the devices recorded more than statistical or mathematical information, such as poetry or language, remains elusive to researchers, says Brokaw. He does believe, however, that some of the specimens -- about 600 khipu survive in museums or private collections -- do appear to be non-numerical.

The khipu didn't originate with the Inca, explains Brokaw. Even today, he adds, Andean shepherds can be seen using a form of khipu to record information about their flocks.

"There's a certain kind of mystery about it that's intriguing," Brokaw says, noting that while there is a tendency among some researchers to overly romanticize the khipu as some kind of writing system, he believes -- after reading the indigenous texts comprised, in part, of biographies of Inca kings -- that it's easy to see how the khipu might have represented more complex, discursive structures than being simply records of tribute.

In fact, Brokaw says the first step in understanding the khipu is "to recognize that it was linked to genres of Andean discourse, powerful discursive paradigms" that were retained by the indigenous chroniclers in the organizational structure they employed in writing down the lineage of the Inca kings. While these chroniclers wrote in the language of their Spanish conquerors, the discursive paradigms Brokaw refers to "do not simply dissolve and disappear when translated into Spanish," he says. One chronicler in particular, he points out, attributes the principal source of all his information to the khipu.

"One of the questions that colonial chroniclers attempted to answer about the khipu was whether or not it constituted writing, and much of the debate today centers around the same issue. Based on a selective and literal interpretation of colonial sources and a limited understanding of archaeological specimens, many scholars have argued that the khipu was not writing, but rather a mnemonic device similar to a rosary," says Brokaw in his paper "The Poetics of Khipu Historiography: Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala and the Khipukamayuqs from Pacariqtambo," published recently in Latin American Research Review. Guaman Poma, writing around the beginning of the 17th century, is one of the Andean chroniclers who relied on khipu as his primary source of information.

The numerical aspect of many of the khipu differs from Western numbering systems in that Andean societies used and viewed numeration as a way to define and organize themselves, as well as a way to achieve balance in all aspects of life -- from the aesthetic to emotional and material concerns, explains Brokaw in "Khipu Numeracy and Alphabetic Literacy in the Andes," published in Colonial Latin American Review. Brokaw writes that the "complete decimal unit of 10, for example, is also a metaphor for the basic social groups called ayllus.

"Furthermore, many colonial chronicles describe a decimal-based system used in the organization, administration and record keeping of the Inca empire, and the model of fives also is evident in the historical and geographical paradigms of Andean sociopolitics," he explains.

Brokaw argues that Guaman Poma's work is shaped not only by European conventions of text, but also by an Andean conception of historical discourse. It is that Andean-influenced discourse, or poetics, that is shaping the Spanish chronicle of Inca kings that Brokaw believes establishes "an implicit link" between it and the khipu as its physical representation -- indeed, as some type of text in and of itself.

Brokaw's research is funded by a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. He is working on a book about the subject, titled "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic: The Andean Khipu and its Transcriptions."