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Un-Knotting the Past: Gary Urton on a New Khipu Archive at Inkawasi, Peru

Posted On December 12, 2014 | 13:15 pm | by jessicas | Permalink

“Let me make this clear, that we cannot read khipus,” Dumbarton Oaks Visiting Professor Gary Urton told a crowd of assembled Fellows, staff, and Pre-Columbian scholars as he began to present his findings on a cache of khipus recently uncovered at Inkawasi, an archaeological site located on the south coast of Peru.  

Urton, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies at Harvard and Anthropology Department Chair, has spent much of the last two decades studying khipus, the knotted-string devices that the Inca used for record-keeping across the vast Andean empire. While neither Urton nor anyone else can read khipus, twentieth-century anthropologists were able to decode the numeric significance of the knots in khipus, and Urton has done much to delineate their structural elements.

Although the Spanish conquistadores were also unable to read khipus, Urton explained, when they arrived in Peru they understood the value of the khipu and the khipukamayuq—or khipu-keeper, who both created and read khipus—in providing them with the data they would need to establish their colonial state in the lands of the Inca empire. “They systematically called in the khipu-keepers and had them read their khipus out, and they copied down the information, and that became the basis of our earliest records,” Urton said.

The Spaniards, he continued, also knew about the casas publicas, or public houses, the term used by chroniclers for the archives full of the knotted cords that were maintained by the khipukamayuqs. Working with Carrie Brezine, a PhD student, Urton was able in the past to identify twelve different archives of khipus, which helped provide provenances for about 220 of the 845 khipus that are known to archaeologists.

A new khipu archive, the subject of Urton’s lecture, has recently been discovered at the site of Inkawasi, an Inca storehouse and administrative center in the dry Cañete Valley on the south coast of Peru. “The site was apparently built when the Incas moved down from Cusco to the south coast to begin conquering the people” there, Urton said. Spanish accounts of the city, he continued, suggest that it was built exactly like Cusco, with each structure and hill named after those that existed in the Inca capital.

In Inkawasi, archaeologists uncovered a storehouse comprised of open sorting areas, large rectangular callancas (storage buildings), and smaller storage bins that surrounded the central sorting areas and callancas. In this storehouse, beginning in 2013, excavators working under the direction of archaeologist Alejandro Chu found several khipus buried under collections of produce, including chili peppers, peanuts, and black beans. “We have, for the first time ever, an archaeologically attested-to association between khipus and products that they presumably were being used to account for,” Urton noted. Among these khipus were several pairs that displayed “linking” or “matching” tendencies. Linked khipus are two or more khipus tied together, “like stapling documents together or putting them in a file,” while matched khipus record similar or identical data, “maybe even like a double-entry bookkeeping system,” Urton suggested. 

Further evidence of administrative organization came when excavators found that the floors of the storage areas in Inkawasi were covered with damp mud, into which ropes were pressed to impose a grid structure across the floor. Urton’s colleague, Alejandro Chu, hypothesized that the grid was probably used for counting small items of produce. “You don’t count peanuts, you don’t count beans,” Urton explained. “The squares produced on the grid-like floor surface . . . became the accounting units,” he said.  

The question that the discovery of the khipu and these accounting units begin to answer, Urton suggested, is, “How, in one of these ancient states in the pre-electronic era, or pre-automobile era, or pre-any kind of automatic movement or sending messages, do you effect control at a distance?” 

Recognizing the role that the Inca troops played in providing much of the muscle for Inca rulers as they consolidated power across the Andes, Urton underscored the key role of the khipukamayuqs in exerting control over subjects by naming, counting, recording, and maintaining information. Furthermore, Urton suggested, the findings at Inkawasi—evidence of accounting units and archaeological circumstances that directly link khipus to the physical remnants that they may have described—provide real data that will assist in creating historical accounts rooted in demographics and statistics instead of only “great-man” narrative accounts. 

“Not only do we learn more about administration, but we use it as a gateway into writing history in a new way,” Urton concluded.