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Inka Khipus (1450–1534 CE)

“Y como para cada cosa . . . de vasallos, de tributos, ganados, leyes, ceremonias y todo lo demás tuviesen contadores . . . aquellas estaba en hilos y madejas de por si, como cuadernos sueltos.” (Garcilazo de la Vega 1991 [1609–1617]: 129)

“They had special accountants . . . for the number of vassals, tributes, flocks, laws, ceremonies, . . . everything was recorded on threads and knots, which were like notebooks.” (Garcilazo de la Vega 1966 [1609–1617]: 124–125)

The Inka Empire—a massive yet efficient bureaucracy sustained through effective record keeping—presumably inherited the khipu tradition from the Wari. Inka khipus are highly standardized and make greater use of the natural shades of cotton and camelid fiber, including gray, black, and brown, than their Wari counterparts. Perhaps to meet the needs of a vast bureaucracy, the Inka advanced the base-10 positional knot system, making it easier to read the numbers on pendant and subsidiary cords. They also introduced the practice of creating khipu duplicates to avoid mistakes and prevent information tampering.

The Inka recorded not only quantitative data like censuses and tribute records but also narrative information in their khipus. Statistical khipus use color banding, color seriation, and a base-10 positional knot system to record census, tax, and other accounting information. Chroniclers attested that narrative information—laws and punishment, astrology, poetry, and history—was also recorded in khipus. The characteristics of such narrative khipus have not yet been identified.

Inka Khipu Types

Inka khipus come in three types: pendant, linked, and wooden bar. Linked (where multiple khipus are tied together) and pendant types sometimes have a main cord with a kayte—a colorful button-like knot indicating a khipu’s purpose and subject matter—at the beginning of a main cord and a tail at the other end. Wooden-bar khipus have holes drilled through the bar through which the main cord is threaded and to which the pendant cords are attached.

Linked khipus (photo by Dr. Gary Urton)

Pendant khipu (ANT.019236.001: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History: Photo by Moore, B.P., 2010).

Wooden bar khipu (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum, cat. no. VA 16635)


Khipukamayuq (Quipucamayoc, “knot maker/organizer/animator”)

Inka and khipukamayuq at a state storehouse (Adapted from Murra et al., 1980)

The chroniclers make it clear that only khipukamayuq—men specially trained in khipu rules and conventions—knew how to use khipus. This knowledge was passed on generationally, suggesting a khipukamayuq class. These specialists were located throughout the empire, both geographically and hierarchically, from the community level (ayllus) up through all ten levels of Inka administration. They were also stationed at state storehouses (qolcas) and lodges (tambos) along the Inka Road (Qhapaq Ñan).

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