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Quipu (Khipu)

Quipu ( Spanish ) or Khipu ( Quechua : "knot") is the name of a knot script of the original South American population of the Inca Empire . This font could also be used to represent multi-digit numbers in the decimal system .

Khipus are from the 7th century AD. Chr. And have had quite a time after the end of the Inca Empire in 1532 in use, according to texts until at least 1622. In some remote villages of the Andes they were until the mid-20th century to the accounting used .

As far as we know today, there were two different writing systems : one for the statistical recording of goods such as stocks, people, animals, plants and lands, and one for communications , such as correspondence.

The knotted font for correspondence consisted of the hair of different animal species, such as vicuña , alpaca , guanaco , lama , deer and the pika vizcacha . The animal hair was dyed in 14 different colors and could reproduce up to 95 different syllables . The knot script for correspondence has not yet been deciphered. However, the complex knotted and dyed khipus made from animal hair, which were found in the village of San Juan de Collata Pierro in the province of Huarochirí in Peru , make it extremely likely that such a syllabary script existed in knot form.

Cultural meaning

The Inca ruler visits the warehouse manager, who uses a khipus to show him the inventory (drawing by Waman Puma de Ayala in his Primer Nueva Coronica )

The contemporary chroniclers were aware of the cultural significance of the khipus. The Spanish chronicler José de Acosta wrote in 1590 in his Historia natural y moral de las Indias (German title: "Natural history and morality of the Indians"):

"Son quipus unos memoriales o registros hechos de ramales, en que diversos nudos y diversos colores significan diversas cosas. Es increíble lo que en este modo alcanzaron, porque cuanto los libros pueden decir de historias, y leyes, y ceremonias y cuentas de negocios, todo eso suplen los quipus tan puntualmente, que admiran. "

“Khipus are reminders or reports made up of strands in which different knots and different colors mean different things. It is incredible what is being accomplished in this way, as so many books of stories, laws, ceremonies and business reports could be written about it. Khipus deliver all of this so thoroughly that they can be admired. "

- Acosta, José de (1590) : Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias Seville. Reprinted 1994. Page: 189-190.



The name Khipu (Spanish: Quipu , quechua: Khipu ) means knot and stands for the individual knot as well as for the entire structure of knot cords.


Khipu from the Museo Machu Picchu in Cusco
Khipu from the Museo de la Nación in Lima

A khipu consists of a main cord on which several knotted cords hang as side cords, on which in turn several side cords could hang. The side cords were fastened around the main cord with one eye .

  • a main line
  • several side cords
  • possibly also ancillary lines etc.

The cords consisted of several twisted yarns . The individual yarns could be distinguished based on their material, their color and their direction of lay .

In addition to knots, khipus could contain tassels and textile cartridges ( ticcisimis ). The latter consisted of square cartridges previously woven and later knotted into the khipus .

The length of the main cord could be up to 4 meters. Up to 200 secondary lines could hang on a main line. A khipu weighed 4 kg with all the strings.


Khipus were shown to a viewer by grasping the stretched main cords at both ropes (ends) and holding them up with spread arms so that the side cords could hang freely.

To read off the side cord, the knots were viewed and felt from the eye to the rope . In addition to the type and number of knots, the material, color and twisting direction of the cords also played a role.


A complex of 27 warehouses ( Qullqas ) above Ollantaytambo

The gray cotton khipus were used for bookkeeping . They can best be compared with simple forms in which quantities of objects and work performed are entered by tying decimal knot digits. If the quantities were changed, the knot expert in charge tied the knots and then linked them again.

Khipus were used by the Incas to collect taxes. These consisted of taxes and work. There was also a hierarchical system of administrative units . Based on the data collected, it was then possible to determine which village community ( Ayllu ) had done or had to do how many duties and labor services ( Minka and Mita ).



The dating of a khipus found in the gallery pyramid in Caral is controversial. With an age of 2600 BC. He would be by far the oldest known Khipu.

The oldest reliably datable Khipus come from the time around 650 AD from the Wari people . Archaeologically, they come from the middle discovery horizon (600–1000 AD).

Inca period

The Incas came from a tribe that farmed in the Cusco area in the 12th century . Under the first strong ruler ( Sinchi ) of Cusco Manco Cápac , the Kingdom of Cusco (1197–1438) emerged, from which then under the ninth ruler and only first ruler ( Sapa Inka ) Pachacútec Yupanqui, the great empire of the Inca (1438–1532) arose. The Inca themselves called their empire Tawantin Suyu , the four regions . This was divided into Chinchan Suyu (north region), Kunti Suyu (west region), Anti Suyu (east region) and Qulla Suyu (south region) according to the four cardinal points .

In 2016, during excavations in Incahuasi under the direction of archaeologist Alejandro Chu, 29 khipus from the 16th century were discovered in a warehouse for peanuts, chillies, beans, corn and other agricultural products. These had different colors for each agricultural product, so that one could tell from the color which product it was. On some khipus the knots were untied so that they could be knotted again. Incahuasi served the Inca rulers in the late 15th and early 16th centuries to conquer southern Peru . The archaeological site is located in the Pullo district in the Parinacochas province in the Ayacucho region.

Colonial times

The Inca empire fell when the Spaniards, led by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro , defeated the last ruling Inca ruler Atahualpa on November 16, 1532 at the Battle of Cajamarca . In 1542, under Spanish rule, the viceroyalty of Peru was founded, which lasted until 1842.

After the conquest of the Inca Empire, the church and administration even encouraged the use of the khipus to maintain the colonial administration. The viceroy Francisco de Toledo allowed the khipus to be used for administrative purposes between 1570 and 1581. Likewise, khipus were used in the Catholic Church to learn prayers and confess sins until they were banned by the Third Catholic Provincial Council of Lima in 1583.

Despite this ban, khipus continued to be used in the communities. The pastor Juan Pérez Bocanegra of the parish Andahuaylillas wrote about the use of the khipus in a text from 1622, how the locals went to confession with khipus, who listed their sins.

Communal labor accounting khipus ( mita ) were in use in the parish of Santiago de Anchucaya until the 1940s.

The representation of the numbers in Khipus

The Incas used the decimal system to represent the numbers .

  • For each digit ( power of ten ) the digits were written as a group of nodes.
  • The digits (powers of ten) were read in the order of their height from the base to the free end, i.e.: thousands-hundreds-tens-ones.
  • The number zero was written as a knot-free group section for all positions.
  • The digits one to nine were written as simple overhand knots in all tens, hundreds and thousands places , with the number of simple knots corresponding to the respective digit.
  • The numbers two through nine were all one job when multiple getörnte overhand knot written, the number of trips of each digit met.
  • The number one was written as an eight knot in all units .
  • Eight knots and overhand knots marked the units and thus the end of the relevant number.

There are 4 different node types, which are usually abbreviated with letters (Ascher system):

  • An eight knot [1A] for the digit 1 of the ones place.
  • A multiple overhand knot with m turns [mT] for the number m of the ones digit.
  • A knot-free section [0X] for the digit 0 in all units, tens, hundreds and thousands.
  • n simple overhand knot [nS] for the digit n for all tens, hundreds and thousands.

For example, the representation of the numbers is:
2304 = 2S 3S 0X 4T and
7001 = 7S 0X 0X 1A

The individual number nodes of the khipus are added by laying the knot cords next to each other so that the positions for the individual number nodes are at the same height. These are then added up in places, with the carryforwards of the individual places being added to the next higher decimal place. In principle the same as with the conventional addition of numbers by line calculation according to Adam Ries or with the abacus .

The representation of the numbers in the khipus was first scientifically described in 1912 by Leslie Leland Locke (1875–1943). The notation of the Khipu numbers based on their respective node type was introduced by Marcia and Robert Ascher. The Aschers used the following abbreviations for the number knot: the letter X for the knot-free section, the letter E ( figure eight knot ) for the figure eight knot , the letter L ( long knot ) for the multi-twisted overhand knot and the letter S ( short knot ).

For arithmetic, the Incas used a kind of abacus , the Yupana .


  • The stopper knot is an overhand knot without cruising.
  • An overhand knot 3 trips is Franziskaner node called because the cords of the Franziskaner comprising such nodes.

The Khipu expert

Khipu expert with Khipu and Yupana ( abacus ) lower left

According to the Spanish chronicler Pedro de Cieza de León , only certain people could socialize and read Khipus. These were called Khipu Kamayuq , which in Quechua means Khipu keeper. They were supported by the Qullqa Kamayuq , the Qullqa keeper who was responsible for the warehouses ( Qullqa ). Generally, the khipu manager was an old man and the warehouse manager was an old woman. Both were supported by a younger couple, who were trained in bookkeeping and administration in this way and were brought in to be successors. Often such warehouses ( qullqa ) were also connected to a hostel ( tampu ).

Pictorial representations of the warehouses ( Qullqa ) and Khipu-Kundigen ( Khipu Kamayuq ) including knotted cord ( Khipu ) and abacus ( Yupana ) can be found in the work of the indigenous chronicler Don Felipe Waman Puma de Ayala entitled Primer Nueva Corónica y , which was published between 1600 and 1615 Buen Gobierno (German title: "First New Chronicle and Good Government Work").

Textile cartridge khipus



In addition to the Khipus, the Inca also had a writing system called Tokapu . Tokapus are conceptual signs ( ideograms ) in the form of square cartouches with abstract geometric motifs.

Tocapus came in both woven and painted forms. They can be found in woven form on ponchos (uncus) and khipus. In painted form on walls and on drinking cups.


Tokapus on an Inca Unku

Woven tokapus knotted into khipus were called ticcisimi . They represent pictograms in the form of woven square cartouches with pictorial abstract motifs. The demarcation between concrete and abstract pictorial motifs, i.e. between pictograms and ideograms, is somewhat difficult here.

Ticcisimis on scraps of Khipus can also be found in the collection of the Ethnological Museum Berlin . According to Blas Valera , there should have been around 200 different ticcisimis. He himself only knew the importance of around 65 ticcisimis. He was taught to read khipus and ticcimis from his early youth by his maternal grandfather.

Well-known ticcisimi khipus

Fully preserved ticcisimi khipus are not known. They have only survived in the form of detailed colored drawings drawn by Jesuit priests in order to preserve the Inca culture for posterity.

The following textile cartridge khipus ( Ticcisimi quipus ) are known:

  • A singing khipu with the hymn Sumac Ñusta (Beautiful Princess), a homage to the moon goddess Killa on the occasion of her marriage to the sun god Inti . According to legend, Killa and Inti were the parents of the first Inca ruler Manco Cápac and his wife Ocllo .
  • A calendar khipu ( pacha quipu ) for the Inca year 1532/33 with the ticcisimi of all 12 lunar months .
  • A processional path khipu ( Cequecuna Quipu ) with the number of shrines for all deities (Huacas) along all processional paths ( Cequecuna , singular: Ceque ) for the four districts of the Inca capital Cusco .

The singing Khipu Sumac Ñusta belongs to the group of the noble Khipus ( Capac Quipus ). The song Sumac Ñusta (Beautiful Princess) was sung by the Beautiful Virgins ( Sumac Aklla ) in the Sun Temple ( Intikancha ) of Cusco, the highest sanctuary of the Inca.

The calendar khipu

Ticcisimi in Blas Valeras manuscript from 1618
Scheme drawing of the calendar khipus by Blas Valera 1618

The Jesuit father Blas Valera describes in his writing Exsul Immeritus Blas Valera Populo Suo (German title: The unjustly banished Blas Valera to his people ) from the year 1618 a calendar khipu. Blas Valera was a mestizo , his father was Spaniard and his mother an Inca from the nobility. He learned to read the khipus from his maternal grandfather, an Inca sage ( Amauta ).

The calendar for the Inca year 1532/33

The calendar shows the Inca calendar year of 1532/33, which according to the Gregorian calendar began on June 3, 1532 with the new moon of the first lunar month and ended on June 2, 1533. During this period, on November 16, 1532, the last ruling Inca ruler Atahualpa (quechua: Ataw Wallpa ) was defeated by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the battle of Cajamarca and executed the following year. A drawing is enclosed with the letter, which shows the calendar in schematic form in color.

Annual division

The calendar khipu was called Pacha Quipu , where Pacha means time in Quechua and Quipu means knot. The calendar khipu consisted of 1 main strand with 13 secondary strands (counterparts). The first 12 subsidiary strands represent the 12  synodic lunar months . The last branch represents the 10 inserted ( epagomenal ) days that are necessary to synchronize the synodic lunar calendar with the sidereal solar year .

Each Inca month was 29 to 30 days, with 5 months being 29 days and 7 months being 30 days. Months 1, 3, 4, 6, and 10 had 29 days. Each month rope was introduced with a woven square textile cartridge ( ticcisimi ) which contained the symbol ( pictogram ) of the respective Inca month. In total, the year contained 5 × 29 + 7 × 30 = 355 days of the month and an insertion week of 10 days, which results in 365 days.

The year was also divided into 36 weeks, with each Inca week consisting of 10 days. The year thus consisted of 36x10 = 360 days of the week and half of the ten-day insertion week, which results in 365 days.

Weekly schedule

The Inca weeks consist of 10 days, which are represented on the strings by groups of 10 knots. These are colored alternately red or green for each week. 10 red nodes are followed by 10 green nodes and so on.

The red knots stand for the above (quechua: Hanan ) and the green for the below (quechua: Hurin ). The Inca principle of Hanan and Hurin corresponds roughly to the Chinese principle of Yin and Yang . Hanan (above) were sun, firmament, day, mountains, present and man. Hurin (below) were moon, earth, night, coast, past and woman. The world was divided equally into Hanan and Hurin. Each thing was either Hanan or Hurin.

Month names and their cartridges

Blas Valera has given the Quechuan name, its Latin translation and the associated textile cartridge (ticcisimi) for each of the 12 months of the Inca calendar.

Cusco, the capital of the Inca, is located south of the equator, i.e. in the southern hemisphere. Therefore, the seasons here are mirror images of those in the northern hemisphere, whereby the seasonal change in the tropics is less, but more pronounced with increasing altitude.

Every month has its own pedant (side cord) on the khipu. In the following, its Quechuan name, its German translation and the associated cartouche are given for each Inca month. They are:

  1. Pedant: Yntiraymipacha = time of the festival of the sun (southern summer) =
    cartouche: lower yellow throne (golden throne)
  2. Pedant: Pachacyahuarllamapacha = time of the 100 red lamas =
    cartouche: 15 red llamas llamas
  3. Pedant: Yapuypacha = time to plow =
    cartridge: plow Tacla
  4. Pedant: Coyaraymipacha = time of the feast of the moon =
    cartouche: middle white throne (silver throne)
  5. Pedant: Paramañaypacha = time of evocation of the rain =
    cartouche: black bearded face with a long red tongue stuck out (wild spirit)
  6. Pedant: Ayamarcaypacha = time of processions for the dead =
    cartouche: red mask (mummy Mallqui )
  7. Pedant: Capacyntiraymipacha = time of the noble festival of the sun (southern winter) =
    cartouche: high yellow throne (golden throne)
  8. Pedant: Huacapacha = time of the nature spirits =
    cartridge: many small circles with a point (nature spirits Huacas )
  9. Pedant: Huarachicuypacha = time the boys were first dressed with a thong =
    cartridge: square of fabric with 4 ribbons ( thong )
  10. Pedant: Paraypacha = time of rain =
    cartridge: seated man with long braids and hat (waiting for the rain)
  11. Pedant: Rinrituccinapacha = time of piercing the earlobe =
    cartridge: two long earlobes with two cockades
  12. Pedant: Aymuraypacha = time of harvest =
    cartridge: corn on the cob Sara
  13. Pedant: insertion week 10 days = Yntihuatapacyapanapacha = time to complete the calendar =
    cartridge: yellow square (sun Inti )

Astronomical data

The calendar was primarily used by the Inca priests ( Amauta ) to determine the holidays. There was also a farmer's calendar , which regulated the annual agricultural course for the farmers. A black knot stands for the day the Inca were defeated in the Battle of Cajamarca (November 16, 1532) and allows the dates to be compared with those of our current Gregorian calendar .

  • The calendar describes a lunar eclipse ( Yanpintuy ) in Cusco for February 9, 1533.
  • The calendar describes the period for the visibility of the Pleiades ( Ccoto ) in the firmament , which determined the time of sowing . This was between April 5 and June 7, 1533.
  • The calendar describes the zenith passage of the sun in Cusco from October 13th to 18th, 1532.

Of course, one has to note that Valera wrote this information in 1618, i.e. 85 years after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, and as a Jesuit was trained in both Inca and European astronomy. The Jesuits were then the scientific elite of the Catholic Church.

Khipu boards

Around 1570 the mendicant order of the Mercedarians used boards with alphabetical letters and knots to convert the local population. These khipu boards were distributed throughout the Andes. To date, only three such Khipu boards have been found, one of which has been lost since 1980. The two remaining khipu boards are in a colonial church in the Ancash district and Ayacucho city. Both boards are in poor condition. The sides are tattered and the knots are often no longer there. The knots of the board from Ancash are multicolored, the knots of the board from Ayacucho consist of three layers of paper and are uniformly gray.

Number and conservation

Most of the Quipus were destroyed by the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century. In 1981 only 400 were known, by 2004 around 800 Quipus had been found worldwide. The Ethnological Museum Berlin owns 289 and thus the largest collection of its kind. They all come more or less from the 15th and 16th centuries. However, almost no Quipus were found in Cusco or any other part of the highlands, almost all of the finds come from the coast. However, this may have been primarily due to the climatic conditions that favored conservation.

Ethnological Museum Berlin

The world's largest collection of Khipus is in the Ethnological Museum Berlin . There is also an 18th century khipu that is colorful and scruffy. In the 1990s, these brightly colored khipus were classified as counterfeits not only in Berlin but also in other museums because of their bright colors. However, this is not the case.

See also


  • Gary Urton: A new twist in an old yaen ... in: Baessler-Archiv. NF Reimer, Berlin 42.1994. ISSN  0005-3856
  • Gary Urton: Signs of the Inka Khipu. Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records . University of Texas Press, Austin Tx 2003 (Paperback) ISBN 0-292-78540-2 (detailed analysis. Appendix 20 p. Bibliography)
  • Kenneth Adrien, Andean Worlds: Indigenous History, Culture and Consciousness. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8263-2359-6 .
  • Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, Code of the Quipu: Databook, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1978.
  • Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics, and Culture, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1980. ISBN 0-472-09325-8 .
    • New edition 1997: Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher: Mathematics of the Incas - Codeof the Quipu , Dover Publications, Mineola, NY ISBN 0-486-29554-0
  • Ernst Doblhofer : The deciphering of ancient scripts and languages. Reclam, Leipzig 1993, 2000, 2003. ISBN 3-379-01702-7
  • Harald Haarmann: Universal history of writing. Campus, Frankfurt 1990, 1991, Zweiausendeins, Frankfurt 2004. ISBN 3-593-34346-0 , ISBN 3-86150-703-X (various license ed.)
  • Leslie Leland Locke: The ancient quipu, or Peruvian knot record. The American Museum of Natural History, New York 1923.
  • Quipu. contar anuando en el imperio Inka. knotting account in the Inca Empire. Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino . Univ. de Harvard, Harvard-Santiago de Chile 2003. ISBN 956-243-043-X
  • A calendrical and demographic tomb text from northern Peru. in: Latin American Antiquity. a journal of the Society for American Archeology . Washington DC 12.2001,2, pp. 127-147. ISSN  1045-6635
  • Bjerregard: The Leymebamba Quipus. In: The Leymebamba Textiles. Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen (in preparation)
  • Eva Andersen, Macramé as Art and Hobby , Falkenverlag 1980, ISBN 3-8068-4085-7

Web links

Commons : Quipu  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. The authenticity of the manuscript was confirmed by technical examinations of paper, ink and color, C14 dating and graphological comparison of scripts.
  2. For the provenance of the manuscript see: Viviano Domenici, Davide Domenici: Talking Knots of the Inca. In: Glossary of Terminology of the Shamanic & Ceremonial Traditions of the Inca Medicine Lineage as Practiced in the United States. April 16, 2014, accessed December 26, 2019 (English, with photos).

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b Sabine Hyland: Writing with Twisted Cords: The Inscriptive Capacity of Andean Khipus. In: Current Anthropology . University of Chicago Press Journals, April 19, 2017, accessed April 23, 2017 .
  2. ^ Sabine Hyland: Unraveling an Ancient Code Written in Strings. Scientific American, November 11, 2017, accessed August 29, 2018 .
  3. ^ Daniel Stone: Discovery May Help Decipher Ancient Inca String Code. National Geographic, April 19, 2017, accessed April 23, 2017 .
  4. Cheyenne Macdonald: Ancient Inca 'string writing' was NOT just used for accounting: New evidence suggests the colorful cords represented syllables and could even tell a story. DailyMail Online, April 21, 2017, accessed April 23, 2017 .
  5. Michael Zick: Ruth Shady - The mistress of Caral. Wissenschaft.de, December 21, 2010, accessed on August 29, 2018 .
  6. ^ Jude Webber: Pre-Incas kept detailed records too. In: ABC Australia. Reuters, July 20, 2005, accessed August 29, 2018 .
  7. ^ William Neuman: Untangling an Accounting Tool and an Ancient Incan Mystery. New York Times, January 2, 2016, accessed August 29, 2018 .
  8. Sabine Hyland: How khipus indicated labor contributions in an Andean village: An explanation of color banding, seriation and ethnocategories. In: Journal of Material Culture Volume 21 Issue 4 Pages 490-509. August 10, 2016, accessed on August 29, 2018 .
  9. ^ A b Marcia Ascher / Robert Ascher: Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics, and Culture. Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press 1978 ISBN 0-472-09325-8 (English)
  10. Quipu for You. Museum of Archeology & Ethnology Simon Fraser University, accessed September 6, 2018 .
  11. LL Locke: The Ancient Quipu, A Peruvian Knot Record . American Anthropologist, Volume 14, Number 2, Pages 325–332, Year 1912
  12. ^ The Ancient Quipu or Peruvian Knot Record. The National Museum of American History, accessed September 3, 2018 .
  13. ^ Laura Laurencich Minelli: Quipu y Escritura en el Antiguo Perú. (PDF) In: Fuentes Volume 10 Number 44 Pages 6-24. June 2016, accessed September 5, 2018 (Spanish).
  14. a b Laura Laurencich-Minelli, Giulio Magli: A calendar Quipu of the early 17th century and its relationship with the Inca astronomy. (pdf, 495 kB) In: History and Philosophy of Physics. In: arXiv.org, January 10, 2008, accessed September 4, 2018 .
  15. ^ Brian S. Bauer: The Cusco ceque system as shown in the Exsul immeritus Blas Valera populo suo. In: Ñawpa Pacha - Journal of Andean Archeology Volume 36 Issue 1 Pages 23-34. May 5, 2016, accessed September 5, 2018 .
  16. Laura Laurencich-Minelli (ed.): Exsul Immeritus Blas Valera Populo Suo e Historia et Rudimenta Linguae Piruanorum. Indios, Gesuiti e spagnoli in due documenti segreti sul Peru del XVII secolo. CLUEB Bologna 2007 (Spanish).
  17. Inca Glossary - Letter H. Glossary of Terminology of the Shamanic & Ceremonial Traditions of the Inca Medicine Lineage, accessed September 6, 2018 .
  18. Homepage Sabine Hyland: Ancash Khipu board with photos (English).
  19. Homepage Sabine Hyland: Ayacucho Khipu board with photos (English).