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Khipu on the Web and in Print: Links & Answers

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  The khipu is a recording device made of many-colored woven strings invented by South American Indians in pre-Incan times. When the Incans conquered these Indians, they adopted the khipu and used it successfully in the administration of the extensive Incan Empire. The Spaniards who came with Pizzaro and afterward destroyed many khipus, but some have survived to the present, mainly in dry, sealed burial caves.

Unfortunately, we do not have a full understanding of how khipus were used. Many were essentially mathematical, recording accounting concerns such as tax information, cencus information, et cetera. This has been my primary area of exploration, as the implied numerical system is decimal (base 10) and there are suggestions of large prime numbers and use of ratios, two key elements of advanced arithmetic. The Inca had no written language, so the ability to interpret the non-mathematical khipus that survive would be invaluable in itself and for understanding of the Incan civilization.

One quick note about spelling: traditional spellings are 'Inca' and 'quipu' -- modern spellings favor the 'k', as in 'Inka' and 'khipu'. I have switched over in the case of 'khipu', but the Incan Empire is too strongly ensconsed in common usage to succumb to the modification.

Resources on the Web: English Language

What is a khipu? If my explanation didn't grab you, here's another:

Professor Gary Urton, formerly of Colgate University (where I met him as a student) and currently at Hahvahd University, was awared a MacArthur Fellowship in 2000 to continue his study of the khipu. He's an Illinois grad so they did a big profile on him (part way down the page); Colgate's is even better.

Three of Prof. Gary Urton's books dealing with khipu are profiled at University of Texas Press:

Signs of the Inka Khipu
The Social Life of Numbers
Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu

The Society for American Archaelogy summarizes the arguments advanced in Prof. Urton's June 2001 submission to their journal of Latin American Antiquity: "A Calendrical and Demographic Tomb Text from Northern Peru".

Robert and Maria Ascher made all the big breakthroughs in khipu study before Urton came along, and they're still pluggin' away. They are the ultimate authority regarding math of the khipu, a subject I lectured on once or twice. They conveniently list all their writings that deal with quipu

Well, now, this is just ridiculously amazing: they have descriptions of 206 quipus online! Every cord is described! What a great contribution to the study of khipus -- they have put their whole Databook out there for the world to analyze. Too bad this is all at Cornell or I'd be giving out props. The link is below.

From the Aschers' Home Page

Prof. Galen Brokaw of the University of Buffalo lists khipu as a research interest; this young 'un is work on a book titled Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic: Khipu Literacy and Alphabetic Writing in the Colonial Andes

Resources on the Web: Spanish Language

Basic description and speculation on the use of khipus in Incan times

Paper by University of Arizona Prof. Lydia Fossa presented at Hahvahd in 1999 at the First International Conference of Peruvianists: "Descriptions of Khipu in Ondegardo's Notables Danos ..."
Fossa also has her class syllabus online -- and in English -- so you can take a gender and what she thinks is important to read.

Last updated January 16, 2003.

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