Khipu (Knotted Recording Device

South America, Central Andes, Central Coast, Inka. Late Horizon, ca. 1430-1534 AD.
Cotton. 2 ft. 1 in.
2002.1.130
Ex Coll. C. Clay and Virginia Aldridge

The Inka Empire conquered more than 3,000 miles of western South America in less than a century, making it the world’s largest political entity of its time. This vast territory was organized, its population counted, tribute recorded, history and poetry written in knotted string devices called khipu.

Khipu have a main string that runs horizontally, the main cord, read from left to right. Dangling down from it are pendants, made from various colors of thread (beige, brown, and blue could be combined to look mottled or striped and even change halfway down the thread). Knots tied in the pendants divided numbers up into decimal units (one’s, ten’s, hundred’s) with the one’s place farthest from the main cord. These numbers might represent quantities (235 potatoes) or they might be a code (235 signifies potatoes).

This khipu is both typical and unusual. It is medium in size, with 32 pendants, and its numbers range from 160 down to 0 (the second group of strings from the left consists of ten unknotted cords). The usual white to brown thread colors predominate, but its blue threads are atypical. Blue, from the indigo plant, is very hard to dye, so blue represents a rare and prestigious element. A group of khipu from the northeastern Inka Empire also demonstrate this shade of blue, so this one could be from that area. The blue could also mean that something precious was being recorded, like fancy textiles or goldwork, perhaps given as tribute to the ruler or the state religion.