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Keys to Mathematical Treasure Chests: Andean Khipus – Collections Organized by Style and Period

Manuel Medrano (Harvard University)


The available online resources can also be grouped by the style of khipu that they document. Beginning by searching for Inka and Inka-style specimens leads us to several collections in Peru and the United States.

Image of a Treasure Chest and Key. Entering “quipu” in the online portal of the Museo de Sitio de Pachacamac returns some two dozen archaeological specimens that were first published as a group by the Peruvian engineer and statistician Hugo Pereyra Sánchez and colleagues [2006]. The prehispanic coastal pilgrimage site of Pachacamac is the largest known source of khipus conserved in museums today, with over 90 examples spread across collections in the Americas and Europe [Clindaniel and Urton 2017].

Image of a Treasure Chest and Key. Similarly detailed online descriptions await users of the Museo Larco’s collection database (search “quipu”). The documentation for the 11 canonical, Inka-style results includes information on cord twist, color, and dimension, along with photographs taken from various angles.

Image of a Treasure Chest and Key. Just as important as “textbook” Inka khipus are Inka-style examples with visible anomalies. Few museums include more such khipus than the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). Searching the Museum’s collections returns a number of Inka-style khipus with multiple primary cords tied together, a relatively unusual phenomenon previously described at the DMA by Kylie Quave [2009].

Some 500 years before the rise of the Inka khipu, colorful knotted strings were used for administration and numerical reckoning in the pre-Inka Wari Empire. Despite a smaller global corpus of about 40 specimens [Splitstoser 2020], Wari khipus are well-documented online. Readers are encouraged to visit the accompanying website for a 2019 khipu exhibition at Dumbarton Oaks (DO) Research Library and Collections in Washington DC. A dedicated page on Wari khipus includes links to high-quality images and descriptions of several Wari specimens donated to DO in 2016. As for Wari khipus conserved in Peru, one striking circular example from the former collections of the khipu researcher Carlos Radicati di Primeglio serves as the backdrop to an overview of Wari khipus produced by Jeffrey Splitstoser in 2021. Colorful, tube-like thread wrappings, overhand knots, and thick pendant strings distinguish this largely undeciphered, pre-Inka khipu tradition.

Drawing of a modern khipu made by Max Uhle in 1897.

Figure 4. Drawing of a modern khipu collected by Max Uhle in 1895 [Uhle 1897, plate 1].

The remainder of the khipu’s known active lifespan comprises colonial-era and modern use (1532–ca 1950 CE). For decades following the Spanish conquest of the Inkas, complex khipus were utilized to record detailed numerical accounts, at times even being transcribed as part of Andean testimony in legal proceedings [Medrano 2021a]. Nonetheless, at present, few khipus in museums have been confidently radiocarbon-dated to this early postconquest period. Better represented online are modern khipus, utilized since the late 19th century for a wide variety of administrative, economic, and ritual purposes. Object number 36392 in Philadelphia’s Penn Museum—a khipu from Cutusuma, Bolivia—is one such example. In 1895, Max Uhle collected this specimen during an excursion to the Lake Titicaca area (Figure 4). Its strings efficiently subdivided local sheep into various categories, informing Uhle’s [1897, p. 57] claim that “modern kipus [sic] are the direct descendants of the ancient ones” (see also Loza [2000] and Hyland [2014]). Several decades later, a Jesuit priest named Antonio Sempere donated five agricultural produce khipus he had collected from Lake Titicaca’s Island of the Sun to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). The khipus, created between 1948 and 1949 and described extensively by Sabine Hyland and Christine Lee [2021], can be found online by searching “‘Colegio San Calixto’ quipu” in the NMNH collections portal.

A final note is warranted on khipu preservation and conservation science. The process by which archaeological khipus—often fragile, tangled, and faded—are prepared for long-term storage is not well-represented online, though Patricia Landa Cragg’s [2018] account of conserving recently discovered Inka khipus from a storage complex at Inkawasi is an important exception (see “Año 2, Número 6” on the journal’s website). Among khipus already in museums, Martina Brunori and Stefania Passerini [2019] have described the careful process of re-mounting a specimen in the ethnological collections of the Vatican.

Manuel Medrano (Harvard University), "Keys to Mathematical Treasure Chests: Andean Khipus – Collections Organized by Style and Period," Convergence (August 2022)