Unraveling History’s Knotty Mysteries

Advancing our Knowledge

In modern society many people feel tied to their calendars, but that compulsion is nothing new.

photo illustration of khipu diagram

For a millennium or more in pre-modern Peru, indigenous people relied on an ancient form of calendar, created by tying knots in a connected series of multicolored wool or cotton cords, called a khipu. Until recently, historians had limited knowledge of the purpose of these collections of knotted strings, much less an understanding of how to read them. However, recent research by Texas State University’s Dr. José Carlos de la Puente, associate professor of history, has shed new light on these mysterious artifacts.

khipu diagram explaining age

The earliest recorded usage of khipus predates the Incan empire by at least 500 years. They were used throughout the Andean region, from Colombia in the north down to Argentina and Chile in the south. De la Puente explains, “We know that khipus were everywhere. They were essential to the administration of the empire, and to the administration of local community affairs.” Despite their ubiquity, and the fact that their use continued until the mid-20th century, no comprehensive key to reading khipus has ever been discovered.

Dr. Jose de la Puente headshot
Dr. Jose de la Puente

"We didn’t know what they were recording, but we knew how."

One reason for the lack of a Rosetta Stone-equivalent for khipus is that the Quechua language – like other languages indigenous to South America – had no written form prior to Spanish conquest. Although many official documents and chronicles acknowledged the use and importance of khipus, few gave any detail regarding how to read them. This mystery intrigued scholars, inspiring a new wave of research over the past two decades aimed at deciphering khipus.

Thanks to those efforts, De la Puente says, “We’ve identified the basic code and some of the major conventions. For instance, we know that the color of the cords, the position of the knot, and the type of the knot all had meaning,” but without any instructions linked to a particular khipu, the devices continued to be ciphers to historians.

old illustration of native Andean astrologer

De la Puente’s moment of epiphany came in 2016, when the director of a historical archive in Lima alerted De la Puente to the existence of a unique, previously unknown document: the unpublished memoir of a man named Gaspar Ortiz, the nephew of a mid-19th century Catholic priest in Cuzco, Peru. Ortiz’s memoir, focused primarily on family affairs, also contained one page of detailed notes on the methods used by local cord-keepers in the village of Ttío, Peru, for recording culturally critical information.

De la Puente’s translation of this single page has opened up an entirely new understanding of how cord-keepers used khipus, which he recently published in Ethnohistory. The development also inspired new research featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Art of Lima. 

Prior to the discovery of the Ortiz memoir, de la Puente explains, “We knew that about two thirds of the surviving 1,000 khipu specimens followed the decimal system. We didn’t know what they were recording, but we knew how. It could have been people, crops, or cattle, for example.”

De la Puente’s research suggests that some of the remaining third of khipus, which do not follow the decimal system, were calendars. Specifically, the Ortiz memoir suggests that these khipus were used to track demographic information and events – such as births, baptisms, marriages, sins, burials, and festivals – that determined the semi-coerced offerings villagers paid annually to local priests. 

<1000 C.E. – 1950s: documented period in which khipus were used

khipu diagram explaining gender and status

De la Puente explains, “Colonial powers relied on the conquered people much more than we often think. There is an aspect of vertical imposition, but there are many other aspects of the local societies that are preserved because they fulfill the needs of the colonial state.” By coopting an ancient form of recordkeeping, agents of the colonial and post-colonial state could determine who was supposed to pay taxes and in what amount. At the same time, local communities used these khipus as evidence in lawsuits against priests who failed to fulfill their ecclesiastical duties by collecting those taxes forcefully. This bidirectional benefit created what de la Puente calls “a line of continuity."

The Ttío khipus fell out of favor in the second half of the 20th century, likely due to increasing literacy, technology, and the conversion of most residents from Catholicism to evangelical Christianity. De la Puente continues to search for evidence of farmers and herders who may continue to use khipus to this day. However, during a recent trip to Peru he met elders who still remembered the use of khipus in their youth, which has inspired new directions for his research. De la Puente is currently planning a return trip to Ttío, to dig deeper into local ruins and memories, in the hopes of finally cracking the khipu code.

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