Peru, 15th-16th century

A khipu – or quipu – is a series of knotted or coloured cotton cords used to store information.

The word khipu comes from the Quechua (native Andean language) word for knot.  A khipu – or quipu – is a series of knotted or coloured cotton cords. The numbers, positons and colours of the cords together with the different kinds of nots used hold an immense amount of information. They were already known several hundred years earlier in the pre-Inca city of Tiwanaku and by the Wari people, but the Incas perfected their use as sophisticated accounting devices using a decimal system.

Khipus were portable, rolled up in a spiral to be stored and carried from one place to another. They were safeguarded by specialised Inca administrators known as khipucamayuq who could read and interpret the stored data which range from a population census to taxation.

It is possible, though not yet proven, that they also held other information such as genealogies, the agricultural calendar and perhaps even stories. The knotting technique illustrated here indicated the khipu may have been a ‘narrative’ type.

After the Spanish conquest, a few were translated into Spanish with the help of native informants. This process of khipu reading, translation and transcription was complicated by the differing interests of those involved. Some 600 khipus have been preserved in museum collections and are currently the subject of intensive study.



From their capital, Cuzco, in Peru, the Inca controlled a huge empire reaching over 2,400 miles along the length of the Andes mountains. The supreme head of state was the king, considered a living god ruling by divine right.

Incas world culture

Inca ushnus

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Colin McEwan, Ancient American Art in Detail (London, The British Museum Press, 2009)


Inca Colonial


Length: 74-104cm


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This object features in A History of the World in 100 objects

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