Hidden Histories

Khipu is the record keeping system of elaborately knotted strings used by the Inca Empire that is still mysterious and largely undeciphered. There are at least nine hundred khipu in museums and private collections around the world and these are mainly from the Inca period.

It is extraordinary to think that such a large and sophisticated empire had no written language but recent research has started to decipher the meaning of the khipu in what could be the Rosetta stone of the Inca. The khipu may well not just be recording numbers but also their history told in speeches, stories and song.

Anthropologist Professor Gary Urton has spent 25 years digitising every khipu he could find and now his Khipu Database Project has details of more than 900 of them.

He said in an interview in 2008: “The Spanish chroniclers repeatedly say that the Inca knew about astronomy, accounting and mathematics. But that knowledge was recorded on the khipus – and the Spanish couldn’t read them. They also knew the Inca state records were kept in the khipus. So they very systematically transcribed these ‘documents’. For instance, when they were curious about population levels in a certain area, they would call in a khipu keeper, who would recite what was recorded, and the Spanish would write this down. We have about 15 to 20 translations of khipus, but what we don’t have – the key to deciphering the khipus – is a direct link between a specific translation and one of these actual khipus. That would be our Rosetta khipu.’

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