Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Polychrome Khipu (Knot Writing Device)

Polychrome Khipu.jpg
Pronounce: khipu


Polychrome Khipu (Knot Writing Device)


Writing—recording information in a format that others at the time and later can decipher—was accomplished by the Inka Empire of South America using thousands of knotted string devices known as khipu. In the Carlos collection there are two other examples of the knot writing (multi- and single-strand) that helped the Inka conquer more than 3,000 miles of territory and twelve million subjects in less than a century (1428–1534 AD).

In this khipu, the main horizontal cord is read from left to right. As in Western mathematics, the Inka used a base-ten numerical system. Hanging down from the main cord are variously colored pendant cords with different types of knots arranged in registers. These record numbers, here the largest being “160” and the smallest “1” (see attached diagram file). Numbers can and were used primarily as codes—much like the binary code of 0’s and 1’s in modern computers—to delineate many types of information.

Though the Spanish never learned to read khipu, they did record that the Inka used them to record the amount of food in storehouses, census data, tribute, history, astronomy, and even poetry. While scholars are still working on the existing 850 examples of khipu to decipher their meanings, new archaeological findings include some khipu piled on top of maize kernels and others on top of beans, providing a tantalizing clue that may begin to unravel the way in which the Inka used threads to record various kinds


Geographic Area

South America, Central Andes, Central Coast




Late Horizon, ca. 1430-1534 AD



Credit Line

Ex coll. C. Clay and Virginia Aldridge

Accession Number


Photo Credit

Photo by Bruce M. White, 2016

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