Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Single-Strand Khipu (Knot Writing Device)

Single-Strand Khipu Wrapping Detail.jpg
Single-Strand Khipu Dating Sample.jpg
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Single-Strand Khipu (Knot Writing Device)


A writing device—fulfilling the communicative purpose of recording and transmitting knowledge among trained individuals over time—the Inka khipu can take a number of forms (a mono- and polychrome example). In the ways that a handwritten poem and a printed technical manual differ, textile writing, too, was adaptable to a wide range of uses and audiences in Inka times.

The odd plant-fiber strand with unusual knots, has been scientifically dated to between 1508 and 1652 AD; therefore, it is an authentic Inka-to-early-Colonial object. Yet, unlike other khipu, it is entirely made of strands of Furcreae andina, a succulent whose stringy leaves can be made into fiber objects. Comprising only one cord, rather than a main cord with others hanging from it, makes it unique as well. Furthermore, the knots are made backwards.

All these strange features defy exact explanation, but its possible date, as late as 1652, may indicate that in the first century after the Inka downfall writing had changed dramatically without their strict control over communication. Clearly shifts in almost every aspect of the khipu had taken place soon after the Spanish takeover.

Geographic Area

South America, Central Andes




Late Horizon/Early Colonial, ca. 1508-1652 AD


Plant fiber (furcraea andina)

Credit Line

Ex coll. C. Clay and Virginia Aldridge

Accession Number


Photo Credit

Photo by Bruce M. White, 2011

Technical Notes

The single strand khipu measures approximately 2-3 millimeters in diameter and is constructed from a 2-ply bundled cord, which is wrapped with an additional bundled cord, which includes occasional blue fibers. Conservator Ashley Jehle examined small samples of these blue fibers using a polarizing light microscope and characterized them as animal fibers. The deteriorated condition of the scale pattern prevented identification of the species, which is likely to be camelid, given the date. Small samples from the bundled cord and wrapping fibers were sent to Dr. Simon Lægaard of Aarhus University in Denmark. Using microscopy techniques, Dr. Lægaard identified both as leaf fibers from Furcraea Andina, as identified in the Feather Fan. Jehle also sent approximately 0.01g of plant fiber from the khipu to The Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia, Athens for radiocarbon (C-14) analysis by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) and stable isotope ratio analysis. Dr. Alexander Cherkinsky reported the calibrated date as between 1508-1652 CE. 

For more conservation information, please see The Threads of Time Conservation Project.

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