Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Decimal Khipu (Knot Writing Device)

Decimal Khipu Stitching.JPG
Decimal Khipu Boards.jpg
Pronounce: khipu


Decimal Khipu (Knot Writing Device)


It may seem odd that the distinctively Inka mode of writing in knotted threads would survive the Spanish invasion and colonization. Indeed, in 1581 the khipu was officially outlawed, although its use went underground and has not completely disappeared to this day. The large yet still fragmentary example very likely dates to the early colonial times, according to a Carbon-14 date that places it between 1489 and 1652 AD.

While it still could predate the 1534 conquest, a number of unusual features in comparison to solidly Inka ones (a single-strand and a polychrome) strongly suggest it post-dates the Inka Empire. This one records only the numbers between 1 and 5, unlike the classic khipu with numbers as high as 160 at far right. Its main cord has been cut in two places which would never have been done in ancient times; cutting thread or cloth was considered to be breaking its life force and disrespecting its integrity. These features suggest that this example is a later, simpler version of knot writing, as it was changing under the Spanish (who certainly cut cloth to tailor their clothing).

Geographic Area

South America, Central Andes




Early Colonial ca. 1489-1652 AD



Credit Line

Ex coll. C. Clay and Virginia Aldridge

Accession Number


Photo Credit

Photo by Bruce M. White, 2011

Technical Notes

This khipu was completely stitched to a fabric-covered board in order to align and fully support each element. Small fragile fragments, such as the Wari-related tapestry fragment, were also fully stitched to wrapped boards. The secondary support board is a lightweight aluminum panel, padded with a layer of polyester batting and then covered with the cotton display cloth. When possible, objects were only stitched along one edge to permit viewing of the reverse. The stitched fragments will remain on the boards for future storage, examination, and display. Less fragile objects were temporarily placed on wrapped boards for this exhibition. These supports are made from archival corrugated and foam-core boards, padded and wrapped as the aluminum panels.  

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

Exhibition Checklist