Inca Khipu
MIT, Spring 2006

Class: Materials in Human Experience
Team Size: 7 people
Duration: 2 months
Project: Design and construct a facsimile of the Xauxa Khipu.

A khipu is a knotted string record-keeping and device made by the Inca people prior to the European invasion of the Andes in the 16th century. Khipus were used for keeping census records, recording storehouse inventories, and recording the dynastic history of Inca kings, among other things.

Our team of seven constructed a facsimile of a khipu presented as evidence in Xauxan court in 1561. The khipu described the goods given to the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro when his forces invaded Inca land. Additionally, it details the items his men stole from Inca storehouses. This khipu reproduction only describes the actions of the Europeans in the year of 1533; the original khipu documents the activities in a 15 year span, from 1533-1548. We plied and knotted the cords of our khipu entirely by hand, using similar methods to what the Incas would have used to construct their khipus.

Several mysteries remain about the khipu; for example, the meanings of certain knot types, cord twists, and colors are unknown. After studying the history of the khipu and the Inca culture, we applied our own interpretations to cord colors and twists in our reproduction - for example, cords twisted in one direction indicate donated goods; cords twisted oppositely indicate stolen items.

Different cord twist directions and colors represent different things, such as stolen versus non-stolen items.

Our khipu can still be seen hanging in the fifth-floor lobby of Building 16 at MIT. For more information on this project, you can check out a story from the MIT Tech Talk newspaper here.