Khipu Decipherment

“All decipherment begins with a tax receipt.”
Michael Ventris, 20th Century Decipherer of Cretan Linear B

A large khipu, , arranged to show its primary cord, top cords pendant cords, and subsidiary cords. This khipu was part of a khipu exhibit at Lima’s MALI. The source image, linked from MALI’s website, has been flipped horizontally, by me, to show the khipu in its correct left to right order.

Let me offer a few hints about this lovely khipu, and how we read it today:

This khipu has a kayte, the fuzzy ball at the beginning/left of the primary cord, and a dangle-end, at the end of the cord. Since neither end of the primary cord is broken, this makes it easy to read the order of the khipu. You can see that some of the top cords on the right side are broken. Kayte’s are the subject of much work by the legendary khipu scholar Sabine Hyland, who believes they may “indicate” what type of khipu follows.

This is a “banded” khipu, meaning that it has many groups of cords (known as a cord group) of the same color. A cord group of light brown cords, a cord group of dark brown cords, etc. Typically, the values on these types of khipu range to a high of 600 or so (sums of other cords).

Banded khipus, such as this one, have been partially deciphered - the breakthrough was by Manuel Medrano, who found a set of “Rosetta khipus” - khipus associated with the textual census of a village. A village was taxed via labor tribute, and the people who provided that labor in a village are today called “tributaries”. Low values encountered, plus the nature of the bands, imply that this khipu might be a census, with the bands belonging to individual people or ayullus (families). Interestingly this khipu has top cords. Top cords bear several noteable signs. They associate only with banded khipus. They occur in less than 15% of the khipus, and they are usually, but not always, sums of their adjacent cords in the cluster.

Alternatively, they could be some other category count. They are not, however, at a higher level such as the counts of “cities” by region. These types of khipus would be “seriated”, meaning each of group’s cords have a different color pattern. Additionally, as aggregates of lower levels, “seriated” cord values are higher.

Notice there are roughly three rows of knots across the khipu. The topmost row, close to the primary cord consists of knots that read in the 100’s place, the middle row, the 10’s place, and the last row, close to the end of the cords, the 1’s place. So you can read a cord with 3 knots at the top, then 5 knots in the middle, and 4 “long” knots at the bottom as 354. Just like “our” decimal system! This number (ie. 354) is the cord’s decimal value.

In short, this probably is, as Ventris notes, a tax receipt - possibly a tax receipt of labor provided by a village, in the form of a census by family.

1. The Decipherment Process

The Five Pillars of Decipherment

Methods of decipherment have been improving over time. Recent advancements in our understanding of Egyptian and Classic Maya writing have shown that decipherment is a process of successive approximations, with scholars contributing unique perspectives derived from their various fields of study.

Bryan K. Wells, Andreas Fuls - The Archaeology and Epigraphy of Indus Writing-Archaeopress Archaeology (2015)

Can we decipher khipu? To be honest, I keep asking myself that question…

The answer is sometimes, but then only partially. There’s a significant debate about if khipus are even a written form of language. These types of debates often preceed the eventual decipherment of a script, so I’m inclined to view the arguments with a grain of salt. On the other hand, I’m still unconvinced the majority of khipus in the KFG database are forms of writing.

Using Benford’s Law, I showed that a full 5/6 of the KhipuFieldGuide khipus were of an accounting nature, and only 1/6th were potentially “narrative”. This apparently has never been done before, and is a significant statistical nail in the coffin for the khipu as narrative story. Analyses published in Manuel Medrano’s and my article, showed that 3/4 of the khipus contained some sort of summation or spreadsheet like character.

Still we persist. Let’s assume we can decipher the precious few remaining 40 to 80 or so khipus.

It has been observed that despite cultural differences, script differences, etc, that the decipherment of unknown scripts follow a common strategy. From Egyptian hieroglyphs to Mayan writing, successful decipherments have all had the following five things in common. Now known as The Five Pillars of Decipherment they were first described by their original author, Michael Coe in his thoroughly delightful book on Breaking the Maya Code. Restated by grammatologist (the scientific study of writing systems or scripts) Marc Zender in his article Theory and Method in Maya Decipherment, the five pillars are:

Script Typology

The type of writing system must be known. As Friedrich observed, “the number of the written symbols usually warrants a conclusion as to whether the script is alphabetic, a pure syllabary or a mixture of word-signs and syllabic signs.” That is, all else being equal: scripts with less than forty signs tend to be alphabets; those with forty to a hundred signs tend to be syllabaries; and those with more than a few hundred signs are uniformly mixed logophonetic writing systems. Gelb long ago provided a useful chart correlating script type with numbers of signs, and expanded and updated versions of this chart are provided by Coe and Zender. To Friedrich’s original typology can now be added the abjad and the abugida or alphasyllabary.

PROBLEM 1. This is the first challenge. We don’t currently know for certain if there is a script, and if so, what its type is. We know knots. We don’t really know cord colors.


The database of texts available for study must be large enough to allow effective comparisons. There should be at least a few long texts, in a diversity of genres, giving signs ample opportunity to occur. Additionally, Daniels stresses the compilation of a sign catalog as an important precondition of decipherment, although this has just as often followed as preceded by primary decipherment. All of this naturally presumes that texts are both accurately recorded and accessible, by no means an always safe assumption.

PROBLEM 2. Yikes. As you will come to see we have maybe 50 khipu that may be linguistic in nature. Maybe. The corpus is pretty small. Our sign catalog is small - single knot, figure-8 knot, long knot, and cord color, ply, etc. This does not bode well.


The language represented by an ancient writing system must be known. If a direct descendant no longer exists, then it must be possible to reconstruct the language on the basis of either: (a) records in another language and/or writing system, as with the extinct Sumerian language, which is understood almost entirely on the basis of Akkadian records of it; or (b) comparative/historical linguistic reconstruction on the basis of other languages to which it is related. Absent some external evidence of the language, decipherment is impossible.

Here we have some hope. We have various dialects of Quechua that we can use to aid in our decipherment

Cultural context

“The cultural context of the script should be known, above all traditions and histories giving place-names, royal names and titles”. As Friedrich notes, the provision of ancient names is a particularly important element of cultural context and “often the only means of gaining the first foothold in the reading of an unknown script”. But equally importantly, as Houston and Coe urge, “[a]ny proposed reading of an ancient text should ‘make sense’ within [its cultural] context to be accepted as plausible.”

Champillion broke the Egyptian code by discovering Ptolemy and Cleopatra. We know the names of some Inkan rulers and place names. Again, here we some hope - Since Inka civilization only lasted 150 years, there’s not too many rulers to guess. One thing that we do know is that many khipus are census tributes - and contain the names of ayullus (families) in the village, possibly sorted by hunan (upper/Inka) and hurin (lower/non-Inka).

Bilingual, biscript, or similar constraint.

“The decipherment of any unknown script or language presupposes the availability of some clue or reference; nothing can be deciphered out of nothing. In those cases where one has absolutely no possibility available to link the unknown to something known, … no real or lasting result can be accomplished” (Friedrich 1957). Foremost among these clues is “a bilingual text…, i.e., an inscription in which the text written in the unknown language or script is followed or preceded by its translation in some known language or script” (Friedrich). All but a very small handful of decipherments have crucially depended on a bilingual or a biscript, whose presence permits the scholar to isolate proper names in an otherwise unknown writing system, making initial guesses (subject to further testing) regarding sign values.5 In the absence of a bilingual or biscript, the corpus should at the very least contain “pictorial references, either pictures to accompany the text, or pictoriallyderived logographic signs” (Coe 1992:44). To this can be added iconically-transparent semantic signs, such as the “ideograms” of Myceanaean Linear B and the “determinatives” of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Finally, the utility of historical relationships between scripts must also be mentioned, as in the decipherment of Linear B with the assistance of the affiliated Cypriotic syllabary, and of both Sumerian and Hittite on the basis of related Akkadian). From a comparative perspective, biscripts, bilinguals, iconically transparent signs, and script relationships have always provided the most critical constraints, foundational to all convincing decipherments. Yet helpful constraints are in fact “quite varied and cannot be classified under rigid, inflexible rules” (Friedrich 1957). The grammatologist Peter Daniels provides a similar perspective, referring to the potential for “an external linguistic object that might plausibly be represented” in an undeciphered script, something which “may be called a virtual bilingual.” One such would be Grotefend’s (1815) assumption, absent a bilingual, that the names, titles, and known genealogical relationships of Hystaspes, Darius I, and Xerxes I should be reflected in the Achaemenid Persian inscriptions of Persepolis. However, as Daniels also cautions, “[p]oor choice of a virtual bilingual is what most commonly dooms a failed decipherment”. In other words, absent later verification from an actual bilingual or similar constraint, a virtual bilingual cannot constitute primary evidence in support of the correctness of a decipherment.

PROBLEM 3. Again we have a problem. We have little in the way of a biscript. The closest there is to a Rosetta Stone, is the Santa Ana khipu set, deciphered by Manuel Medrano, and a historical record of a khipu translation into Spanish recently published as a two volume set called Textos Andinos. The books are a subject of study in Manuel Medrano’s recent intriguing undergraduate thesis at Harvard. I am looking forward to seeing what his research reveals in the future.

Where Do We Start?

Based on the five pillars, it appears there is a significant challenge, (understatement), for a full understanding of khipu! I conclude this section with a cautionary note by another eminent khipu scholar, Frank Salomon:

Foci of the present essay include the fact that this eminently flexible medium exists in different physical states during its use cycle; that its composition by physically discrete parts lends it to use as a simulation device as opposed to text-fixing device; that its physical mode of articulating parts tends toward diagrammatic representation of data hierarchies, rather than sentential syntax; and that the act of ‘reading’ was physically distributed among cord-handlers, calculators, and interpreters, implying that there was no such actor as the unitary reader. Without denying that there were established practices for verbalizing khipu content, I suggest that Tufte’s notion of “data graphic” may be more faithful to khipu practice than models premised on ‘writing proper’.

Mayan decipherment went through a few stages. First numbers were identified, and it was realized that the Mayans used base 20. Then came the identification of dates, and the long calendar. The next breakthrough came in using dates to decipher the succession of kings. Each step builds on the previous. Quoting Andean scholar Jeffrey Quilter:

it was not so much [a wall] that was broken […] as that it was being pierced: A small hole [was created]. The hole was gradually enlarged, until eventually a critical mass was reached and the wall of ignorance came crashing down.

At this point in in khipu decipherment, we have:

  • A knowledge of numbers, and the fact that base 10 is used.
  • A few partially deciphered khipus - a post-colonional 17th century “manga” khipu, deciphered by Sabine Hyland, where cord color implies a seismographic/phonetic connection, and a set of census khipus, deciphered by Manuel Medrano.

What doesn’t exist are:

  • Confirmed date grammars, or calendars, although we have some sense of how calendars are constructed, and we have several proposed astronomical khipus.
  • A “linguistic/language” sense of a script or sign dictionary.
  • A good “Rosetta Stone.” Although we do have a Spanish revisita / census document that helped Manuel Medrano decipher the khipu set (UR087, UR088, UR089, UR090, UR091, UR092), we are still missing anything that gives us insights into “grammar”.
  • Linguistic metrics across the khipu field guide indicating language. Just as there are ways of measuring if life exists (for example - measuring oxygen levels), there are metrics for indicating that a language exists. A completely random arrangement of words will not have the same type of distribution as a typical newspaper database for example. At present such positive metrics are very scarce. Are khipu linguistic, in the sense of natural language, or are they simply accounting and memory jogs?


The data science answer is to gather “signs”. Letters. Words. Punctuation. Inka Emojis. Anything that can give us insight into how khipus are “marked”. Let’s start by looking at the various levels of “signs”.