Unraveling an Incan Language Tied Up in Knots


By Moira Bell

If you’ve ever been tongue tied, you know how difficult it is to find the right words. Now imagine trying to communicate through a variety of twists and knots. That may be one of the ways that the Incas communicated, according to Sabine Hyland, St. Andrews University, Scotland. Hyland arrived at that theory after examining two macramé textiles, or khipu (also spelled quipu and pronounced kee-poo) that were recently discovered in San Juan de Collata, Peru.

The word khipu comes from the Quechua language word for knot and is defined in a Harvard University database as a textile artifact composed of cords and cotton. Each khipu has a primary cord with 10 or 12 levels of additional cords, called subsidiaries, attached to multiple pendant cords.

Researchers believe the Incas created khipu during their rebellion against the Spanish conquerors to ensure Incan secrecy and affirm their native culture. These recently discovered khipu, preserved by the village elders of San Juan de Collata, are believed to be sacred text about warfare.

Deciphering an Ancient Language

Before this discovery, scholars thought of khipu as memory aids or record-keeping devices, but Spanish witnesses long believed they contained historical narratives, biographies and epistles. In the khipu from San Juan de Collata, Hyland was able to find 95 symbols, as well as family names, buried in the various twists and knots of animal hairs, cotton fibers and colors.

The khipu examined by Hyland were stored in a sacred wooden box with more than 100 manuscripts, and had been a well-guarded secret among village elders. San Juan de Collata is the only village in the Andes where colonial manuscripts and khipu are known to have been stored together.

Today, khipu are mostly kept as a historic legacy by Andean villagers. There are about 600 of these textiles found in museums and collections around the world. Some may be fakes as they deviate from what is considered to be the standard. Now, those artifacts may need to be reexamined in light of her findings, said Hyland. No matter how the story unfolds, it seems that this ancient empire is not finished talking to us yet. 

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it important to examine the languages of ancient civilizations? 
  • What can we learn about our own language using these artifacts? 
  • Macramé
  • Epistles
  • Anthropologist
  • Incas