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Research Abstracts - 2007
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Decoding the Inka Khipu

Erik D. Demaine, Martin L. Demaine & others

The Mystery

The Inka Empire (1438–1533) had its own spoken language, Quechua, which is spoken today by about 10 million people including a third of the Peruvian population. It is believed that the only “written” language of the Inka Empire is a system of different knots tied in ropes that are attached to a longer cord. This system is called khipu or quipu. The ropes also have different colors, ply, and attachments, providing additional mechanics for encoding information. There is evidence from the Spanish crusades that khipus encoded census data as well as stories. However, no one knows how to decode either kind of information. There are several hundred khipus in the world today, waiting to be read.

The Challenge

Our research group is trying to break the khipu code: how did the Inkas record language with knots in rope? By combining computation, informatics, mathematics, linguistics, and anthropology, we hope to uncover the khipu mystery.

The Group

Our research group consists of students and faculty from a diverse range of fields and of universities, including MIT, Harvard, Northeastern U., Catholic U. Louvain, and Free U. Brussels.

IAP Class:

In January 2007, we ran an IAP class on Knot Language: Recreating Inca Quipu/Khipu, from which this research group was formed. Videos of some of the lectures are available.


[1] Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher. Mathematics of the Incas: Code of the Quipu, Dover Publications, 1997.

[2] Martii Pärssinen and Jukka Kiviharju. Textos Andinos: Corpus de Textos Khipu Incaicos y Coloniales: Tomo I. Instituto Iberoamericano de Finlandia, Acta Ibero-Americana Fennica, 2004.

[3] Jeffrey Quilter and Gary Urton (editors). Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu, University of Texas Press, 2002.

[4] Frank Soloman. The Cord Keepers: Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village, Duke University Press, 2004.

[5] Arthur Sze. Quipu, Copper Canyon Press, 2005.

[6] Gary Urton. Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records, University of Texas Press, 2003.


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