Ancient Inca proto-writing system is available online

Users can explore a collection of Khipus, an ancient Inca proto-writing system, through Google Arts & Culture.

A collection of Khipus, an ancient Inca proto-writing system, is exhibited by the Lima Art Museum (MALI) in Google Arts & Culture. The virtual exhibition is called “Guardians of the Khipus” (The Khipu Keepers), by Google Arts & Culture.

“Khipus”, which in Quechua means “knots”, is the name given to those colorful and enigmatic strings that the Incas of pre-Columbian America knew how to make and that remains, to this day, an enigma to be deciphered.

At present, about 1000 khipus are preserved and are distributed among private collections and museums around the world. While 85 percent of them contain knots that represent numbers, the remaining 15 percent are believed to be a form of writing without words. For their part, the researchers continue to work to decipher the meaning of these coded messages.

Today, with the exhibition Guardians of the Khipus, Google Arts & Culture, and MALI together open a window to one of the great mysteries that the Incas have left us and mark the starting point of a journey that is just beginning.

By showing the centenary khipus for the first time in this online exhibition, we are not only recovering and making these fantastic legacies of Inca civilization available to people around the world. In addition, we are preserving forever, thanks to digitization, these enigmatic treasures that still have many stories to tell.

The anthropologist Dr. Sabine Hyland recalls the history of the khipus in the first empire of Latin America and listens to the researcher from St. Andrews, Manny Medrano, as he answers the most frequently asked questions about what we know about the khipus. It is also possible to learn more about the basic components of the khipu along with the discoveries of the experts and learn what is involved in the conservation of the collection of khipus at the Radicati Temple.

Seven facts about the Ancient Inca proto-writing system

  • The word khipu comes from Quechua, and means “knot”.
  • Pre-Columbian khipus were made of cotton and camelid fibers.
  • The Incas used three types of knots: simple, long, and figure-eight.
  • The colors and tones of the khipus’ strings have their own meanings.
  • The distance between the knots also has a meaning and communicates a message.
  • A rope without knots represents zero.
  • Of the total known khipus, 85% record numerical information, and the remaining 15% are believed to report stories.

From Latin America to the world

As with projects such as Woolaroo or Fabricius, technology returns, with this Google Arts & Culture exhibition, to become a key factor in preserving, classifying, and continuing to study the legacy of the giants that preceded us.

What secrets do those centuries-old knots hide in their colors and in their wefts? What messages did the Incas leave on those strange strings that speak from the echoes of time? Could there be, perhaps, in those colored fibers, some hint of ancestral wisdom that illuminates our future?

All those questions today float around the exciting exhibition “Guardians of the Khipus” by Google Arts & Culture. Researchers will be in charge of “untying” this story and bringing us the answers, but they know that they are not alone in the face of this challenge and that they can count on Google’s technologies to re-signify elements of the past.

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