Deciphering the Phonetic Language of Incan Khipu

Dr. Sabine Hyland managed to decipher information contained in twisted chords called khipus, in which records were kept using knots of colored fibers from animals such as alpacas, llamas and deer.


Anthropologist Sabine Hyland studies a khipu board, a colonial-era invention that incorporated earlier Inca technology.

Her exciting discovery has the potential to shed light on the mysterious South American civilisation of the Incas.

Dr Hyland has now discovered that the khipus, sometimes known as talking knots, were used in a logosyllabic system like Classic Mayan, where each logo represents a phonetic syllable.

“It had already been established that the khipus were used by the Inca to record numerical accounts, but until recently there was no evidence they had been used to record narratives,” said Dr. Hyland.

The Collata khipus, as they are known, contrast sharply with the regional accounting khipus.


And they point to a widespread, shared writing system used in the Huarochiri province, east of Lima, in the 18th Century.

Dr Hyland added: “Analysis of the khipus revealed they contain 95 different symbols, a quantity within the range of logosyllabic writing systems, and notably more symbols than in regional accounting khipus.

So far she has phonetically deciphered two lineage names after being granted the privilege of examining two khipus from the remote village of San Juan de Collata in the Peruvian Andes.


The Inca were highly organized and kept inventory on string records called khipus. More elaborate versions may contain encoded messages.

Village authorities invited Hyland to examine their closely guarded khipus, which were created in the 18th Century as letters exchanged by local leaders in a revolt against Spanish authority.



Khipus were used by the ancient Inca in South America as a way to keep numerical records of their provisions. An example of an elaborate khipu is shown

“At the end of each khipu, three-cord sequences of distinct colours, fibres and ply direction appear to represent lineage names.

“The Collata khipus express syllables in a profoundly Andean fashion, using differences among the fibres of various animals, such as vicuña, alpaca and deer to indicate meaning.

“The reader must often feel the cords by hand to distinguish the fibre sources of these three-dimensional texts.”


After partially deciphering the lost language, Hyland says the khipus were likely used in a logosyllabic system, like Classic Mayan. In this system, each pendant cord would represent a syllable


It’s known that these cords were used to record numerical accounts, but now, researchers have discovered that they may also have acted as a form of phonetic writing, with specific combinations thought to convey particular syllables or words


About Stan Flouride

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