Are Inka Khipu Knots Anything More than Numbers?: A Computational Investigation

Author(s): Jon Clindaniel

Year: 2018


Inka khipus--the knot and cord recording devices of the Andes--have been said to have recorded everything from accounting, to histories and songs. Leland Locke demonstrated in the 1920s that Inka khipu knots often have standard numerical values. However, non-numerical Inka khipu signs remain elusive and undeciphered. Recent work by Gary Urton, however, has identified Inka khipus and individual khipu cords with knots that do not obey the standard numerical rules Locke identified. May Inka khipu knots also have had a non-numerical semiotic function?

Here, I use the Harvard Khipu Database, Python statistical libraries, and Benford’s Law to evaluate this claim and potentially identify a non-numerical Inka khipu sign unit. Specifically, I compare knot value frequencies in extant Inka khipus to those expected in a numerical dataset, as predicted by Benford’s Law. Benford’s Law is used to identify fraud in a variety of disciplines--providing numerical frequencies that are characteristic of a set of empirically observed numerical values as a point of comparison. Thus, if knot value frequencies diverge severely from Benford’s Law expectations for any set of khipus, these khipu knots likely functioned as non-numerical signs.

Cite this Record

Are Inka Khipu Knots Anything More than Numbers?: A Computational Investigation. Jon Clindaniel. Presented at The 82nd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Washington, DC. 2018 ( tDAR id: 443168)

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Spatial Coverage

min long: -82.441; min lat: -56.17 ; max long: -64.863; max lat: 16.636 ;

Record Identifiers

Abstract Id(s): 21784