The Cord Keepers

Khipus and Cultural Life in a Peruvian Village

The Cord Keepers

Latin America Otherwise

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Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: 55 photos (incl. 16 in color), 12 illus. Published: October 2004

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Andes

None of the world’s “lost writings” have proven more perplexing than the mysterious script in which the Inka Empire kept its records. Ancient Andean peoples encoded knowledge in knotted cords of cotton or wool called khipus. In The Cord Keepers, the distinguished anthropologist Frank Salomon breaks new ground with a close ethnography of one Andean village where villagers, surprisingly, have conserved a set of these enigmatic cords to the present day. The “quipocamayos,” as the villagers call them, form a sacred patrimony. Keying his reading to the internal life of the ancient kin groups that own the khipus, Salomon suggests that the multicolored cords, with their knots and lavishly woven ornaments, did not mimic speech as most systems of writing do, but instead were anchored in nonverbal codes. The Cord Keepers makes a compelling argument for a close intrinsic link between rituals and visual-sign systems. It indicates that, while Andean graphic representation may differ radically from familiar ideas of writing, it may not lie beyond the reach of scholarly interpretation.

In 1994, Salomon witnessed the use of khipus as civic regalia on the heights of Tupicocha, in Peru’s central Huarochirí region. By observing the rich ritual surrounding them, studying the village’s written records from past centuries, and analyzing the khipus themselves, Salomon opens a fresh chapter in the quest for khipu decipherment. He draws on a decade’s field research, early colonial records, and radiocarbon and fiber analysis. Challenging the prevailing idea that the use of khipus ended under early Spanish colonial rule, Salomon reveals that these beautiful objects served, apparently as late as the early twentieth century, to document households’ contribution to their kin groups and these kin groups’ contribution to their village. The Cord Keepers is a major contribution to Andean history and, more broadly, to understandings of writing and literacy.


“A brilliant piece of detective work that assembles a diverse range of cues and clues and weaves them into a plausible account of how khipus might have functioned as data-encoding systems during the several centuries they persisted as the primary means for recording and conserving information in a world region that famously remained without writing even as it developed a highly complex civilization.” — John H. McDowell , Museum Anthropology

“A short review cannot exhaust all of the rich observations and inferences that Salomon makes in his book. His theoretically sophisticated perspective on alternative forms of semiosis informs a thorough and well-argued analysis of Tupicocha’s patrimonial khipu. Salomon’s study makes an invaluable contribution both to khipu studies and to Andean ethnography in general.” — Galen Brokaw , Ethnohistory

“Salomon succeeds admirably in communicating some complex ideas from the philosophy of writing and linguistics in a very clear and accessible manner, and the book’s engagement with this body of literature should make it appeal to a broad range of specialists. The ethnography is presented engagingly. . . . [T]his work forms an excellent contribution both to our ethnographic and historical knowledge of the Andean region, and also more generally to theories of writing and studies of systems of inscription.” — Maggie Bolton , Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Salomon very successfully shows how much the practice of quipu use rests on social factors. . . . There is much about the human interface of ancient quipus that, regrettably, can no longer be reconstructed. But Salomon’s study of Tupicocha goes a long way toward suggesting how some of that interface might be imagined.” — Susan A. Niles , Reviews in Anthropology

"[A]n insightful and challenging work that goes beyond its notable contribution to Andean studies. At the same time that this book enlightens scholars about the elaboration of khipus, . . . it also develops pathbreaking ideas about alternative forms of knowledge and unique efforts to encode them. . . . [I]ntellectually stimulating." — Zoila S. Mendoza , American Historical Review

"Salomon will become a foundational figure for all future anthropological work on the Andean khipu. . . . [a] courageous work, as an account of culture and history in the older sense of ethnography from an anthropologist steeped in the local understanding of things.And there are admittedly fewer and fewer of those these days." — Shane Greene , Journal of Latin American Anthropology

"Salomon's book is a milestone in Andean and comparative literacy studies. . . . [E]xtraordinary." — Tristan Platt , Journal of Latin American Studies

"The Cord Keepers brings ethnographic data and theoretical sophistication to build upon decades of khipu scholarship. . . . [A] genuinely new theoretical framework for khipu research — Catherine J. Allen , Anthropology Quarterly

"This book is absolutely essential for scholars studying the origins of writing systems, as well as those focusing on the origins of just the Andean system." — D.L. Browman, Choice

The Cord Keepers is a brilliant and pathbreaking book. It forces us to reconceptualize what writing is or can be, what it encodes, and whether we should even think of writing as something that records, rather than as a performative practice that engages more actively with the world.” — Joanne Rappaport, author of The Politics of Memory: Native Historical Interpretation in the Colombian Andes

“Strokes of good fortune brought Frank Salomon to villages and archives with extraordinary potential for research. Imagination, erudition, and perseverance permitted him to retrieve insights of great importance from these sources. The world seems subtly yet significantly different after reading The Cord Keepers, since Salomon convinces his readers that the human capacities to record meanings and to transmit cultural forms are deeper and broader than they had thought.” — Benjamin Orlove, author of Lines in the Water: Nature and Culture at Lake Titicaca

“This is without doubt the most important work ever produced on the khipu. It is extraordinarily bold and inventive in its suggestions for how these ‘texts’ may have been produced and interpreted. The hypothetical reading of the khipu is an absolutely astonishing accomplishment.” — Gary Urton, author of Signs of the Inka Khipu: Binary Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Frank Salomon is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of Native Lords of Quito in the Age of the Incas and coauthor of The Huarochirí Manuscript: A Testament of Ancient and Colonial Andean Religion. He is a coeditor of the two South American volumes of The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas: South America (“Prehistory and Conquest” and “Colony and Republics”).

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations and Maps ix

List of Tables xiii

About the Series xv

Preface xvii

The Unread Legacy: An Introduction to Tupicocha’s Khipu Problem, and Anthropology’s 3

1. Universes of the Legible and Theories of Writing 23

2. A Flowery Script: The Social and Documentary Order of Modern Tupicocha Village 41

3. Living by the “Book of the Thousand”: Community, Ayllu, and Customary Governance 55

4. The Tupicochan Staff Code 77

5. The Khipu Art after the Inkas 109

6. The Patrimonial Quipocamayos of Tupicocha 137

7. Ayllu Cords and Ayllu Books 185

8. The Half-Life and Afterlife of an Andean Medium: How Modern Villagers Interpret Quipocamayos 209

9. Toward Synthetic Interpretation 237

Conclusions 267

Notes 283

Glossary 295

References 299

Index 317
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Winner, 2005 Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin Award, American Society for Ethnohistory

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3390-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3379-1
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