» Khipus, unique Inca records, incorporated into the UNESCO Memory of the World Program Regional Register
16.11.2016 - UNESCO Montevideo Office

Khipus, unique Inca records, incorporated into the UNESCO Memory of the World Program Regional Register

Khipus from the quechua word meaning "knots"

The Regional Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean of UNESCO Memory of the World Program (MOWLAC), during its seventeenth annual meeting, on 25th October 2016 decided to incorporate Harvard University’s submission of the Khipu Database Project (KDB) into its regional register.

Harvard University Professor of the Department of Anthropology, Gary Urton, said " this is an extraordinary and important development for Khipu studies. These extraordinary knotted string records, long ignored by the general public, will finally be acknowledged and given the respect they so richly deserve. These artifacts are the only records we hold about the Inca empire recorded by the Incas themselves" (An empire which spread throughout the Andes and lasted from 1400 AD to the Spanish conquest in 1532).

What are Khipus?

The word Khipu or quipu comes from the Quechua and means "knot." The Khipu are textile artifacts composed of spun and plied cotton or camelid (i.e., llama or alpaca) fibers. They are arranged on a main rope from which hang pendant strings. There may be additional strings attached to the main rope; which are called "subsidiaries." Some Khipu have up to 10 or 12 levels of subsidiary cords. Each Khipu can have one or more knots. Leland Locke was the first to demonstrate that knots have a numerical meaning. The Incas used a decimal number system. They could indicate numbers of different value according to the type of knot and also by the position. Colonial documents indicate that the Khipu were used for registration tasks and to send messages by couriers to all corners of the empire. To date, 923 quipus have been inventoried in museum collections in South America, North America and Europe. The existing quipus are distributed in 88 museums.

The Khipu Database Project, which is incorporated into the regional register began in the fall of 2002. The goal was to collect and record all known information about Khipu and store it in a central repository. Digitalizing the data allows for us to group information, since the data base permits us to easily cluster similar elements of all Khipu and determine the distribution even its characteristics, allowing researchers to broaden the field of study and questions about these artifacts. It also allows for easy access and facilitates how we analyze the information.

What is included in the Memory of the World Program Regional Register?

The Regional Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean of UNESCO Memory of the World Program (MOWLAC) gives the Latin American and Caribbean institutions the opportunity to preserve historical artifacts by proposing for these relics to be included in the Regional Register.

For UNESCO, documentary heritage, in all its forms, through time and space, is a fundamental means of knowledge building an expression of societies and has repercussions in all areas of human civilization and its future evolution. Documentary heritage records the development of human thought and events, the evolution of languages, cultures, peoples and their understanding of the world, emphasizing their importance of promoting an exchange of knowledge in favor of greater understanding and dialogue, in order to generate peace and respect for freedom, democracy, human rights and dignity. The preservation and accessibility of documentary heritage strengthen the fundamental freedom of opinion, expression and information as human rights.

Guilherme Canela, Secretary of the Regional Committee of UNESCO Memory of the World Program “Documents in stone and paper have been included into the register as well as audio, photography, digital, accounts, among others. Latin America and the Caribbean’s cultural history, linguistic expression, politics and human rights concepts and violations also form part of the register. As part of this year’s celebration the acknowledgement of the 250 years since the first access to public information law was highlighted. Access to public information constitutes as a framework for the collective memory of the region."

In this context, the documentary heritage presented by United States today are part of the Regional Register of UNESCO Memory of the World Program, along with 20 new additions accepted in 2016 from 10 countries, which means the Registry currently has a total of 146 collections from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Access to public information on the UNESCO Memory of the World Program

Next Call: March 2017

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