Heritage science contribution to the understanding of meaningful khipu colours

Lucrezia Milillo*, Marei Hacke, Sara Norrehed, Ilaria Degano, Francesca Gherardi, Ellinor Gunnarsson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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This work is the first scientific study of khipu dyes and inorganic mordants and auxiliaries, paving the way for a new approach to understanding khipus’ meaningful materiality, technology, and colours. Khipus have usually been described as “Andean knotted records”, but they are much more than complex knotted cords: a great part of the information encoded resides in khipus’ incredible colours. The objects of this study are two Wari khipus, 1932.08.0001 and 1932.08.0002, now at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden. After a morphological study of the khipus, the objects were imaged with multiband imaging (MBI) as an aid for the sampling decisional process. The khipus were then analysed non-invasively by X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy on selected areas of particular interest. The khipus were consequently sampled for elemental characterisation by micro-XRF, and liquid chromatography coupled with high-resolution mass spectrometry (HPLC–HRMS) for characterising the organic dye composition. This paper presents a part of the results of the project “Meaningful materials in the khipu code”, with the intent to shed light on the difficulties and possibilities of investigating khipu colours and dyestuffs. MBI and XRF revealed unforeseeable structural characteristics, such as remnants from a heavily degraded thread in an area of missing thread wrapping and a dual-coloured thread that was previously deemed single-coloured. The organic dyes identified by HPLC–HRMS comprised indigoids, cochineal, and an unknown flavonoid-based dyestuff. XRF of the inorganic components revealed associations of several elements with specific colours.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2355-2378
Number of pages24
Issue number3
Early online date21 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2023


  • Khipu
  • Wari
  • Textiles
  • Dyestuffs
  • Heritage science
  • Multiband imaging
  • X-ray fluorescence
  • High-performance liquid chromatpgraphy
  • Mass spectrometry


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