The promise of Andean khipu transcriptions
: a multi-scale investigation

  • Manuel Antonio Medrano

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (MPhil)


Among the most distinctive documents from the early-colonial Andes are Spanish-language transcriptions of information rendered, in various settings, from khipus—undeciphered knotted string devices that served the function of writing in the Inka Empire (c. 1400–1532 CE). The surviving khipu transcriptions, sometimes also referred to as “paper khipus,” have informed decades of historical research and decipherment projects, which in large part have foregrounded the close study of individual transcriptions. However, how might the conclusions reached from these documents evolve when they are instead studied from a variety of distances and interpretive vantage points—close and far; qualitative and quantitative? Informed by currents in performance theory, semiotics, and the digital humanities, this thesis presents close reading and quantitative aggregation as mutually reinforcing strategies for the study of early colonial khipu transcriptions, employing what Ted Underwood has called a “juxtaposition of scales.” It is argued, by way of three practical case studies, that a multi-scale approach to studying paper khipus enables as much the revelation of new ethnohistoric insights as it does the assessment of previous hypotheses derived from close reading.

Following a historical introduction to khipus and their colonial-era transcriptions, the first case study finds that scribal corrections in a handful of paper khipus may preserve traces of the original “readings” of knotted strings by Andean cord keepers. The second case study zooms out to analyse action verb usage across 10,000 lines of digitized khipu transcriptions, adding new contours to previous narratives of early-colonial economic transformation first proposed by scholars including John Murra and others. Finally, the third case study presents a blueprint for the ambitious task of searching for matches between the surviving transcriptions and individual khipus in existing collections, focusing on a khipu studied by the author in the Museum der Kulturen (Museum of Cultures), Basel, Switzerland. The multi-scale approach is discussed throughout as a tool for ethnohistorians investigating other records of cross-cultural encounter.
Date of Award13 Jun 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorSabine Patricia Hyland (Supervisor)


  • Khipu (quipu)
  • Colonial Andes
  • Transcription
  • Digital humanities

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 6 May 2025

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