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Inka Engineering Symposium 5: Khipu & the Inka Empire

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In Part 5 of Engineering the Inka Empire: A Symposium on Sustainability and Ancient Technologies, Gary Urton presents Engineering a World with Strings Attached: The Place of the Khipu in Building the Inka Empire. The knotted-string recording device known as the khipu (“knot”) was the principal device used for the storage of information by state agents and administrative officials in the Inka Empire of Pre-Columbian South America. This presentation examines the role of khipu record keeping in a variety of contexts relating to the building of state facilities in the empire—from roads to store houses to administrative centers. It is argued that the knotted string hierarchical arrangement of the khipu was important to the Inka not only as an instrument for record keeping but also as a structural paradigm for building the empire.

Gary Urton is the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies and Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. His research focuses on a variety of topics in pre-Columbian and early colonial Andean intellectual history, drawing on materials and methods in archaeology, ethnohistory, and ethnology. He is the author of many articles and editor of several volumes on Andean/Quechua cultures and Inka civilization. His books include: The History of a Myth (1990), The Social Life of Numbers (1997), Inca Myths (1999), and Signs of the Inka Khipu (2003). A MacArthur Fellow (2001–2005), he is Founder/Director of the Harvard Khipu Database Project.

This symposium was webcast on November 14, 2013 from the Rasmuson Theater at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.