This essay reviews two recent contributions to the history of indigenous writing systems in Mesoamerica and the Andes: Gary Urton’s Inka History in Knots and Mary Miller and Barbara Mundy’s Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City.

Mary E. Miller and Barbara E. Mundy, eds. Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City: Land, Writing, and Native Rule, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. xv þ 216. ISBN 9780300180718. $75. hardcover.

Gary Urton. Inka History in Knots: Reading Khipus as Primary Sources. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017. Pp. 320 ISBN 1477311998. $27.95. paperback.

Indigenous societies in the Andes and Mesoamerica developed rich scriptural traditions that employed very different techniques, procedures, conventions, and logics. In the Andes, the Inka empire kept its records using a notation system of knotted strings called khipus. In contrast, the Nahuas of the Valley of Mexico employed a system based on glyphs drawn by painters on vegetable paper and animal skins. Both scripts were used to document practical matters, such as distributing land and labor, but also to record narratives about personal lives, history, and the cosmos. Although the Inkas and the Aztecs used these scripts to keep imperial records, both writing systems predated their empires and built on millenary traditions.

Despite the longevity and pliability of these writing systems, historians and anthropologists have grappled to understand these forms of inscription that defy the very definition of writing, which is so specifically circumscribed to alphabets and phonetic scripture. Over two decades ago, art historian Elizabeth Hill Boone reminded us that this speech-centered notion of writing dismisses other forms of literacy as either incomplete or more archaic forms of communication. Boone argued that these registers were not limited or primitive but rather semasiographic systems that recorded meaning instead of speech and were closer indigenous epistemologies than alphabetic scripts.1 In this sense, to understand indigenous scripts we must expand our notion of literacy rather than assuming alphabetic writing as the norm. The works reviewed here contribute to the comprehension of these indigenous forms of writing. They analyze Andean and Mesoamerican sources as scripts, even if not alphabetic in nature. This means they place our common assumptions about writing and reading in parenthesis to examine the mental, symbolic, and social processes of inscription that sustained those semasiographic writing systems.

In his book Inka History in Knots: Reading Khipus as Primary Sources, Harvard anthropologist Gary Urton attempts to write the first history of the Inkas using their own scripts. These scripts are called khipus: a system of cords that consists of one primary cord with pendant cords attached to it. The pendant cords could in turn have subsidiary cords attached to them, and even the subsidiary cords could have other cords attached to them. Some khipus could have as many as six levels of subsidiaries. Each of the cords could have different colors and include a diversity of knot types at different lengths that conveyed magnitudes and different kinds of information. The mathemathical operations used to inscribe in or decipher information from khipus included “addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division; division into unequal fractional parts and into proportional parts; and multiplication of integers by fractions” (47). In Inka History in Knots, Urton argues that khipus present a style of history akin to that of the French school of the Annales—one centered in the social structures of the Inkas instead of the great-man traditional Western histories. In his words, “whereas alphabetic writing was about narratives and, by extension, linear histories, khipu recording was primarily about ‘structures.’” (20). According to his analysis, khipus encoded political, economic, social, and ritual information through a decimal partition system that reproduced the structures of society.

The book is the product of Urton’s 25-year work with khipus and his painstaking effort inventorying 923 khipus around the world. A testament to this prolonged work, the volume contains 13 essays that analyze different aspects of khipu studies—some of which have been published in different media. Thus, rather than a unitary narrative about khipus, the case studies showcase the remarkable diversity and variety of khipus and the types of information they recorded.

The thirteen chapters are organized in five parts. Part I consists of two chapters that give a background to the analysis of Inka khipus (chap. 1) and the Inka empire (chap. 2). Part II, the largest section of the book, includes five chapters analyzing specific collections of khipus: a census of tributary heads of households in the Southern Coast of Peru, the khipus of a Chachapoyan lord named Guaman, and khipus with decorative elements, among others. Part III analyzes the Inka accounting practices through khipus, focusing on the Ceque system, a khipu archive, and the recording of censuses and tributary data. Part IV examines colonial khipus, including a detailed study of a Colonial Revisit to the Santa Valley dating of 1670 that might just be the first match between a khipu and a written transcription (chap. 12). Finally, Part V sums up the author’s main claim that khipus may be read as sources for an Annales-style history of the Inkas.

Urton anchors his contention that khipus reveal structures rather than European-style histories in Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre’s total histories, rather than in anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s problematic distinction between cold and hot societies—a distinction that erects a barrier between some societies that express their past through myths and structures and others that do so through history. In this sense, the reader should be wary not to read Urton’s argument in terms of anthropological structuralism. In some cases, though, the way the central questions of the book are posed do seem to reproduce ideas that khipukamayuqs (the “cordkeepers,” to employ Frank Salomon’s term) had special “mental capacities” or thought differently than scribes using different media. Early in the book, for instance, Urton explains he “will attempt to gauge what we can say about displaying, reading, and manipulating such communication units and structures over the long term and their effects on the emergence of complexity in Inka administrative practices, as well as their reflection of the mental capacities of the khipukamayuqs” (13), and later asks: “Does reading an alphabetic script, such as Spanish, make one smarter and more mentally acute and agile than would ‘reading’ the signs of a three-dimensional, semasiographic system of signs, such as the khipus? Apparently Cobo and many of his contemporaries thought so. This book challenges that view.” (17). Even if Urton aims to dismiss interpretations of khipukamayuqs as somehow less able than alphabetic writers, I find such questions troublesome since they transfer the object of study from the writing systems themselves to a judgment of the mental capacities of those who kept them.

In essence, Inka History in Knots introduces the reader to the extraordinary variety and complexity of khipus, the copious variables that must be considered for their analysis, and the meticulous work Urton has put into the study of the Inka corded scripts. Although the introductory chapters render the book as a whole legible to a wider audience, the book will probably be most useful to researchers of khipus and Inka history, due to its close analysis of khipus.

If Urton went to great lengths to bring together large collections of khipus, Mary E. Miller and Barbara E. Mundy’s edited volume Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City: Land, Writing, and Native Rule brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to analyze a single object: a map of sixteenth-century Mexico City held by the Beinecke Library in Yale University. This item, commonly known as Codex Reese or Beinecke Map, is a six by three foot painting, drawn in six colors on amate or fig-bark paper, of 121 agricultural fields of Mexico City around 1565, a moment when the city was undergoing deep transformations as it became an appendage of the Spanish empire. This remarkable map thus offers a window to gage problems relating to water management, the environment, and indigenous landholding in the century that witnessed the downfall of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and the emergence of Mexico City. This intermediate space of Mexico Tenochtitlan is both the landscape depicted in the map and the slippery and rapidly-changing context in which it was produced.

To shed light on the complexity of this particular item, the book includes nine chapters written by an interdisciplinary group of art historians, historians, anthropologists, among others, along with an Introduction and an Afterword that set a collective agenda. Each chapter delves into specific aspects of the map.

In chapter 1, Dennis Carr offers a comprehensive physical and iconographic examination of the map, worth summarizing rapidly. The painting consists of a rectangular grid comprising 121 plots of land divided among 143 landholders, each one depicted by a head and a name glyph, and accompanied by a plant (tule or maize). The grid is surrounded by a road and five trees in the left edge of the map, and water canals in the top, right and bottom. In the upper side, the map includes a Catholic church and a row of seven indigenous-style houses. To the left of the row of trees the map includes a list of five native governors of Mexico Tenochtitlan—whom Carr identifies as don Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin (1538-41), don Diego de San Francisco Tehuetzquititzin (1541-54), don Esteban de Guzmán (1554-57), don Cristóbal de Guzmán Cecetzin (1557-62), and don Luis de Santa María Cipactzin (1563-65)—and the second viceroy of New Spain, don Luis de Velasco I (1511-64).

Furthermore, Carr shows that the map was a living document that was expanded, drawn, and redrawn according to changing events and necessities. Carr distinguishes six distinct artist hands that intervened in the painting, “identified through individual conventions of drawing the human form” (18). In particular, the ruler list was amended to present a narrative of the successive rulers of Mexico City.

In chapter 2, Barbara Mundy locates the map within the rich traditions of mapping and manuscript production of sixteenth-century Mexico. The chapter introduces the long writing traditions of the valley of Mexico and the conventions for land administration and identifying lands and gender, and naming people. In chapter 3, María Castañeda de la Paz analyzes the Beinecke Map alongside a contemporary map (the Plano Parcial de la Ciudad de México) to argue that the map makes colonial land claims based on pre-Hispanic land rights.

Diana Magaloni Kerpel takes the reader through modern scientific analysis of the inks, pigments, and materials employed in the making of the map in chapter 4, arguing that “the tlacuiloque [or painters] were using materials to interact with the images, and so to posit meanings about the nature of the world beyond what the eye can see” (76). She shows how the artists used a range of pigments in the depiction of water, plants, and humans to capture their distinct qualities. Yet, Magaloni argues that the successive alterations of the map show an “increasing impoverishment of the material world” of the painters caused by the Spanish conquest, in which certain pigments were too expensive or simply not available to them (88). In chapter 7, Barbara Mundy expands on this critical juncture, showing that the indigenous ruling line seen on the map was undergoing a crisis of authority associated with epidemics and the implantation of institutions of the Spanish empire, such as the encomienda, which set the stage for political disorder in the 1560s. In this context, Mundy argues that the map was a visual claim advocating for the ability of native government to adjudicate lands, which was threatened by Spanish demands, such as the reorganization of tribute of 1564.

Richard Newman and Michele Derrick deepen the technical analysis of the map in chapter 5, and in chapter 6, Pablo Escalante Gonzalbo offers a possible location for the map in the eastern edge of Mexico City, around the chapel of San Jerónimo in the barrio of Atilixco, through a careful study of the topography of the map. Gordon Whitaker, in chapter 8, deciphers the pictographic script of the map, offering a useful guide to Nahuatl hieroglyphic writing. Finally, Dennis Carr charts, in chapter 9, the trajectories that took the map from Mexico City to New Haven through the hands of collectors and book dealers such as Wilson Wilberforce Blake, Charles F. Gunther, and William Reese.

By the end of the book the reader is marveled by an incredible diversity of approaches that not only render the map comprehensible but open the door to sixteenth-century indigenous traditions of painting and manuscript production, naming practices, landholding, and political authority. The volume as a whole is a testament to the complexity and richness of sixteenth-century Mesoamerican manuscripts and writing practices. The chapters complement each other perfectly, sometimes reaching different conclusions, but always alluding to each other’s findings and interpretations. The volume is also beautifully illustrated and the chapters are accessible to a wide audience.

Khipukamayuqs and tlacuilos inscribed meanings in different media using diverse conventions. There are few resemblances between the knotted cords of the Inkas and the painted registers of Mexico Tenochtitlan. The nature of their writing differed greatly. Yet in both cases their inscriptions were not phonetic, and they conveyed deep meanings about indigenous societies, their forms of organization, and their history. Their inscriptions were possible due to larger systems of meaning that rendered their iterations comprehensible. Inka History in Knots and Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City offer two approaches to these alternative literacies. They introduce the readers to the complexity of indigenous writing systems in pre-Hispanic times and during the sixteenth century. They show these were live writing systems that recorded dramatic social change, especially during the sixteenth century. Urton notes that when Pizarro and his men took firewood, llamas, maize, or maize beer from indigenous communities, “the record keepers at the storehouse ‘untied some of the knots which they had in the deposits section [of the khipu], and they [re-]tied them in another section [of the khipu]’” (110). Likewise, the tlacuilos of Mexico Tenochtitlan had to erase, paste over, and redraw significant parts of the map in the rapidly-changing, cataclysmic sixteenth century. Both forms of writing documented the ways in which indigenous peoples gave sense to their worlds in changing contexts, and the exposition and analysis of how indigenous people recorded social transformations in their own media is, perhaps, one of the main virtues of the books reviewed here.

Still, it should be noted that our knowledge of Mesoamerican writing systems is far more developed than their Andean counterparts and, for this reason, Mesoamerican codices have been a part of a historiographical renewal in a way that khipus have not. This makes studies like Urton’s all the more important in that they set the stage for future efforts.

To close, it should be noted that both books are accompanied by wonderful web resources. The extraordinary collection of khipus Urton has collected is available online ( and the Beinecke Map can be consulted in high resolution (

Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter Mignolo, Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).