The khipu of San Cristóbal de Rapaz

By Renata F Peters

San Cristóbal de Rapaz, a highland Andean peasant community in Peru, is home to one of only two known collections of khipu currently in ritual use. They are kept in a walled precinct containing the village’s old ceremonial building (Kaha Wayi) and disused communal storehouse (Pasa Qullqa). 
Khipu are rare textile artefacts composed of knotted cords of cotton and wool. Previously known to scholars primarily as archaeological examples, their function is not yet completely understood but they were apparently used for bureaucratic recording and communication in the Inca Empire. The khipu in Rapaz are the only khipu kept in its original location, a historic building called the Kaha Wayi. Traditionally, the khipu in Rapaz are cared for by the ‘Comuneros’, local authorities who are in charge of communally-controlled fields nce.
Frank Salomon, the anthropological director of this project, first visited the site in 2002. At that time the community told him of their concerns about the poor physical condition of their khipu. Negotiations to receive authorisation from the community to perform anthropological and archaeological investigation of their khipu began then. Conservation played a central role in these negotiations. The community authorised the study in exchange for in situ conservation of the khipu and complex.
The complex consists of a walled precinct containing structures that were once part of a traditional Andean system to control community resources: a seasonal storage building, the Pasa Qullqa, and the house of the khipu, the Kaha Wayi (Figs 4 & 5).

Bullet pendantFigure 2 - (top) San Cristóbal de Rapaz; (bottom left) the Comuneros during a community meeting on 2nd January 2004, and (bottom right) the Kaha Wayi, before conservation.

Rapaz & the Rapacinos:
Rapaz (Fig 2) has about 900 inhabitants and is located at 4,100 metres above sea level. It takes nearly an entire day to travel the 500 km from Lima to Rapaz.
The main economic activity in Rapaz consists of herding sheep, alpacas, llamas and cattle on the high mountains. Only minimal farming can be done in this region due to the high altitude.
There are very few shops in the village and most of the goods used in daily life have to be brought from outside, most notably, through the truck shops that visit the village weekly. 
The Rapacinos regard themselves as descendants to the Incas. Daily life revolves around the Comuneros, agro-pastoral activities, household chores, and the local church, an important colonial monument with mural paintings from the 18th century.

What is a khipu?
A typical Inca khipu is made of a primary cord (main cord) from which other cords hang. These other cords have different lengths, kinds of spin, colours and knots (see details).
The khipu in Rapaz are quite different from most known khipu. The new data indicates it is a collection of 263 khipu objects (some fragmentary, others composite), rather than one giant khipu. In many cases (e.g. specimen KR 165) a single cord redoubles on itself presenting the superficial appearance of pendant-like branching.
There are not many knots, information is mostly recorded by the use of different colours, spins and torsions of the cords.
Most of the cords are made of camelid wool but some are made of sheep wool, believed to be later additions.  Some are natural wool colours, others are dyed blue and yellow. The diameter of the cords is about three times as thick as the typical Inca khipu and some of them are as long as 15m. Both Z and S spins can be found in almost equal numbers and some of the cords have been plaited.
Many of the cords have dangles, attachments and extensions like bits of wool, leather, pompons and textiles.
Before this study was carried out, the material was reported as one giant khipu. We now believe this is a collection of 263 khipu objects (some fragmentary, others composite). In many cases (e.g. specimen KR 165) a single cord redoubles on itself presenting the superficial appearance of pendant-like branching.
Another unique characteristic of these khipu is the presence of 10 figurines. They are believed to represent the ritualistic context of the khipu, like Figurine 2 that is carrying a wallki (a bag for coca leaves) underneath his poncho.

KhipusFigure 3 - (top left) Drawing of specimen KR 165. The cord redoubles on itself presenting the superficial appearance of pendant-like branching; (top right) detail of figurines in the khipu from Rapaz, and (bottom) The Comuneros during a ceremony in the Kaha Wayi.
The rituals – La busqueda del tiempo:
A number of rituals happen inside the Kaha Wayi. Their most important aspect is ‘la busqueda del tiempo’ which could be translated to ‘the search for weather’, when the mountains are invoked to bring rain.
Participants bring offerings like oils, raywanes (crop offerings), coca leaves, kunuk incense, tobacco, liqueurs, flowers, guinea pigs, etc. The main ritual is the Raywan Entrego, which happens on the second night of January. At this time, the members of the committee that oversees the use of the pastures around Rapaz, are rotated.
The khipu are not handled, they are only invoked. Their presence is considered beneficial to the rituals themselves and to the success of the political changeover.

Brief description of the complex and khipu before the project:
Both Kaha Wayi and Qullca have thick stone walls, and the Kaha Wayi has no windows. There were holes in the walls, ceiling and roof. Stones and mortar was missing in many areas, allowing dust, water and small animals in. The interior walls were rough and dusty.  Some areas were darker, probably due to the use of candles, tobacco, and incense in ceremonies.
There were signs of mould and insect activities in some areas.
The most obvious problem on the khipu themselves was abrasion of the fibers where the khipu were hung over a stick. This is where more breaks and losses could be noticed. Earlier repairs could be found there and in several other areas as well. The cords were covered with a thick layer of dust that dulled the colours of the fibres and figurines. They were also darkened.
There were signs of old insect activity in some cords but restricted to the cords made of sheep wool.

Conserving the khipuFigure 4 - (top) Conservation work carried out by Don Victor Gallardo, vice-president of the Comuneros, and (bottom) Don Victor Gallardo and Frank Salomon after the khipu were reinstalled in the Kaha Wayi.
Decision making process:
Conservation strategy was developed jointly with the Rapacinos and around cultural frames that make competing demands of the Rapaz legacy:
1. Most of the Rapacinos are committed to protecting traditional ritual use of the patrimony (which promotes self-knowledge and cultural continuity).
2. Search for a public identity at regional and national levels that would attract tourists.
3. Concern for the overall condition of the material fabric of the khipu and their complex.
In order to respond to these challenges a series of consultations was organised. Rosa and Rosalía Choque González, conservators from southern Peru,  promoted the first of such events in June 2005. This was when  it was decided that the khipu should be repaired in a similar fashion to the earlier repairs found in our first examination. With the help of local weavers Rosa and Rosalía prepared camelid wool in all natural colours available in Rapaz.
In the following consultation sessions it was decided that conservation work should happen under the supervision of the vice-president of the Comuneros, Don Victor Gallardo. And also that the khipu should be cleaned and temporarily re-housed in a purpose-built conservation lab. Meanwhile the Kaha Wayi would receive attention from other members of the team. 
The Comuneros also required that the khipu be placed in a display-case so to protect them from smoke, soot, insects and vandalism.
A collaborative effort of professionals from several allied disciplines, the project was carried out in close collaboration with the community who, as owners and users, contributed to the understanding of the material and its use, and exercised full participation in the decision-making processes. A representative of the Comuneros was present during all practical work and group meetings were held periodically.
The biggest challenge was to devise a way to conserve these objects and buildings without disturbing their function in the community as tangible elements of self-knowledge and cultural continuity. Hence the importance of the active participation of community representatives.
Towards the end of the project, two local weavers, Mrs Lourdes Falcón and Mrs Kelly Flores, and Mr Víctor Gallardo volunteered to be trained on the basics of preventive conservation. They are now in charge of the complex.  The handover of responsibilities took place in time for the Raywan Entrego on the 2nd January 2006. Project members remain in contact with the community.

Project participants: Frank Salomon, Ethnographic Director, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA
Victor Falcon Huayta, Archaeological Director, National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History, Peru
Renata Peters, Head Conservator, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, UK
Rosa Choque Gonzales, Conservator, Centro Mallqui, Peru
Rosalia Choque Gonzales, Conservator, Centro Mallqui, Peru
Carrie Brezine, Analysis of the cord structures, Harvard University, USA
Gino de las Casas, Architect, Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Peru
Nelly Faustino, Mount and display-case maker, Peru

Sponsors: Centro Mallqui, Peru
Comision Fulbright-Hayes del Peru
Comunidad Campesina de San Cristobal de Rapaz
Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Peru
National Science Foundation, USA
Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA

Photo  credits: All photos by Carrie Brezine, Renata Peters and Frank Salomon. Drawing by Renata Peters.

Acknowledgements: Our utmost thanks and respect to the people at San Cristóbal de Rapaz.

To know more about this project, read: 

And also on the New York Times on 16 Aug 2010 

For more information on this project please contact Renata F Peters

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