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Glossary of Terminology
of the Shamanic & Ceremonial Traditions
of the Inca Medicine Lineage

as Practiced in the United States

CAUTION: The inclusion of herbs, symptomatology and treatments for disease within this glossary
is not meant for diagnosis of, nor prescription for treatment of, any medical condition.
This information is included for anthropological and historical study only.



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    Appendix C

    The Quipu


    by Viviano Domenici and Davide Domenici

    [I strongly recommend that you read this article in conjunction with the bio of Blas Valera in Appendix M, The Chroniclers. To do so will give you a fuller historical understanding. -- Patt]

    An Inka accounting system that used knotted strings called quipus to record numerical data has long been known to scholars. The complexity and humber of knots indicated the contents of warehouses, the number of taxpayers in a given province, and census figures. Were quipus also used to record calendars, astronomical observations, accounts of battles and dynastic successions, and literature? If so, all knowledge of such use has been lost -- or has it?

    At a conference of Andean scholars this past June, Laura Laurencich Minelli, a professor of Precolumbian studies at the University of Bologna, described what she believes to be a seventeenth-century Jesuit manuscript that contains detailed information on literary quipus. According to the document:

    Quechua … is a language similar to music and has several keys: a language for everyone; a holy language, [which] was handed [down] only by knots; [and] another language [that] was handed [down] by means of woven textiles and by pictures on monuments and in jewels and small objects. I will tell you … about the quipu, which is a complicated device composed of colored knots…. There is a general quipu used by everyone for numbering and daily communication and another quipu for keeping all religious and caste secrets, known only to the Kings, the Virgins of the Sun, the Priests, and the Philosophers. [Many of] these latter quipus, which could easily be read by [Father Blas] Valera, were destroyed by the Spaniards. The Inka authorities collected the most significant of them, and locked them up in arks of unripe gold*… in order to avoid their falling into the hands of the Catholic priests. A monolith was fastened to the arks as ballast, and they were plunged into Lake Titicaca and hidden in the Orcos Valley.

    Surfacing at a time when the decipherment of these string documents is at a standstill, the manuscript, if authentic, could be a Rosetta Stone for Andean scholarship.

    Found in the family papers of Neopolitan historian Clara Miccenelli, the manuscript consists of nine folios measuring eight by 11 inches with Spanish, Latin, and ciphered Italian texts. Included in the document are three half-pages of drawings signed “Blas Valera” and an envelope containing a wool quipu fragment. The manuscript, folded in eights, had been found in a chestnut-colored cover bearing the title Historia et Rudimenta Linguae Piruanorum, or History and Rudiments of the Language of the Peruvians.

    Miccinelli believes the text was written by two Italian Jesuit missionaries, Joan Antonio Cumis and Joan Anello Oliva, between 1610 and 1638, and that the three half-folios were written by Valera, a mestizo Jesuit, sometime before 1618. An inscription and the manuscript's cover were apparently added in the mid-eighteenth century by another Jesuit, Pedro de Illanes. A short dedication on the last page bears the name of an Italian duke, Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta, who is said to have given the manuscript as a wedding gift to a fellow army officer in 1927.

    The cover of the manuscript [from the article].

    In addition to details about reading literary quipus, the document discusses events and people associated with the Spanish conquest of Peru. It includes the incredible claims that Francisco Pizarro conquered the region after poisoning Inka generals with arsenic-tainted wine and that the chronicler Guamán Poma de Ayala, author of one of the most important works on Inka Peru, the Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno (New chronicle and Good Government), merely lent his name to a work actually written by Valera. Of particular interest is the text's abundant biographical information on Valera, about whom little is known and whose writings are known only from the works of others.

    A sixteenth-century illuminated manuscript depicts a

    quipu-reader, sitting, and an official. [from the article]

    The following is a synopsis of the manuscript's contents and purported history:

    Peru, 1610 (?): Father Joan Antonio Cumis begins drafting the document, writing a few pages in Latin. He tells of the censorship to which Valera was subjected by the Jesuits and of the destruction of nearly all of his writings, many of which were critical of Jesuit policies in Peru. According to Cumis some of these were saved and later given to a noble of Inka descent by Valera.

    I am convinced that the news that I am about to put down on record will remain a memorable moment for the Peruvian people, news that was reported to me by the former curaca Mayachac Azuay upon his arrival at Cuzco, when the conquistadores were executing [the Inka leader] Tupac Amaru [in 1572]. This curaca [a member of the Inka nobility who oversaw the affairs of his lineage group] provided me with a  lot of interesting information particularly about the half-breed Father Blas Valera, whom he had known personally. This old and noble curaca knew Blas Valera, who had been a defender and spiritual guide of his people, but the friars contested him because he took sides against the Spaniards who tortured the native Quechua in order to obtain their gold…. Father Valera did not accept those among the priests who had the name of Christ in their mouths but not in their hearts….

    An explanation of the Quechua language follows, including a grammar and two Inka prayers. The most complete description of the literary quipu is in this part of the text:

    I visited … archives for those quipus that tell the true story of the Inka people and that are hidden from commoners. These quipus differ from those used for calculations as they have elaborate symbols … which hang down from the main string…. These royal quipus do not exist any more; they were burned by the Spaniards out of ignorance, and by many priests….

    The scarceness of the words and the possibility of changing the same term using particles and suffixes to obtain different meanings allow them to realize a spelling book with neither paper, nor ink, nor pens…. [The] curaca emphasized that this quipu is based by its nature on the scarceness of words, and its composition key and its reading key lie in its syllabic division…. [The] curaca explained, “If you divide the word Pachacamac [the Inka deity of earth and time] into syllables Pa-cha-ca-mac, you have four syllables. If you … want to indicate the word ‘time,' pacha in Quechua, it will be necessary to make two symbols [in the quipu] representing Pachacamac -- one of them with a little knot to indicate the first syllable, the other with two knots to indicate the second syllable” … [The curaca] listed the main key words with an explanation of how to realize them in quipus.

    Cumis supplies a brief list of word keys and their quipu equivalents. His text concludes with the initials JAC and an illegible date, possibly 1610.

    Peru, 1637-1638: Joan Anello Oliva comes into possession of the documents, adding on July 30, 1637, and on May 7, 1638, texts in numerically ciphered Italian. By writing in code, says Oliva, he was free to express his thoughts on the conquest and the work of the missionaries in Peru. On matters of the quipu, Oliva tells us that he was aided by an Indian, a quipucamayoc or quipu-reader, named Chahuarurac.

    Oliva gives definitions for symbols known as tocapu that appear in many Inka weavings. There is also a strange diagram of black and white lines and balls, which Oliva labels the “Quipu of Acatanga.” Beside it are detailed instructions for reading it:

    Quipucamayoc Chahuarurac reconstructed on paper, with the skill of his colonized hands, the … quipu that I discovered incomplete in Acatanga's huaca [shrine] in [Bolivia in] 1627. He himself specified that this quipu was woven by some huacacamayoc [shrine keeper] using a little loom in the years before Pizarro's arrival. Because of its roughness and for being a relic of its people, it was very difficult to find a quipu like this containing Sumac —usta [sic] song. When I saw Chahuarurac's uncertain drawings, I remembered others that Valera … had given me.

    According to Oliva, stanzas from the Inka poem Sumac —usta (Beautiful Princess) were recorded both on a wool quipu fragment he found in Bolivia and in the drawings given him by Valera, both of which he enclosed in the manuscript.


    Drawings of a literary quipu signed “Blas Valera” purport to show how the Inka poem Beautiful Princess [Sumac —usta] was written with woven symbols and knotted string. According to the Naples manuscript, each symbol represents a word key, the number of knots below it indicating which syllable of the word key was to be enunciated. A quipu fragment, below, was enclosed in the manuscript and is said to contain lines from the Inka poem. TKI

    Much of Oliva's text is devoted to biographical information about Valera, who was the son of an Inka woman and Alonso Valera, Pizarro's captain. Oliva describes in great detail Valera's early life; his falling-out with the head of the Jesuit order, General Aquaviva, over the conduct of missionaries in  Peru; and his reassignment to Spain where he was thought to have died around 1596.

    According to Oliva, however, Valera did not die at that time:

    I met him in the spring of 1611 in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, when, according to the Jesuits, he should have been officially dead. In the mission's courtyard were assembled the Indians to whom I was devoting all of my strength. Thereupon my eyes were captured by the half-breed with white hair that I considered a new member of the group. I will tell immediately that the old man [greeted] me with our saying “For the greatest Glory of God” [in Latin]. The Indians to whom I was teaching the doctrine had told him about my predilection toward them, and that was how Father Valera revealed himself to me. The one who, according to the Society [of Jesus], had already been freed of the distress of the present time stood in front of me, ready to confide his whole life.

    Oliva tells us that, in Spain, Valera had written a history of the Inkas and of the conquest but could not publish it under his own name, fearing reprisals by the Jesuits. He gave the manuscript to the chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, who included only portions of the work in his celebrated Royal Commentaries (1609).

    According to Oliva, in 1598, Valera returned secretly to Cuzco, where he went into hiding with the help of a fellow friar, Gonçalo Ruiz. Valera later met Oliva, and the three Jesuits undertook the publication of Valera's book on the Inka. Since Valera was believed dead by the Jesuits and neither Ruiz nor Oliva could expose themselves as traitors, the trio sought someone who would not be censured by the Jesuits and would willingly lend his name to the Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno. According to Oliva, the Indian Guamán Poma de Ayala was selected “for his faults of arrogance and vainglory and because he boasted titles of nobility.”

    Ruiz was entrusted with recopying Valera's text and drawings. Valera returned to Spain, where he died in 1619. Oliva says that he was buried in the town of Alcalá de Henares near Madrid, along with a quipu on which he had knotted “the story of the Inkas.”

    Oliva tells us that Valera hid a message in a drawing of an abacus, which appears on folio 360 of the work, as proof that he had authored the Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno. The abacus, writes Oliva, is actually an illustration of a literary quipu bearing the opening stanza of Beautiful Princess. He also states that Valera placed his initials above the coat of arms of Castilla y Leon on folio 511.

    In another section of the manuscript Oliva informs us that Pizarro conquered the Inka by poisoning their military leaders:

    Due to Father Yepes' knowledge of herbs and stills, [Pizarro] astutely and brutishly made the Peruvian [generals] drunk with a wine poisoned with arsenic. They writhed in their entrails with atrocious spasms and livid faces, then tumbled down. After this the Spaniards made the others believe that there were epidemics, which, in spite of the fact that they existed, could certainly not be compared to Pizarro's adulterated and cursed wine. Because of a quarrel with Father Yepes, Pizarro stabbed him in treachery and threw him down from a rock. This was reported and sworn to me by [Father] Ciprianus de Medina of the Dominican order.

    At the end of his two ciphered texts, Oliva signed the letters JAO.

    Chile, 1737: An Indian on his deathbed entrusts the manuscript and wool quipu to the Jesuit Pedro de Illanes, who adds a note in Spanish and a cover bearing the title Historia et Rudimenta Linguae Piruanorum. His inscriptions reads:

    The Indian Juan Tacquic Menendez de Sodar gave me this manuscript on his deathbed in the sacrarium of S. Francisco Saverio of the Society of Jesus in Concepción, Chile. Juan Tacquic, after having confessed all of his sins, handed me a bag containing a figure of the Holy Rosary, some quipu fragments, and this manuscript. After a number of readings, I am inclined to suppose, by use of Latin and the particular style, that it is written by a priest; the initials JAC let me presume Jaycint or Jacob to be the name. [Pedro de Illanes confused JAC and JAO, believing that they were one and the same.] Whoever he may be, he certainly has written a truly dramatic page of history; it is without a doubt a minor part that remains from the ancient Jerusalem where the mighty and the ravagers, that is the conquistadores, left their traces, God have mercy on them.

    Naples, 1744: Pedro de Illanes sells the manuscript and enclosed quipu to Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of San Severo. A record of this transaction is preserved in the city archives. In 1750 the prince publishes a book, Lettera Apologetica, in which he explains to a mysterious Duchess S-- what he learned from the quipu, reproducing “Valera's” drawings with small modifications.

    On this page, one of the manuscript's authors explains how

    quipu word keys are woven and read. TKI

    Naples, 1927: Duke Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta, a member of Italy's royal family, gives the document and the quipu to fellow army officer Riccardo Cera, writing a dedication to him on the last page of the manuscript.

    Rome, 1951: The Jesuit Carlo Miccinelli, a relative of Riccardo Cera, examines the manuscript and shows the quipu to Lidio Cipriani, former director of Florence's anthropological museum, and to Paul Rivet, one of the founders of the Museum of Man in Paris, both of whom express interest in acquiring it. The family does not sell.

    Naples, 1985: Clara Miccinelli, Carlo Miccinelli's cousin, is working in the family archive when she comes across the manuscript and the quipu fragment. After four years of research with fellow historian Carlo Animato, Miccinelli publishes her findings in a small volume, Quipu: The Talking Knots of the Mysterious Inka (1989), which receives little attention from the academic community.

    Bologna, 1990: University of Bologna professor Laura Laurencich Minelli, intrigued by Miccinelli's book, contacts her and begins studying the document.

    Clearly most of the historical information contained in the manuscript is in conflict without current understanding of the Spanish Conquest of Peru, which is based on the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega, the Spanish Jesuit Bernabé Cobo, Guamán Poma de Ayala, and numerous official communications between Spain and its New World colony. Few scholars have had access to the Naples document, and what was presented by Laurencich Minelli has met with mixed reactions as academics cautiously evaluate the manuscript's authenticity and the reliability of its contents.

    According to Laurencich Minelli's preliminary examination, signatures on the Naples manuscript appear to match those on authentic documents by the same authors. Moreover, the watermarks on some of the sheets are similar to late sixteenth-century European watermarks, and the substance of the pigments used in the drawings attributed to Valera appears to be South American. “The ink binder in the main text of the manuscript itself has crystallized over the years and in some places has perforated the paper, which is in need of conservation,” says Laurencich Minelli. “Our biochemical laboratory at the University of Bologna would like to run a battery of nondestructive, noninvasive tests on the document. We are hoping that Clara Miccinelli will release the manuscript for analysis.”

    The configuration of dots in a schematic drawing of a “literary quipu,” left, said to record the poem Beautiful Princess, matches that of an abacus in the depiction of an “accountant and treasurer” on folio 360, below, of the well-known Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno by the Indian writer Guamán Poma de Ayala. One of the authors of the Naples document claims that the Jesuit Blas Valera actually wrote the chronicle and hid stanzas of the poem in the abacus drawing to prove his authorship. TKI

    A quipucamayoq, drawn by Felipe Guaman
    Poma de Ayala. The color was added much
    later by an unknown artist.

    An enlarged view of the knot configuration chart from the Poma drawing above.

    The abacus drawing detail from

    manuscript page above for

    comparison with the enlargement

    from the Poma drawing.

    According to Bruce Mannheim, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Michigan, “the vocabulary lists [of word keys and definitions] in the Naples manuscript are of a type appended to several colonial writings, most notably the Doctrina Cristiana y Catecismo para Instrucción de los Indios…, an ecclesiastical document dating to 1584. From its sound, scribal practice, and grammatical forms, however, the Quechua itself is likely of northern, probably Ecuadorian, origin and resembles that used by Jesuits in the mid- to late seventeenth century -- no earlier. So, at the very best, the three folios attributed to Valera were filtered through later hands, and at worst they were inventions.”

    Colgate University's Gary Urton, a specialist in quipus, is skeptical about the manuscript's authenticity. He cites its extravagant claims about Pizarro and Valera and wonders why this method of quipu decipherment has not surfaced in other chronicles. “For me the most disturbing aspect of the document is its claim that Guamán Poma de Ayala is not the true author of the Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno. It's like saying that Michelangelo didn't paint the Sistine Chapel after all.” Like Urton, Juan Ossio of Lima's Catholic University has serious doubts about the manuscript's claims regarding the authorship of the Nueva Corónica, noting that the chronicle's author was intimately knowledgeable about the families, customs, and administrative affairs of the Ayacucho region of southern Peru. It is unlikely, he argues, that Blas Valera, who was born some 400 miles to the north, in Chachapoyos would have had such knowledge of the Ayacucho area or would have written a work focusing on a region other than his own. “If the manuscript is real, we would need to know why Oliva invented all of this.”

    John H. Rowe, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, has little doubt about the manuscript's authenticity, but he, too, questions the reliability of its contents. “We must examine the document in the context in which it was produced,” says Rowe, noting that when it was drafted there was much conflict within the Jesuit order over the admission of mestizo clergy. “That Valera came under harsh scrutiny is not surprising, and it is easy to understand why a work bearing his name would not be accepted. To complicate matters further, we know from other writings [letters and political tracts] that Valera and Oliva circulated, that both played with the truth to serve their political goals. This makes it difficult to believe that they were telling the truth when the Naples manuscript was drafted. Nonetheless we should determine if there are tidbits of data that fit with what we know.”

    Catherine Julien, a professor of sixteenth-century New World archaeology and history at the University of Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, agrees with Rowe about both the manuscript's authenticity and the spurious nature of some of its contents. “We must look at the document for what it does have to offer,” she says, “such as the biographical information on [the early life of] Father Blas Valera, a man about whom little has been known.”

    If much of the historical content is suspect, what about the document's information about quipus? “If, in fact, it does offer a method for reading the quipus, this would represent a tremendous advance in the study of Andean societies,” says Urton. “Some years ago, Yale University's Michael Coe gave me photocopies of a book titled Writing and Hieroglyphics of Different Ancient and Modern People, written by French antiquarian Léon de Rosny and published in Paris in 1870. In this volume was a set of drawings labeled ‘symbols used in the quipu writing system.' When I saw that the Valera drawings had been published by Raimondo di Sangro in his Lettera Apologetica of 1750, I thought, “This must be the source of de Rosny's material.' The only evidence that I have ever come across that bears any resemblance to either the signs in the Naples manuscript or those in de Rosny's book was in the quipu collection of the American Museum of Natural History. The second largest collection in the world, it contains a number of so-called Middle Horizon quipus, which are thought to be earlier than those of the Inka. These vaguely resemble those described in the Naples document, but how the manuscript's system of decipherment might apply to these quipus remains to be seen.” Rowe suggests that scholars should try the method described in the document and not dismiss it the way they did di Sangro's work of 1750.

    A Spanish text records the Jesuit Pedro de Illanes' receipt
    of the manuscript from a dying Indian in 1737.

    Urton is hesitant to do so until the manuscript's authenticity is firmly established. “What I find particularly troubling about the manuscript,” he says, “is that it is written in a way that is almost modern in its awareness of its own importance. I've done a lot of work with Peruvian documents, and they are for the most part boring and uninformative. One reads pages and pages just to glean one item of interest. The Naples document, on the other hand, sort of wraps up the whole of Peruvian history in a dozen pages or so. It tells us about the true authorship of the most important document we have from late sixteenth- to early seventeenth-century Peru and describes in a concise, clear form the manner of quipu writing. It just seems to be a highly remarkable and therefore suspicious document in  its completeness and its insistence on its own authenticity.

    “But if we say that the document is a fraud,” says Urton, “we are left wondering where di Sangro and de Rosny came up with the images in their books. If it is authentic, the document would explain that for us. We need to have the results of the tests that Laura Laurencich Minelli wants to run on the document, tests analyzing the inks, paints, and paper that were used. We also need a group of scholars well versed in the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish and Italian documents from the New World to look very closely at the language to give us some assurance that it is of the period that it purports to be. Until then I think we simply have to withhold judgement. If we admit into the literature a document that was written in recent decades, we risk diverting ourselves from the serious study of Inka writing.”


    Viviano Domenici is science editor of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera. Davide Domenici is a freelance science writer living in Bologna.

    From Archaeology, Volume 49 Number 6, November/December 1996
    Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright†© 1996 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


    * Platinum, a metal not valued by the Spanish back in that day. The Spanish considered it a nuisance and threw it into a river to ripen into gold. They called it platina, or little silver. Credit: The Milwaukee Journal, Jan. 31, 1964

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