Cultural Enrichment of the Indigenous Peoples of Peru

Research Policy Office
Thursday 20 April 2017
Dr Hyland peering at the alphabetic/khipu text (known as a khipu board)

Dr Sabine Hyland‘s fieldwork in the Andes has led to the first decipherment of a structural element on khipus (the ancient Andean writing system using knotted cords) in almost 100 years!

A khipu is a series of coloured, knotted strings made out of various animal fur and fabric. In the past, scholars claimed that khipus were not an example of writing and that they were merely used as memory aides which recorded only numbers.

Funded by National Geographic, Dr. Hyland journeyed to a remote Andean village to study a unique hybrid alphabetic/khipu text. Her fieldwork has provided proof to an alternative theory that khipus conveyed more complex meaning and could be linked to a form of writing.

Dr Hyland’s research has led to various outcomes including a book, The Chankas and the Priest (Penn State Press 2016), the first historical study of the Chankas ever written. In the words of the Director of Tourism and Culture for this region of Peru, her “book is the first publication which addresses Chanka history using primary source material. As a result, for the first time we can see our ancestors humanised – no longer ‘enemies of the Inka’ or ‘bellicose warriors’. Dr Hyland’s research and publications give us a fuller sense of who we are as a people, and of the importance of valorizing, preserving, and celebrating the Peruvian cultural heritage.

In the process, Dr Hyland has not only helped the people of Peru learn about anthropology and the importance of cultural patrimony but has trained and inspired many Peruvian students to have successful careers in tourism, history, archaeology, and related fields… we are also using her data to design exhibits for a new museum that is opening in Andahuaylas City this year.”

Her research on the ancient khipus has been featured in governmental publications for school children, distributed into every school and library of the Cusco region (pop = 2 million).

Dr Hyland’s research on khipus was made into a National Geographic documentary for the Ancient X Files series, called Decoding the Incas. In the research for this film, she was able to decipher the meaning of several elements on khipus, the first such decipherment in 100 years. Since viewing her film, leaders of other indigenous villages have invited Dr Hyland to study their khipus, previously kept secret from outsiders. The Indian authorities of one such community, Collata, have recently thanked her for “helping them to gain invaluable insights into the worth and meaning of their cultural heritage”.

To read more:

Dr Hyland’s research will feature on an episode about Machu Picchu on the Discovery Channel’s series ‘Unearthed’.

More about Sabine’s research is available on:
Current Anthropology/ Wenner Gren: “Cracking the Khipu Code: First Phonetic Inka Writing Found

The National Geographic: “Discovery May Help Decipher Ancient Inca String Code

Discover Magazine: “Untangling the Ancient Inca Code of Strings

Dr Hyland, of the Department of Social Anthropology, conducted ethnohistorical and ethnographic research on the Chanka people of Peru which was funded by the NSF, the NEH and the Mellon Foundation.

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