Anthropologist Sabine Hyland on Khipus, the Chanka, and Fieldwork in the Andes

Hyland with a khipu photo

By Jacqueline Knirnschild

One day, when Sabine Hyland was sixteen years old, some ladies from her family’s protestant church in Lima decided to visit the Museo Larco, which is based in an old hacienda and houses treasures from pre-Colombian Peru. Hyland joined them and remembers the awkwardness of walking through the world’s largest collection of erotic pottery with a bunch of church ladies. 

Then, they saw the Inka khipu. 

The khipu consisted of a finely carved wood base, from which hung hundreds of woven chords made of cotton and animal fibers. The blue, brown, and tan chords varied in length and were knotted at different distances. “It was magnificent,” Hyland said.

At that time, in the 1980s, Hyland said most scholars argued khipus were just memory aides and no one would ever understand them. But Hyland found the mystery compelling. “There is so little we understand about ancient South American civilizations,” Hyland said. What information was bound within the chords of the khipu?

If anyone was prepared to become the world’s leading khipu expert, it was Sabine Hyland. Growing up, she watched her father Joseph Kearns Campbell, who was an agricultural and biological engineer, work with farmers from all over the world. Her father’s work brought the family to the Philippines during Hyland’s childhood, and then to the International Potato Center in Lima during her teen years. “I learned fieldwork from observing how he dealt with people,” Hyland said. “It was his legacy.”

Hyland went to Cornell for her undergraduate work, where she studied anthropology and Quechua, the indigenous language family of the Peruvian Andes. At Cornell, Hyland was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. “ΦBK exemplifies the humanistic mission also inherent in anthropology: to understand, celebrate, and bring together all of the humanities,” Hyland stated.

After receiving her PhD in anthropology from Yale in 1994, she became a professor at St. Norbert College and began working on the first historical study of the Chanka nation, an indigenous group living in the Southern Andes who were once the enemies of the Inka. The Chanka were fierce warriors who drank the blood of their enemies and kept their heads as trophies. 

Hyland’s research focused on how Spanish colonization led to massive cultural dislocation among the Chankas. The Spanish forced the Chanka to work naked in mercury mines, inhaling fumes, with slag up to their waist. “It was horrible,” Hyland said. “So, people fled, and the countryside became depopulated.” Then, in the early 19th century, the mercury labor tribute ended, and the Chanka regrouped their communities. 

One morning, while doing field work, Hyland was half-asleep eating her breakfast of potato stew, when a Chanka man came up to her and said, “We are forgotten by everyone—the world, the nation, the region, finally, someone recognizes us!” And in 2004, Hyland worked with an archeologist, Brian Bauer, to revitalize the Chanka museum, and to honor them for their work, the Chanka gave them certificates that said they we were now honorary members of the Chanka nation. Hyland also acted as the godmother to a young Chankan girl during her first hair-cutting ceremony and gave the girl money to purchase her first five cows. 

“It’s important to always remember that the people here know a lot more than I know,” Hyland said. “They have just been waiting for somebody who’s willing to listen.”

In 2011, a schoolteacher in the Central Andes contacted Hyland about a khipu board kept in a local church. Hyland traveled to the community of Mangas, where she discovered a hybrid board that showed khipu cords associated with Spanish words. The only problem was that much of the writing was covered by bat poop. 

After Hyland returned to the US, she gave a talk about the Mangas khipu board, and one of her friends suggested that she get someone to do multi-spectral imaging, which is a process that extracts information the human eye fails to capture. Hyland contacted National Geographic and asked if this was the type of thing they’d want to fund. She waited, waited, waited for a response, until finally, National Geographic called her and said they’d like to pay for everything if she lets them film it and make a documentary. “I called my husband that evening,” Hyland said. “And it took a long time to convince him that I was telling the truth!”

The documentary, titled “Decoding the Incas,” aired as part of National Geographic’s series Ancient X-Files and was translated to over 25 languages. A woman in Lima saw the documentary and contacted Hyland to tell her that they had khipus in her home village. Hyland received another grant from National Geographic, packed up her things, flew to Peru, then drove tens of hours through crumbly mountains to reach Collata. 

Before Hyland arrived in Collata, the whole community had to meet to decide if they’d allow her, the first outsider, to see the sacred khipus. Vicuñas, a type of wild camelid, appeared on the hillside, and they hadn’t been seen for years—a sign that the mountain deities approved. “The people in the village very much believe that it was the khipus who chose me to study them, not the other way around,” Hyland said. “It’s such a privilege.”

After giving an offering of coca leaf and tobacco procured from ripped-apart cigarettes, the village elders took out a box hidden in a secret chamber under the church sacristy. In the box were colonial manuscripts with goatskin covers, and the multi-colored khipus made from fibers of different animals. “They were unlike any khipus I had ever seen before.”

Unlike previously known khipus, which were often used to record numerical data, the Collata khipus were phonetic. Hyland went through 1,000 pages of historical testimony to discover that the Collata khipus were letters written in 1782 and 1783, during a revolt against the Spanish. The khipu allowed Inkan rebels to communicate without fear of the Spanish uncovering their plot.  

Hyland wasn’t allowed to wear gloves when looking at the khipus because that was considered disrespectful. “You have to be able to feel them,” Hyland said. She wonders if the Spanish had learned to understand khipu, perhaps the colonial impulse would have been different. “To colonize, you have to be able to think of someone at a distance, but when you touch something, you’re taking it into yourself,” Hyland said. “Multisensorial communication has greater authority.” 

So far, Hyland has only been able to decipher the names of the lineages on the end chords of the Collata khipu, but Google Arts & Culture has reached out to her about using AI to help crack the code. Hyland also hopes to travel to the Berlin Ethnology Museum in December to analyze a khipu that could potentially be phonetic. And she plans on returning to Collata in the spring to do fieldwork in communities that bury the deceased in specially prepared funerary khipus that they believe allow the deceased to cross a river to get to heaven. 

In Collata, Hyland also worked with the Peruvian minister of culture to help put together a lesson plan on the phonetic khipus, which is now accessible to teachers across the country. In summer 2019, a Collata schoolteacher came up to Hyland and said, “We have these little kids who hate being at school, and I showed them that their village is part of the curriculum, and they get very excited.”

But not all of Hyland’s cross-cultural interactions have been so successful. In one Central Andean village, rumors swirled that Hyland was an evangelical missionary. “When I got to the town, I said I was an anthropologist,” Hyland explained. “And people thought that meant archeologist, so a schoolteacher asked me to take children to see my dig, and I was like, I don’t have a dig.” Then, the villagers saw Hyland talking to an evangelical woman and decided they wanted her to leave, so they stopped feeding her. They only allowed her to buy bananas, and then the evangelical woman, who was out pasturing cows during the days, would bring Hyland a little jar of milk. “It was a pretty cold atmosphere,” Hyland said. “And I was hungry.”

For a week and a half, Hyland lived off milk and bananas. One day, when she was aimlessly sitting in the village, a man asked her if she wanted to go to his house to read the bible. “I was like, sure, maybe they’ll have food!” Hyland said. So, she went to his house, and miraculously the man turned out being the grandson of the local khipu expert. 

Hyland said that working in such remote places, without electricity or running water, can be hard (your toilet is a bucket), but also wonderful. “I like being in the countryside, getting up with the chickens or donkeys,” Hyland said. “When you’re on the Andean mountains the stars are incredible because there’s no light pollution.” 

Fieldwork is all about the attitude of getting excited about the best in other cultures and other peoples, Hyland said. “In recent years, that attitude can be criticized—you’re romanticizing this, you’re overlooking the problems—and yes, problems are there. But anthropology is about human relations, and at some point, human relations have to be founded in love. That sense of love and passion is something that we have to keep.”

In order to share this sense of love and passion, Hyland writes in an accessible manner that does not shroud what she does in theory. “We have an obligation to convey respect for the lives of the people whom we study to the wider world,” she said. “We have to take a stand and try to create respect for peoples who are oppressed and undervalued.”

Hyland is now a professor at The University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, where she heads the Native American Philology working group, which aims to think about native forms of communication, such as khipus, in the broader picture of American textual traditions. Hyland believes that each language offers a unique view of the world and exploring non-Western forms of communication, such as the khipu, will widen our understanding of language and literacy. 

Photo: Hyland with a khipu, University of St. Andrews

Jacqueline Knirnschild is a graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied creative writing, anthropology, and Chinese. The University of Mississippi is home to the Beta of Mississippi chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.