Podcast S2 E5 | 34 min

Stringing Together an Ancient Empire’s Stories

24 Sep 2019
Anthropologist Sabine Hyland attempts to uncover the messages held in twisted and colored Andean cords called khipus.

For centuries, Andean people encoded messages in intricate patterns of knotted and colored strings known as khipus. Thanks to the collaborative approach of anthropologist Sabine Hyland and others, outsiders are finally coming to understand what these khipus mean—for the people of the Andes and for the rest of us.

Sabine Hyland is a professor of anthropology at the University of St. Andrews. Follow her on Twitter @Coyagirl.

For more on khipus, read Hyland’s article about the Collata khipus. and Bridget Alex’s article on Discover.

The book Chip mentions at the end of this episode is called Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith Basso.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Correction: Hyland confirmed for us that the 1783 rebellion was against the Spanish, not the Inca, as she says in one quote in this episode.

Read a transcript of this episode

Jen: Chip, you’re an archaeologist, right?

Chip: Yes, I am.

Jen: Do people ever ask you about Indiana Jones?

Chip: What do you mean?

Jen: Like, when you’re talking to people who don’t know you that well, do you ever get the sense that they have this picture in their mind of you in a fedora, unraveling ancient mysteries and mixing it up with treasure hunters?

Chip: [laughs] Yes, that happens all the time.

Jen: What do you say in those situations? Is it ever awkward explaining that our work isn’t really exciting quite in that way?

Chip: Actually, it can be. But for those people that just want to hear a good adventure story, a story about a swashbuckling anthropologist or archaeologist struggling against the odds—perhaps against Nazis—to advance our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world, do you know what I do?

Jen: What?

Chip: I tell them one. Wanna hear one of my favorites?

Jen: Yes, please!!

[SAPIENS intro]

Chip: So, the first thing we need to do is introduce the hero of our story.

Sabine: [mic sounds] There. Hello, can you hear me?

Chip: Her name is Sabine Hyland, and she is a professor of anthropology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Sabine: I just feel sorry that I have a boring American accent. [laughs]

Chip: OK, so Sabine specializes in the anthropology of South America.

Sabine: Yeah, so, you know, I had been working in the Andes for years, trying to understand what kind of khipus might have existed still.

Jen: Chip, hold on. For our listeners, what’s a khipu?

Chip: Ah, good question.

Sabine: A khipu is a way of communication using three-dimensional cords.

Jen: Right. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one before. It looked kind of like a grass skirt laid flat and was made of strings and rope with knots in them.

Sabine: Most Inca khipus consist of a top cord from which hang pendants and on those pendants, usually there are knots. The pendants are often different colors.

Jen: And did she say that the Incas used these khipus to communicate? How did that work?

Chip: Well, for a long time, scholars thought that khipus were a tool for recording numbers, like, how many people were born in the village this year? To record that number, we need to tie this particular kind of knot on this particular pendant cord. That kind of thing.

Sabine: A lot of scholars, until really the 1980s, 1990s, said that they were just memory aids, that when the person who made the khipu died, that khipu became useless because nobody could ever read it again. One of the big breakthroughs in khipu research came when Gary Urton, who is at Harvard now, said, “Wait a minute, that just doesn’t make sense. How can you have an empire of millions of people, but all your records are just memory aids that are meaningless if something happens to the person who made them?”

Jen: So, what happened next? Have we figured out what these khipus were and how they worked?

Chip: That’s the thing, no, not really! Khipus are still one of the most fascinating mysteries in South America. And Sabine has dedicated her entire career to studying them, seeking out these communities where the khipu tradition might still be alive. And this is where our story really starts. Jen, have you seen the show Ancient X-Files?

Jen: No.

Chip: You gotta see season 2, episode 4. It aired in 2012, and it was all about Sabine and the khipus.

NatGeo narrator: The khipu are sacred objects with mystical powers.

NatGeo Sabine: It’s so frustrating to look at these strings and to realize that the secrets of a whole civilization are tied up in them, and yet we can’t read them.

Sabine: And so that had aired. It aired in Spanish and different languages. And one day, I’m at home, I open my computer, and there’s a Facebook message from someone I’d never heard of before. She said, “I just saw your documentary. I’m in Peru, and the village that I come from, we have two khipus. Do you think you’d want to see them?”

Chip: This was an incredible moment for Sabine, and her mind started racing with possibilities.

Jen: I can imagine.

Chip: Especially because almost all of the 800 or so khipus that we know about are stored in museums, universities, or private collections. And we think all of them are numerical records.

Jen: Right, like what we talked about earlier: numbers of people born in a year. Things like that.

Chip: But there are Spanish records from the 16th century documenting the existence of narrative khipus. Modern researchers have never been able to reliably identify one. But this woman said that no outsider had ever seen her village’s khipus before, so there was a chance they contained much more than just numbers.

Jen: Think about the untold stories, the things we could learn. I mean, it could be about anything!

Chip: That’s why Sabine says that, for her, finding a decipherable narrative khipu would be like finding the holy grail of South American anthropology.

Sabine: And so, I was like, “Yes, of course! I want to see them!”

Jen: Wait a second. Hold on. This is all super exciting, but I’ve had my fair share of spam email. Who was this woman? Was she credible?

Chip: Well, Sabine didn’t really know. So, she wrote back. And this woman responded, and they struck up a correspondence. Over the next year or so, Sabine learned that her name is Meche. She is a retired nurse. She grew up in this remote village, San Juan de Collata, and she left when she was 15.

Sabine: And she said that her village is really not doing well. The young people are leaving. There’s no economic advance. The young people are making fun of a lot of the rituals. And she felt that if I were to come there and write up a report about the khipus and certify how important they are, that could be something that the local people could use to feel pride about who they are.

Jen: So, there’s a lot more riding on this than just for anthropology. It sounds like her work could mean a lot to the village too. So, what happened?

Chip: Well, Meche told her that the village leaders were holding a big meeting in July of 2015 and that they’d have to approve any access to the khipus. So, Sabine bought plane tickets to Peru for her and her husband, Bill Hyland.

Bill: Like many things that come out of the blue, you’re not really sure if they’re going to develop into something or not, but this one did.

Chip: They made all the preparations they could, and when July rolled around, they drove to the airport in Edinburgh, made a connecting flight, and then another one. And finally, hours and hours later, they arrived in Lima, where they checked into the historic Gran Hotel Bolivar.

Bill: It’s a beautiful, old hotel, and there’s an old bar in it that’s kind of famous as a meeting place.

Chip: And that’s where they met Meche for the first time.

Bill: And then we talked and really connected.

Chip: So, they rented a minivan and set out into the Andes.

Sabine: It’s a strange region, the mountains around Lima, because you think that because it’s so close to Lima that it’s not going to be that different from the urban coast, but it’s a different world. These mountains are so rugged, so steep.

Bill: It’s not very far as the condor flies from Lima, but it takes hours to get up there because you’re gradually ascending, and you’re driving on these switchback roads.

Sabine: It’s kind of terrifying. You don’t look down because you are literally inches from a decline that goes down thousands of feet.

Bill: Eventually, you reach a point where we were able to get out, and then, it was very moving and very special when we got our view of the village for the first time.

Chip: They pulled into the town square in front of an old colonial-era church, and a small crowd was gathering to greet them. Almost immediately, though, it was clear to Sabine that something was wrong.

Sabine: When I got to the village, I had no idea that the village was so divided politically. I’d had a little inkling of it from things that Meche had said, but then when we were there, it became clear that while most of the people in the community supported me in what I was doing, there were definitely people who did not.

Jen: Oh, that doesn’t sound good.

Chip: And that’s not all. When she was planning this trip to Collata, Sabine heard some unsettling rumors about what they might be walking into.

Sabine: Some of the rumors that I heard, I don’t know if they’re true, some of members of the village had belonged to Sendero Luminoso, which is the terrorist group that really kind of caused the Civil War back in the 1980s. Again, I have no idea if that’s true.

Chip: So, these rumors were on her mind, but they just walked right into the village as total outsiders.

Jen: Yeah, but not just any outsiders! They wanted access to this village’s most prized possessions.

Chip: Hmm … but Sabine wasn’t scared or nervous. She says it’s all part of the job.

Sabine: You know, field work is hard. Anybody who studies anthropology knows that it’s not easy to go into places as a stranger and ask people to tell you what their secrets are. And, you learn how to behave with respect, with circumspection, that if things seem like they are becoming dangerous, then you should leave. So, yeah.

Jen: What happened next? Did they go see the khipus?

Chip: Well, remember the village leaders and their big meeting? Shortly after Sabine and Bill arrived in Collata, they were directed into a large adobe building, up a flight of stairs, and into a room packed with distinguished local officials.

Sabine: Going up to the assembly, it was very nerve-wracking. I was very hopeful that they would give us permission, but you just keep thinking in the back of your mind, Don’t screw this up, Sabine. Don’t screw this up.

Sabine [fading out under her next line]: Señor Presidente …

Sabine: I explained to the people how important these khipus are, not just to them, and not just to science, but really to the Peruvian nation—that this is part of the patrimony of the people of Peru. I also suggested that if these khipus are really important, this could be something that could bring tourism.

Jen: And what did the assembly say? Were they interested? What happened?

Chip: This is my favorite part because the assembly demanded that Bill give a speech too!

Bill: [laughs] What am I going to say? That was the first thing! I can read Spanish pretty well, but my speaking is very primitive, very slow. I said, “Hello” in Spanish, and then I thought it would be more effective if I just spoke in English. And one of the local guys translated. I’m not quite sure what he translated—

Jen: and then they said yes?

Chip: Sabine says that a few people from the village got up to speak against them, but yes, they said yes!

And out from a secret underground chamber, they brought an old box full of historic documents, and inside that box were two khipus, just like Meche had promised all that time ago.

Sabine: I felt such massive relief when I realized they were going to let us see the khipus, but then, of course, another wave of anxiety takes over me, right, because I’m thinking, Oh my gosh, can I do justice to studying these?

Jen: Wow, Chip, that was an incredible story. You were right. And now I want to know everything about khipus!

Chip: Right? And with Indiana Jones, this is when the credits would roll. You might be feeling a little ill from all that popcorn, and then you go back to your life. But for Sabine, this was just the beginning. Remember, this all happened back in 2015. She’s spent the past four years studying the Collata khipus.

Jen: So, did they turn out to be narrative khipus? Are we finally going to decipher the ancient secrets of the Incas? Did she do justice to the people of Collata?

Chip: Those are really good questions. Let’s see if Sabine has answers.

Chip: So, to jump in, I’d love for you to tell us about these khipus that you examined in Collata. You know, what did they look like?

Sabine: The khipus in Collata were unlike any others I’d ever really seen before. There’s something magical about them. They’re so beautiful and so fine, and have so many colors in them. Each khipu has a top cord about as long as my arm, and then there are about 200 pendants hanging down from the top cord. Unlike a lot of Inca khipus, the Collata khipus don’t have any knots or very few. They have many different colors, and they have objects tied into them, so there’s like a piece of cloth tied onto one of the pendants. There were tassels, there were these brushes of brilliant red deer hair.

Chip: Huh.

Sabine: I mean, just extraordinary. There’s also metal fiber in some of the features of them.

Chip: What kind of metal?

Sabine: I don’t know what kind of metal. It looked silvery. That’s all I know, but it’s probably not pure silver because it wasn’t tarnished.

Chip: How big are they? Like, if you stretch out your arms, does it go that full width, or is it smaller?

Sabine: The khipu itself is probably about the length of my arm. And then each pendant is about a foot long. But the thing is, the pendants were incredibly fine, only a few millimeters thick. When I was looking through the pendants, and I was being watched by these two herders, Hubert and Javier, to make sure that I wasn’t doing anything disrespectful, they would marvel at the workmanship. And then what was really exciting, I think, which kind of shocked me and everybody else who’s heard about this, is I would ask the herders what material each pendant was made from, and he would take it, and he would spend a long time feeling each cord, and he would be able to identify the animal fiber. These were made of the fibers from six different animals: vicuñas, deer, alpaca, llama, guanaco, and viscacha. Viscacha is a little rodent that’s hunted for food.

Chip: And he could tell just by feeling the texture of these different fibers? He could identify the animals?

Sabine: He could identify the animals by feeling the texture of the fiber, and that’s really important because a lot of times two cords would look the same, like a brown deer-hair cord and a brown vicuña cord look the same but they feel completely different. And he actually insisted that I not wear gloves, which, of course, makes me very nervous when people see pictures of me handling them with my bare hands. But it was a sign of respect, and he taught me how to feel the differences in the different kind of animal fibers.

Chip: Hmm … well, tell us more about khipus in general. What are the mysteries surrounding them?

Sabine: I think khipus fascinate people because they are so mysterious. How can you have a writing that’s made out of knotted cords? Are they a writing? And they’re also beautiful. One khipu researcher once referred to khipus as looking like a mop head. I think that was really unfair.

Chip: Uh-huh.

Sabine: Because when you look at them, they have, you know, there are all sorts of color patterns that you see, and it becomes kind of mesmerizing. 

Chip: And how about the khipu tradition itself? Who made these and for how many years? What period? What about, you know, the context in which they were actually created and used?

Sabine: There are so many questions about khipus. We’re really still at the ground level in trying to understand them. One of the things that has become clear is that khipus represent probably one of the longest-lasting Native American traditions of inscription—over a millennium. The earliest khipus date to the Wari, which is about A.D. 900, if we look at the end of the Wari period.

Chip: And where were they living, the Wari? 

Sabine: The Wari were living in the south-central Central Andes, where Cuzco is now and some other regions. And so, they had khipus. Then there’s a period, kind of an intermediate period, before the Incas rise. The Incas have khipus for a little over 100 years, and then the colonial khipu tradition we now know actually lasts 400 years. So, this is over a millennium, and then, of course, there are scholars who think that there are khipus that are much older. It’s just simply not clear yet whether that’s the case or not.

Chip: Yeah. So that’s really cool to think about! So, I mean, 1,000 years, so when we’re thinking about the Americas, some Native traditions did have kind of formal writing like the ancient Maya. And there are other kind of mnemonic devices, ways people wrote things or created art as a way to keep memories alive. I’ve worked in the Southwest myself, where they had something called “calendar sticks” among the Tohono O’odham, which is basically a long stick. And each year, a particular event would be marked on the stick like, you know, maybe a round circle with another circle over it to commemorate an eclipse. And so, it’s a way to remember a major event every year. So, there are these traditions all across the Americas, but this is probably one of the most ancient, most continuous, and most mysterious at the same time, so that’s why I’m so excited about khipus!

Sabine: And it’s exciting to think about, if we could someday read these khipus, they would give us an unbelievable insight into how Andean peoples viewed the world around them. But beyond that, it’s also about writing Native Americans into the history of writing. You know, our models about the development of writing are really based on the Old World.

Chip: Yeah, Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. 

Sabine: Absolutely. And so, except for the Mayas and very certain kind of ways of talking about Maya writing, they leave out the whole Western Hemisphere. And that just doesn’t make sense. I think we need to expand our understanding of what writing is. And the khipus really give us a way into that. 

Chip: And so, it’s been almost four years. What have you learned from the Collata khipus? And have you deciphered them?

Sabine: I’ve deciphered a few cords of the Collata khipus—the ending cords, which actually are phonetic. It seems that the Collata khipus are what we call “logosyllabic.” That means they’re a combination of signs that indicate sound, which would be phonetic, and then signs that indicate ideas. So, for example, the brush of red deer hair at the beginning of the Collata khipus, the local people told me that indicates war on behalf of the Inca.

Chip: OK. 

Sabine: But the pendants themselves appear to represent sounds. 

Chip: So, by pendant you mean, kind of like, a hanging knot at the bottom of sorts? 

Sabine: Yes. Each cord, which has its own set of colors, its own degree of twist, and then, of course, a different animal fiber, represents a sound. And so, I’ve been able to decipher the names at the ends of the cords. And now, about 20 years ago, two mathematicians developed a system whereby they said using very advanced probability and statistics, if you have a situation where you have a known language and a writing system that is not understood, they said, with their method, you can be able to decipher the writing system by looking at combinations of three different consonants and syllables and so on. And nobody’s really tested it out, but I have an amazing doctoral student coming from Harvard, one of Gary Urton’s students. His name is Manny Medrano. Manny and I are going to be working together on the Collata khipus to see if we can decipher the entire message.

Chip: What have you learned about the Collata khipus themselves, you know, as objects? Do you know when they were created and why?

Sabine: When Bill and I were in the village, we talked to the older men about the Collata khipus, and they told us what they were told by their fathers and grandfathers. They said that they were letters or epistles written during a rebellion against the Inca* [correction appended] and that this was in the late 18th century. Well, I did some research, and it turns out that, in fact, in 1783, there was a rebellion that broke out against the Spanish in this very town of Collata and in the neighboring villages.

Chip: Hmm, so those oral histories match up with documents from the time. That’s amazing. Did you learn more about that rebellion?

Sabine: In the Archive of the Indies in Seville, I found actually over 1,000 pages of testimony of the rebels who fought on behalf of their new Inca king, a man named Tupa Inca Yupanki. Testimony from the captured rebel tells that Yupanki ordered the men of Collata and the neighboring villages to lay siege to the capital of Lima, and his goal was to place himself on the throne of Peru. From going through this testimony, I was able to identify a number of these khipu epistles or khipu letters. I don’t like to use the word “letters” because that gets confused with the alphabet.

Chip: OK, so there are records showing that some of these people were sending khipus back and forth to each other to communicate about this rebellion. Got it.

Sabine: So, one was written in 1782 by the right-hand man of the emperor Tupa Inca Yupanki. And it was written to the men of Collata telling them, you know, that the emperor had come back and that they should swear loyalty to him. And then another one was written by the mayor of Collata in 1783, in January, telling his neighbors that the emperor was in town and that they should come and pay him homage. And so, the khipu kept in Collata was a copy of that letter.

Chip: That’s a fascinating story, Sabine. And it sounds like there is reason to believe that at least one of the two khipus you saw in Collata was, in fact, a narrative khipu, which is totally amazing! I know you said you haven’t fully deciphered them yet, but it’s clear to me that these khipus are offering a truly unique perspective on the history of the Andes and South America. So, in that vein, let’s broaden our focus a little bit. What can we learn from khipus about what it means to be human?

Sabine: One of the most powerful things about khipus and this recent research that I’ve done on khipus is understanding how the haptic—that is, the sense of touch—is absolutely essential to the code. It’s not just a case of like, “Oh, I’m looking at a nice old manuscript, and it’s kind of cool to see the old paper,” but the actual code depends on touch, on the sense of touch. And it’s not just true for the Collata khipus, other khipus in this area use differences between, like, soft fibers, hard fibers, rough fibers, and so on.

Andean khipus show the possibility of another way of understanding the world around us. When we read philosophers who think about the difference between experience through touch and experience through sight, visual experience is often at a remove, whereas touching brings other things into ourselves and that gives us the whole question of, how do people view the world differently when they’re very access to knowledge is through sight and touch simultaneously, not just through sight? Is there something intrinsic about how Andean peoples view the world that the rest of us could learn from?

Chip: And so, have you been back to Collata since 2015? How are the people in the village engaging with your ongoing work?

Sabine: Bill and I are going back to the village next week.

Chip: OK. 

Sabine: And so, we’re very excited about that. One of the great things about working in the Andes is that people care about their history, and they’re excited for outsiders to know about it. The people in Collata have been very positive about the work that I’ve been able to do there.

Chip: How so?

Sabine: I worked with the village authorities to make a packet of information about their khipu use for the schoolchildren in the village. One of the community officials told me that it’s very important to him and the other authorities that the young children learn about how valuable their local heritage is. And then, what’s especially moving to me is that in 2017, on the annual feast day of the village, which is June 24, the village assembly formally inducted a Spanish translation of my primary article about the Collata khipus. And they placed that with the khipus in this hidden archive in this box that goes in the underground chamber under the church. So that was very moving. 

Chip: So, you’ve entered the community’s own historical record in a way, your work has. That must be really rewarding. 

Sabine: It is! It’s kind of an anthropologist’s dream.

Jen: Wow, that really was a good story. Some things really stood out to me, besides that 1783 rebellion by the people of Collata, which was amazing. I think what really struck me was the way she went about doing her research. I mean, the fact that a community member asked her to get involved, that she had to go down and ask for permission. It was a community decision to allow access to those materials. And not only that, but she needed their help to actually decipher what these khipus said. And so, it was a real collaboration between her and the community. And then beyond just what you could learn from the khipus themselves was how she shared what she was learning back, not just the journal article that she wrote, but also creating curriculum for the local community to have some information about what she had been learning from this project. All of that was really cool.

Chip: Yeah, and that’s a clear theme for me as well, and a really important one because for a long time, archaeologists, anthropologists, and other scientists, it’s kind of been this extractive science—you know, you go into a community on your terms, you take what you want out of it—

Jen: and you never go back.

Chip: And you never go back. Maybe the community never hears from you again. And what comes through so clear in this story is how this is the community’s heritage. They are the heritage keepers, right? And that’s so important to recognize, and then on top of it, because of that collaboration, you actually end up with better science: a different history, a different story actually comes out of that collaboration. So, we all benefit from that.

Jen: Yeah, I mean, she wouldn’t have known how to actually read the khipus unless they helped her with the animal hair and stuff like that.

Chip: And even just to have access—

Jen: yeah, right! They were in control of what was happening with their own heritage. It was really inspiring. The other thing that this brings to mind is in Western scholarship, for a long time, there was this phrase “a people without history” when they were talking about Native American communities, and it’s not true on SO many levels, but it was in part because of the fact that there was no writing system.

Chip: Yeah, or very few. Right. Basically, the ancient Maya had a writing system, but that’s about it. And so, there’s been this huge bias out of scholarship that came out of Europe that if it’s not written down, then there’s no history. There’s nothing real to the past. That’s the only way you can know the past is through a writing system that documents what happened.

Jen: Right, so there’s some sort of reliable, objective record.

Chip: And we know writing has all kinds of biases, but even more is the fact that writing is not the only way to remember the past. It’s not the only way to document what happened. For me, for example, this brings up the work of Keith Basso, who wrote a brilliant book called Wisdom Sits in Places. This book talks about how the Western Apache people of the American Southwest remember their past through place names—and so it’s mountains or streams or places on the land where specific events happened. And elders use the land itself as a mnemonic, as a way to remember specific times and happenings. And they use these places to instruct the next generation about what had happened before them. And so, the land itself literally becomes a form of remembering.

Jen: So much of this idea of history has a visual bias in the West, and here we’re seeing it can be in weavings, it can be on the land. And a lot of it is just how a cultural community teaches how to remember the past and what’s important from generation to generation. And that can come in so many forms.

Chip: That’s what’s so exciting, right? It expands our very notion of what is history, how we remember the past. It gets us away from the idea that it’s only written words on a page or on a monument or something like that. And that it can actually be all around us. And there’s this wondrous diversity that humans have come up with, this amazing array of possibilities of how all of us can remember the past.

Jen: Right, yeah. So khipus teach us this great story—

Chip: It is a great story, not just a good story.

Jen: about how history and remembering can be all around us. It can be on paper, in weaving; it can be in the land or other places we don’t even know to look yet.

Chip: Let’s keep looking.


Jen: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi, and mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton. Matthew Simonson composed our theme. And it was hosted by me, Jen Shannon.

Chip: And me, Chip Colwell.

Jen: SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with splendid contributions from executive producer Cat Jaffee and production assistant Freda Kreier, who provided additional support.

Chip: Meral Agish is our fact-checker.

Jen: And a special thanks this time to Sabine and Bill Hyland. We have included a link to the article Sabine wrote about the Collata khipus for SAPIENS.org in the show notes to this episode.

Jen: This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support through Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and its staff, board, and advisory council.

Additional support was provided by the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas.

Jen: Thanks always to Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Cay Leytham-Powell, and everyone at SAPIENS.org. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Until next time, be well, fellow sapiens.

* Correction: Hyland confirmed for us that the 1783 rebellion was against the Spanish, not the Inca.


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