|Liberating a lost language
By Lisa Strandberg
As anthropologist Sabine Hyland investigates a Peruvian artifact that could help to revolutionize the study of the Incas, she finds support from a freeform team of scholars connected by their common interest in unlocking the culture’s ancient secrets.
|Sabine Hyland (Sociology)
Sabine Hyland (Sociology) has no shortage of frequent flyer miles these days. Her scholarship has taken her to three continents in the last 18 months, sometimes with impressive travel companions.
The National Geographic Channel funded and filmed one of her three trips to Peru, and the Smithsonian arranged and paid for another, along with an October lecture tour in the Caribbean. Hyland presented her work at Germany’s Heidelberg University in June; she also delivered a guest lecture to Harvard’s anthropology department in December and will speak at Vanderbilt University this month.
Hyland talks about the Jesuits and the Incans, and reflects on how “outsiders” can know about a foreign culture. >>MORE
Her rather breathless year and a half follows a discovery that one day may help unlock the language of the Incas – a discovery made in concert with a worldwide network of colleagues.
The find that has excited scholars around the world is a 19th-century khipu board. For years, Hyland has studied khipus – knotted cords of varied material, color and girth first used by the Incas in the 15th century to record information and send messages across their sizable South American empire.
Hundreds of khipus still exist, but scholars have yet to crack the code that would render meaningful the Incas’ only form of recorded language. That’s why Hyland’s recent work has her fellow Andean scholars abuzz.
|High tech in a very low-tech environment: In an adobe house in the Peruvian Andes, the khipu board is readied for scanning by multi-spectral imaging. On the previous page, Hyland is pictured in front of the only surviving temple of Andean religion left in the region.
In summer 2010, University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropologist Frank Salomon invited Hyland to a conference to present a paper on the Mercedarians. The priests and brothers of this religious order developed khipu boards in 16th-century Peru to track Mass attendance and the like with a combination of khipus and Spanish writing.
Hyland had read about a particular khipu board in a report by scholar Román Robles, who discovered the artifact in a remote Peruvian village high in the central Andes in the 1980s. When Robles returned to re-examine the board – the only one then known to exist – it had disappeared. Hyland set out to find it again.
“I contacted a friend of mine who does archaeology in the region, and I asked him if he knew about the village. He said no, but one of his buddies had just been there,” she says.
She e-mailed that archaeologist. He had good news: He had seen the khipu board in the basement of a local schoolteacher who, when cleaning out the village church, discovered it in a wooden chest filled with vestments.
The board, one foot by two feet, bears 282 written names and 174 khipus. While the writing does not directly translate the khipus after the manner of the Rosetta Stone, which served scholars as a key to Egyptian hieroglyphics, it does hold promise to help decode the khipu system.
“That’s what we’ve never had before. It’s a sine qua non. If you’re going to do a decipherment, you have to have a text like this,” Hyland says.
“The study of the Mayas has been completely revolutionized since we’ve been able to read their writing. Who knows what would happen if we could actually read the Incas, what they said themselves?”
To study the khipu board, Hyland first found her way to the remote Andean village in January 2011. A St. Norbert grant covered expenses, and Efraín Vidalón, an associate with regional connections, made her complex travel arrangements. Vidalón manages logistics for Smithsonian Journeys in Peru; Hyland has served as study leader on a handful of the program’s educational excursions there.
Hyland’s bus departed at 4 a.m. from a tiny storefront in a dodgy part of Lima. After a 12-hour ride along treacherous mining roads, she arrived in the village. There, she discovered what one might expect: 200-year-old artifacts tend to have some wear and tear. With spots of bat urine partially obscuring the writing on the khipu board, reading it would require expert assistance.
Hyland happened to know just the right expert – Gene Ware of Brigham Young University’s Multispectral Imaging (MSI) lab. With MSI, Ware could read through the khipu board’s stains. However, he and his equipment would need to make the costly trip to Peru to do so.
Enter National Geographic Channel’s “Ancient X Files.” In May 2011, a producer from the show contacted Hyland, interested in doing a show on some of her earlier work.
In response to the inquiry, Hyland said, “Well, you can do that if you want, but this is really cool.” Then she described the khipu board and her desire to examine it with MSI.
“They said, ‘Look. We’ll take care of all the details. We’ll take care of everything if you allow us to film you,’ ” Hyland says.
Two months later, with National Geographic looking on, Hyland and Ware recovered more than 30 names from the khipu board. The show detailing their adventure will air later this year. So will “Mankind: The Story of All of Us,” a History Channel series filmed in South Africa and produced in London, for which Hyland provided anthropological consultation from her office in Boyle Hall.
“It’s just been like a dream to see how these things work,” Hyland says.
Hyland did all this while missing only two weeks in the classroom. “I think that students are enriched when they have faculty who are involved in research. It makes them understand better why they’re learning these things in their classes, that it has a real-world application,” she says.
It also inspires her students to explore their own academic interests. For instance, Hyland is collaborating with Sandra Payan ’14 in her ethnographic research on the Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue, an indigenous community devoted to preserving Aztec dance and ceremony.
“Dr. Hyland has supported me even though [the college does] not offer classes about the Aztecs,” Payan says.
Hyland sees such scholarly freedom as critical in learning about culture and, in turn, about ourselves. She says: “My passion is to try to understand the ancient empire of the Incas, which is one of the most mysterious of all ancient peoples, and one of the least known. This cultural diversity is part of being human. If we lose some of these ancient solutions to the question of being human, then our humanity is diminished.”
March 22, 2012