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St. Norbert College Magazine
Winter 2008 | At the Margins

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Culture quest
By Lisa Strandberg

Like the white-painted wayfinder on the TV series “M*A*S*H,” a sign on the St. Norbert College campus indicates that Quito, Ecuador, lies 2,583 miles due south. However, for one researcher at the College, the place feels much closer.

She is Sabine Hyland, associate professor of anthropology. Her work toward understanding little-studied indigenous peoples and manuscripts of the Spanish colonial era in South America has led her to collaborate with experts from an array of disciplines, putting all the intellectual tools in their collective kit to use.

In Hyland’s estimation, such interdisciplinary cooperation enriches and expands the discoveries that each South American scholar could make on his or her own. “If you look at all the major culture centers around the world—places where you have these indigenous cultures arising, like in Egypt, Southeast Asia, China and the Valley of Mexico—of all these areas, South America is the least understood and most mysterious,” Hyland says. “There’s so much still to learn. We’re just on the very tiny, early edge of knowledge.”

But it’s an edge on which scholars continually are gaining a foothold. And Hyland’s own research has played an important part in doing so.

A Youthful Passion
Hyland’s determination to study native cultures of South America arose at the precocious age of 16, when her family lived in Peru for a year while her father, an agricultural engineer and professor, spent a sabbatical working for the International Potato Center. “That was when I fell in love with Peru,” she says.

Upon returning, she started down the road toward her present work. Earning a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a significant center of Andean studies, she was able to study Quechua, an indigenous language of the region still spoken by 11 million of its residents today, and one that would prove critical in her research.

Time Spent Underground

In graduate school at Yale University, Hyland had access to what she calls “one of the finest collections of colonial Latin American manuscripts in the world.” But, she says, “at that time it was entirely uncatalogued. It was in these underground passageways of the Yale campus.”

After taking a course in paleography, the study of ancient handwriting, Hyland spent a year surveying those manuscripts, putting to work her linguistic knowledge of both Spanish and Quechua. “I went through every single document in the collection and wrote up notes on what was there,” she says.

In doing so, she uncovered a 19th-century manuscript by Brasseur de Bourbourg, a French priest. In it, he had copied two books of “Historical Memoirs of Peru,” a pre-Incan chronicle authored by Fernando de Montesinos, a 17th-century Spanish colonial priest obsessed with finding El Dorado, the mythical golden city. Montesinos’ chronicle had been largely ignored by Andean scholars of the era. “(Bourbourg’s work) was what first gave me a clue that there was more to the story and that it was worth investigating,” Hyland says.

She also encountered Montesinos in her dissertation research on Blas Valera, a controversial 16th-century Spanish Jesuit in South America on whom she eventually would write a book, “The Jesuit and the Incas” (2003). Both Valera and Montesinos documented a specific pre-Incan emperor not mentioned in other manuscripts of the time—a commonality that further sparked Hyland’s interest.

A Curiosity Pursued
Thus began a 12-year journey that culminated recently with the Yale Peabody Museum’s recent publication of Hyland’s latest work, “The Quito Manuscript: An Inca History Preserved by Fernando de Montesinos.” The book presents a first critical edition of the manuscript—one corrected to better reflect original meaning—and reveals the rather dramatic conclusion to which her research led her: that the second of the document’s four books was written not by Montesinos but by an indigenous Ecuadorian.

Reaching that conclusion required interdisciplinary abilities for which her background had prepared her. “You had to understand Quechua language as well as 16th-century linguistics,” Hyland says.

“One of the things that comes out, and this puzzled me at first so much, is that the Spanish is terrible (in Book 2). There are all these grammatical errors, and they’re not random errors. They’re errors made by native Quechua speakers today,” Hyland says. “In his other writings (Montesinos) has beautiful, flowing, kind of turgid and awful, but grammatically correct Spanish.

“For Spanish colonial South America, we have relatively few texts written by indigenous people … so this expands that corpus of indigenous literature,” Hyland says. And with content including the history of 93 pre-Incan kings, mummification techniques, allusions to regional practices like the creation by noble women of love charms, and strikingly accurate place names, the text offers ample opportunity for study. “I hope that this will spark a lot of interest and excitement among scholars of Ecuador,” says Hyland.

Those scholars likely will include archaeologists, who might use the manuscript’s detailed descriptions of ancient Ecuadorian sites to inform their digs. “When specialists in South America get together … we’re specialists from all over,” Hyland says. “We’re archaeologists, we’re cultural anthropologists, we’re linguistic specialists and literature specialists. It really is an interdisciplinary study, in part because it’s so young a field. We have to talk to each other.”

A Growing Body of Work
More recently, Hyland co-directed a multidisciplinary effort studying the Chanka, an indigenous people of Peru. Archaeologist Brian Bauer at the University of Illinois at Chicago received grants from the National Science Foundation and other organizations to do a five-year archaeological survey of the Andahuaylas Valley, the Chanka homeland. “Brian asked me to join the project in charge of the ethnohistorical portion—that is, he wanted to be out there finding all the archaeological sites, but … to understand those sites, he needed somebody trained in colonial documents … to put things together.”

That work took her to repositories of colonial documents in Seville and Madrid, Spain, but, she says, “the most exciting was working in Andahuaylas itself. The Ministry of Agriculture was this shed filled with documents in these big stacks wrapped with twine, and we’d bring them out and go through them.”

She describes a visit to the town of Uranmarca, where the natives repeatedly told her that they had no colonial documents. “One day I was sitting there, and a little procession came out,” Hyland says. “It was the Indian president of the community with his two assistants, and they were bringing me all their colonial documents. They said, ‘Doctorcita’—that’s what they called me, ‘little doctor’—‘we can’t read these, but you can. Will you read them and tell us what they say?’ ”

And she did, in an adobe hut with the desk pulled up to the window for light. It was a portion of the work that earned her and Bauer a decree from the Provincial Municipality of Andahuaylas thanking them on behalf of the Chanka nation.

The Holy Grail
After spending a sabbatical writing her half of a book on that study, Hyland has shifted her focus to other projects, with one centered on a concept called graphic pluralism. Its ultimate aim: to decipher the Incas’ quipu communication system, a goal she calls “the holy grail” of many South American scholars.

About 600 quipus, or knotted strings, still exist in collections around the world, and specialists of all kinds wish to decode them. But questions must be answered in order to do so. Says Hyland, “What happens when you have an indigenous graphic (communication) system come face to face with an alphabetic system, usually from a more powerful political entity? That was what we called graphic pluralism.” Her current work delves into that, as well as ethnopoetics, the linguistic study of poetic structures specific to an indigenous culture.

And as for the future? It seems that, like the cultures she studies, her research will be shaped by external influences while remaining true to its core: a multifaceted passion for a region and its people. 

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