‘Hidden Texts of the Andes: Deciphering the “Khipus” (Cord Writing) of Peru’

Project team:

Principal Investigator-Prof Sabine Hyland

Postdoctoral Research Fellow-Dr Sarah Bennison

PhD Student-Maria Koulouri

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust

Based in Social Anthropology from 2017 to 2021, the project produced a series of research and knowledge exchange outputs in addition to contributions to the interdisciplinary research environment at St Andrews University.

The project outputs provide new insights into the role of community records for organising communal labour, focussing on khipus (knotted strong records), hybrid khipu-alphabetic texts known as khipu-boards and paper archives. Outputs include a book project (currently under review), peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters in press and under review. The project also disseminated findings via numerous interdisciplinary seminars and international conferences. Please see the ‘project outputs’ section below for further information.

We are indebted to the Comunidad Campesina de San Pedro de Casta in Peru, who granted us permission to access and write about their sacred community archive. We also thank our collaborators in Casta for generously supporting this research with their insights, expertise, and valuable time.

The Native American Philology Working Group (NAP)

In 2017, the project team began regular working group sessions to discuss different aspects of Native American philology and writing systems, from wampum belts and birch bark scrolls to Mayan glyphs and Andean khipus. Led by Hyland, the group has included postgraduate students each year and Bennison has participated throughout. Now in its third year, NAP has expanded beyond the St Andrews research community, with regular participation from colleagues based in the USA and China. Due to the success of the working group, NAP will continue beyond the lifetime of the project.

Knowledge and Impact Award Success

Bennison was awarded a £2000 from the St Andrews University Knowledge Exchange and Impact Grant to carry out knowledge-exchange activities in San Pedro de Casta. In 2018/2019 she carried out preliminary fieldwork and consultations with the community authorities in order to begin this work. While the coronavirus pandemic has prevented this work from being completed as planned, the team are committed to fulfilling this commitment when possible.

Fieldwork in San Pedro de Casta

In December 2018/January 2019, Bennison carried out fieldwork in San Pedro de Casta. This work involved consultations and semi-structured interviews with community authorities, community functionaries, and comuneros. She carried outinterviews with community elders, staff from the local school and museum, and was given permission to attend and document the annual ‘huayrona’ accounts ceremony.

A stitched ritual ‘huallqui’ bag donated to Bennison by a collaborator in Casta has been on display in the Department of Social Anthropology as part of an outreach collaboration between the university museum and the Centre for Amerindian, Latin American and Caribbean Studies. According to customary law, men wear these bags around the neck during the annual canal-cleaning ceremony every October. Huallqui bags are central to local conceptualisations of identity.

Supporting The Centre for Amerindian, Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CAS)

From 2018-2019, Bennison combined her fellowship role and departmental lecturing contributions with a Directorship of CAS during its semi centenary anniversary year.

In 2017 and 2018, Bennison designed and built a new centre website, which was launched in 2019. The new website features a ‘History of CAS’, based on original research carried out in 2017 by Sabine Hyland and Sarah Bennison on the Douglas Gifford Archive in the university library’s Special Collections holdings. This work resulted in the digitisation of a selection of Gifford’s photographs from his Latin America expeditions in the 1960s, which were made available to view on the Special Collections website: Search results | University of St Andrews (st-andrews.ac.uk)

During CAS’ anniversary year, Bennison organised a regular interdisciplinary seminar series in addition to the following activities:

  • Organising the centre’s first ever interdisciplinary workshop (on research impact, funded by the GCRF Knowledge Exchange and Impact Fund)
  • Supporting a collaborative exhibition project with colleagues from the university museum
  • Organising a book donation and an acceptance ceremony event in collaboration with diplomats from the Bolivian Embassy
  • A round-table meeting with colleagues from The Mountain Institute, Peru

These activities were supported by the CAS Secretary and former doctoral student Dr Christine Lee.

San Pedro de Casta, Huarochirí Province, Lima. Photo: Sarah Bennison


Wooden crosses adorned with flowers hang at the entrance of the Yacapar moiety 'huayrona' assembly premises. Photo: Sarah Bennison


The 'Doctores' rain dance troupe greet the Yacapar moiety authorities and comuneros at their ‘huayrona’ (assembly premises). Photo: Sarah Bennison.


The 'Doctores' rain dance troupe greet the Yañac moiety authorities and comuneros at their ‘huayrona’ (assembly premises). Photo: Sarah Bennison.


The sound of the reed flute accompanied the ‘Doctores’ rains ceremony.


In childhood, women learn to count stitches when planning patterns for 'huallqui' bags.Photo: Sarah Bennison


Stitched bags used during the annual canal-cleaning ceremony in October: a 'talega' for storing bottles of alcohol and a ‘'huallqui' for storing the items needed for work: coca, lime and cigarettes. Photo: Sarah Bennison.


A mural of a ‘huallqui’ stitched ritual bag also depicts the items they contain: coca leaf, an ‘eshkupuru’ (small gourd container to store lime), ‘shukanka’ (a spoon to scoop out the lime) and cigarettes. Photo: Sarah Bennison


The Presidente commences the 'Huayrona' accounts ceremony in January 2019. Photo: Sarah Bennison.


The 'huayrona' accounts ceremony at the ceremonial site of Cuhuay, January 2019. Photo: Sarah Bennison.


Inside the church, San Pedro de Casta. Photo: Sarah Bennison.



Project Outputs


Under review (book manuscript): Bennison, Sarah and Sabine Hyland. Water Rituals of the High Andes: the Sacred Entablo Manuscript of San Pedro de Casta, Peru.

In press (journal article): Bennison, Sarah. 2020. ‘Waqay: a Word about Water and the Andean World in The Entablo, Spanish Manuscript of Huarochirí (Peru)’. Anthropological Linguistics.

In press (journal article): Hyland, Sabine, Sarah Bennison, and William P Hyland. 2021.  ‘Khipus, Khipu Boards and Sacred Texts: Toward a Philology of Andean Knotted Cords’, Latin American Research Review, 56(2).

In press (book chapter): Bennison, Sarah and Sabine Hyland.  ‘The record keepers: maintaining canals, traditions and Inca codes of law in 1920s Huarochirí’. The social and political life of Latin American infrastructure: meanings, values, and competing visions of the future. Jonathan Alderman and Geoff Goodwin Eds. University of London Press.

In process (news article): Bennison, Sarah. Tentative title: ‘How COVID-19 impacted Peru’s ancient water rituals’. ‘Long read’ feature in The Conversation (theconversation.com) scheduled for 2021.

Presentations at conferences and seminars-Sarah Bennison

April 2021. Panel co-convenor, St Andrews University. Panel: ‘Doing justice justice? Methodological and theoretical challenges in the anthropological study of legal historical archives’. ASA 2021 (Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK & Commonwealth Annual Conference).

April 2021. ASA 2021 (Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK & Commonwealth Annual Conference).“The Incas were the perfect peasants!”: Maintaining canals, obligations and customary law in 21st Century Huarochirí, Peru.

November 2019: Invited speaker and panellist, Linen Hall, Belfast. ‘Civic Conversation, Stories of Languages Old and New’, Public event to celebrate 2019 as the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages.

October 2019: Invited speaker, Newcastle University Workshop on Critical Language Research: Applied Linguistic and Anthropological Approaches. ‘You are what you speak? Talking with the huacas in Huarochirí (Peru)’.

May 2019: South American Archaeology Meeting, Exeter University

‘Water sources: setting down the laws of the land in the Entablo of Casta, Peru (1921)’.

April 2019: Latin American Anthropology Seminar, Institute for Latin American Studies, University of London

‘Memory Dictated, Legend Official: Setting Down the Laws of the Land in the Entablo of Casta, Peru (1921)’.


April 2019: Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts Seminar, St Andrews University

‘The Knotted Landscape: Khipus, Rituals and the Senses in an Andean Village’. Joint paper with Sabine Hyland.

April 2019: Anthropological Encounters in the Archive Seminar, St Andrews University

‘Water sources: setting down the laws of the land in the Entablo of Casta, Peru (1921)’

April 2019: Social Anthropology Department Seminar Series, St Andrews University

‘The laws of the land: an introduction to The Entablo of San Pedro de Casta, Peru (1921)’

February 2019: Symposium—Khipus: Writing Histories In and From Knots, Bard College

‘“These Are Our Khipus!” The Ritual Khipu Boards of San Pedro de Casta, Peru’. Joint paper with Sabine Hyland.

July 2017: Congreso Internacional de Americanistas, Universidad de Salamanca

‘“Ahora domina el mestizaje”: Etnicidad e historia en una comunidad (no) indígena. Reflexiones sobre lo problemático de la consulta previa en el Perú’.

November 2017: Anthropology and History in Latin America Symposium, The University of St Andrews

‘Understanding Twin-Birth Lexicon in the Huarochirí Manuscript: Pariacaca’s Punishment and the Case of a Bright-Futured Baby’.