A $55,000 Guggenheim Fellowship has been awarded to a professor at the University of St Andrews.

Dr Sabine Hyland, of the School of Anthropology, Philosophy and Film Studies, has been awarded the prestigious grant for her work interpreting the “lost” writing of the Incas.

Dr Hyland has partially deciphered the writing system of the Incas, which used twists of coloured animal hair, known as “khipus”. The khipus were taken from animals such as alpacas, llamas, and deer.

Before Dr Hyland’s discovery, khipus were thought to only record numerical accounts, and no evidence proved that they were used to record narratives.

However, Dr Hyland has managed to phonetically decipher two lineage names on the khipus, proving that they were used in a logosyllabic system, in which each khipu pendant cord represents a phonetic syllable.

This discovery is the first evidence that the Incas had a system of phonetic writing, and Dr Hyland’s work allows the possibility of deciphering more of this writing.

This would significantly increase the current understanding of the Inca civilisation, a period that scholars currently do not have much information about.

The way in which Dr Hyland made this discovery was through a research trip to the village of San Juan de Collata in the Peruvian Andes, funded by the National Geographic Society.

During this trip, she was able to examine two logosyllabic khipus guarded by the residents of the village – a rare opportunity. They were created in the 18th century and were exchanged by local leaders in a revolt against Spanish authority.

Dr Hyland’s current findings are published in the journal Current Anthropology.

Dr Hyland said, “I am thrilled at this honour, and hope to make more progress in deciphering this fascinating writing system through further research trips to South America now possible thanks to this award.”

In the latest announcement by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Dr Hyland was among 175 people awarded the fellowship. The fellowship is awarded based on prior achievement and exceptional promise.

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