Who were the Chanka? Dr Sabine Hyland from the Department of Social Anthropology has conducted ethnohistorical and ethnographic research on the Chanka people of Peru.

With little information previously known about the Chanka - other than being enemies of the Incas - Hyland's research has provided Chanka today with new insight into their history and culture. Enmanuel Gomez Choque, a prominent Chanka leader spoke about how Hyland’s research and publications have “given us a fuller sense of who we are as a people”.

The Chanka people

Dr Sabine Hyland
Dr Sabine Hyland Reader – Social Anthropology

Up until recently, very little was known about the Chanka people, other than that they were an indigenous group who lived in the Andes from the 10th to 14th centuries. Evidence suggests that they were a formidable people, known for their warrior nature and defensive settlements.

This strategic nature can be seen in the locations of their homes. Their circular stone houses were scattered across the countryside, and in times of peace, Chanka houses could be found low down the mountainside, close to fields and water sourced.

However, after the collapse of the Wari era (the era from 700 to 1050 AD, which preceded Chanka independence) the Chanka retreated to highly defensible hilltop locations in the Andes of between 12,000 and 13,000 feet. There, houses were built with battle in mind, with many featuring contained walls and defensive moats. However, this new way of living brought its own problems.

Most of these settlements lacked sources of fresh water, and many had precipices on three sides. It must have been a difficult life for women, hours away from any spring or river; rainwater must have been conserved, reused and guarded as a precious thing. Disease and infections would have been common in these densely packed cities in the clouds.

Dr Sabine Hyland

Dr Sabine Hyland describes the Chanka.

The tactical nature of the Chanka people was valued in dangerous times, and the Chankas were renowned as strong warriors. Their skills meant that an elite group of Chanka warriors served the Inca emperor as select bodyguards who were dedicated to the protection of the ruler’s life at all costs.

The Chanka still exist today in a high-altitude Andean landscape – “dotted with overgrown agricultural terraces and ruined stone buildings from their former kingdom” – centred in the Peruvian city of Andahuaylas.

Life under Inca rule

The Chanka experienced independence from 1100 AD to 1400 AD, however, a battle between the Chanka and the Inca northwest of Cusco led to their defeat and the rule of Incas until the Spanish wars.

Two Chanka brothers, Astoy and Tomay Guaraca, were preparing a siege against the Incas and their ruler, Inca Viracocha. The brothers had amassed a large army made up of smaller groups, which meant that upon observing the size of Guaracas’ army, the Inca emperor retreated to safety, away from Cusco.

In the end, despite the notable size of the Chanka army, the Inca troops defeated the Chanka twice, after the Chanka regrouped for a second attempt. In the second battle, the Guaraca brothers were decapitated.

“Later the Inca prince would make drinking cups out of the Guaracas’ flayed skulls, ensuring that the two brothers would be forced to toast Inca victories even in death.”

Once the Chanka people were conquered by the Incas, the Chankas’ way of life changed drastically. They would have been forced to give up a third of their farmland to for the state, leading to all farming proceeds being taken by state officials, who would distribute the crops as they saw fit.

A labour tax was also due from all citizens of the Inca empire. Each individual would have had to undertake labour, whether this was farming in the Inca fields, working on building projects or serving in the army.

Dr Danielle Kurin - Assistant Professor in Biological Anthropology
Dr Danielle Kurin – Assistant Professor in Biological Anthropology

Despite these worsening conditions, archaeological evidence suggests that life for the Chanka was easier and healthier under Inca rule (1400 AD to 1532 AD). Anthropological bioarchaeologist Dr Danielle Kurin revealed that during the period prior to Inca rule, one out of five Chanka individuals died from violent injuries. Hyland highlights that “many of these fatalities occurred when the victims were helpless, probably with their hands tied behind their backs; they were struck about the head and face until they died”.

Once the Chanka became incorporated into the Inca Empire, they moved back down from the mountaintops closer to their original location near riverbeds at the foot of the mountains.

Spanish rule

The Chanka experienced Inca rule for just over 100 years. In the early 16th Century, the Spanish conquered the Inca empire and colonised western South America.

Fighting took place between Spanish and Inca troops across several decades, and the arrival of the Spanish brought death, disease and a different way of life for the Chanka people.

Dr Sabine Hyland describes life for the Chanka people under Spanish rule.
Artist Luis Montero's interpretation of Atahualpa's funeral, the last Inca ruler
Artist Luis Montero’s interpretation of Atahualpa’s funeral, the last Inca ruler

The importance of women in Chanka society

Women in Chanka society possessed the unusual right to hold ownership over land, possessions or money throughout their life, rather than it passing to a husband in the form of a dowry.

Throughout the central Andes, both property rights and tangible goods were divided among heirs on the basis of “parallel transmission”, with males inheriting from their fathers and girls from the mothers.

Dr Sabine Hyland talks about the important role played by women in Chanka society.

Dr Hyland’s research

In sum, perhaps no other anthropologist and historian has had a stronger impact in our community than the esteemed Dr. Hyland. We consider her an honorary Andahuaylina who contributes to the cultural, academic and economic life of this region in significant and long lasting ways.

Enmanuel Gomez Choque, Chanka leader.

Dr Sabine Hyland discusses her research.
Dr Brian Bauer - Professor of Anthropology
Dr Brian Bauer – Professor of Anthropology

Hyland’s research and involvement with many modern Chanka communities has resulted in her becoming an honorary member of the Apurimac community. This was acknowledged when Hyland, her colleague Brian S Bauer and their original research team were given gold medals by the town council.

The research conducted by Hyland and Bauer has also resulted in the establishment of The Chanka museum in the city of Andahuaylas. It features displays on the history of the Chanka people, divided into segments from 1000 AD to 1400 AD to the Inca period (1400 – 1532) to the Spanish colonial period (1532 —1824), marked by internal exile and the fragmentation of the Chanka kinship structure for the peasantry, and the hispanicisation of the Chanka elites. Hyland was responsible for creating the displays for the colonial period, which is where Chanka school children now learn about their own history.

The Chankas and the priest

Portrait of a Chanka girl
An anonymous Chanka woman graces the cover of Hyland’s second book. This woman was chosen to symbolise both Albadán’s victims as well as his female cook who probably poisoned him to death.

In 2016, Hyland released a book entitled ‘The Chankas and the priest: a Tale of Murder and Exile in Highland Peru’. By detailing small, but seismic events, Hyland’s work highlights the impact of Spanish colonialism on the village Pampachiri, in the high Andes of southern Peru.

Whilst investigating at the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Hyland found a 500-page document detailing the wealth of Spanish catholic priest Father Juan Bautista de Albadán. Personal letters written to Albadán by his relatives during his lifetime were also found.

Hyland’s research revealed an unpleasant narrative, so fittingly the opening sentence of her book starts: “This is the story of terrible crimes.”

During a period of ten years (1601-11), Albadán sadistically tortured the people in Pampachiri, all the while amassing a personal fortune. He put together the largest library in the entire region, and manipulated the juridical and political systems in his favour so that he could avoid any prosecution for his crimes.

The crimes of Albadán include murder, torture and rape. In one incident, it was reported that an artist, Don Juan Uacrau, was stripped naked and tied with leather thongs upside down on the cross. Albadán beat him for hours and burnt his whole body with tallow candles. This is particularly distressing when you consider that ten minutes of uninterrupted exposure to a tallow candle (which has a 50°C melting point) will result in third degree burns. Uacrau was tortued because he either protested the sexual assault of his daughters, or the wider behaviour of Albadán. Regardless, Hyland points out that “if the artist was still alive when he was cut down from the cross, he did not live long.”

The Chankas and The Priest book cover
The Chankas and the Priest by Dr Sabine Hyland

Whilst Albadán’s negative impact on Pampachiri is clear, Hyland states that “many Catholic priests and missionaries were honest, caring individuals who did their best for their native parishioners. Many priests left substantial sums of money to their Andean parishioners and absolved native chiefs (kurakas) of any debts.”

The sad story of Albadán and Pampachiri doesn’t end with Albadán’s death. Hyland argues that the effects of Albadán’s reign – a “decade of madness” – would last well into the 18th Century. Although this part of Hyland’s research is small in the Chanka world, it is invaluable in painting the picture of Chanka life under Spanish rule, and provides an interesting anthropological insight into colonialism at a village level.

Pampachiri church plaza
Pampachiri church plaza, where Albadán tortured many victims


For the recording of important events, the Chanka and Incas alike were known for using a communication system consisting of knots on strings called khipus.

A khipu is a series of coloured, knotted strings made out of various animal fur and fabric. In the past, scholars claimed that khipus were not an example of writing and that they were merely used as memory aides which recorded only numbers. With numbers in mind, this meant that all the cords hung from a main string and their positions and colours likely signalled what was being counted—gold, corn, or other goods.

Portrait of Dr Gary Urton
Dr Gary Urton, Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies

One of the first scholars to debate this theory was Dr Gary Urton, who argued that khipus conveyed more complex meaning and could be linked to a form of writing, not just numerical information. However, Urton was generally criticised for his argument which was speculative and without proof.

However, Hyland’s study of the 19th century field notes by German anthropologist Max Uhle alongside a hybrid khipu/alphabetic text, has provided proof that Urton’s ideas were true. This research has resulted in two discoveries from Hyland. The first, from working with the Uhle’s notes, led to the decipherment of ply direction. The second, using the khipu, led to deciphering knot direction — the first decipherment of a structural element in khipus in almost 100 years.

Dr Sabine Hyland describes discusses the significance of khipus.

Hyland has recently been working closely with National Geographic in order to fully examine the roles khipus played in Chanka society through their history. In the following months, the full results of her work will be made public.

Dr Hyland with a khipu
Dr Hyland with a khipu

The future

While Hyland has provided the first extensive insight into a particularly tumultuous time in Chanka history, there is far more that remains to be uncovered. Since starting her work on the decipherment of khipus, leaders of other indigenous villages in Peru have invited Hyland to study their khipus, previously kept hidden from outsiders, to unlock more secrets about their culture.

There is no doubt of the impact that Hyland has had on modern Chankas. From illuminating small, humanising details about their ancestors and their language, to exposing the traumatic impact of the Spanish colonialism, Hyland has cast a spotlight on a small culture’s unique history available for both the modern Chanka and the whole world.

Dr Sabine Hyland describes working at the University of St Andrews and plans for future work.

“for the first time we see our Chanka ancestors humanised; in their actions, as described by Hyland, we can see ourselves.”


Graphics and design by the University of St Andrews digital communications team. Content written by Maria Drummond, digital communications team. Video, audio and additional photography by the student-run Lightbox Creative St Andrews.


Dr Sabine Hyland from the University of St Andrews department of Social Anthropology.
Alyssa Chafee and Lightbox Creative for the video content.
Photographer and content editor Felicity Wild from the digital communications team for the photos of Peru and help with Discovering the Chankas.
Photographer Brian S Bauer for the photograph of the Inca site of Sondor.
Photographer Christine Lee for the photograph of Pampachiri's church plaza.


  1. Hyland, Sabine,'The Chankas and the Priest: A Tale of Murder and Exile in Highland Peru Scottish Assembly', 2016, The Pennsylvania State University Press.
  2. Hyland, Sabine, “Ply, markedness and redundancy: new evidence for how Andean khipus encoded information.” American Anthropologist 116 (2014):643-648 DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/aman.12120
  3. Hyland, Sabine, “Knot direction in a khipu/alphabetic text from the Central Andes."Latin American Antiquity: A Journal for the Society of American Archaeology 25 (2014): 189-197 DOI:10.7183/1045-6635.25.2.189


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