The lost 'written' language of one of the most important civilisations in history, which used twists of coloured animal hair rather than ink and paper, has been partially deciphered by a Scottish academic.

St Andrews University anthropologist Dr Sabine Hyland, has managed to translate the meaning of some names recorded on these twisted cords, which are known as “khipus”, potentially shedding light on the mysterious Inka people in South America.

The largest indigenous empire of the Americas is more commonly known as that of the Inca people. But academia spells it with a k, because of the Peruvian use of the letter.

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Whatever the spelling, it had already been established that the khipus, which are made using cotton or different coloured fibres from alpacas, llamas and deer, were used by the Inkas to record numerical accounts. But until recently, there was no evidence they had been used to record narratives, containing information from the past.

However, Dr Hyland has now discovered that the khipus were used in a 'logosyllabic' system like Classic Mayan, of the empire around the sixth century A.D in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala.

In this each logo (in this case a pendant cord) represents a phonetic syllable, and is the first evidence that the Inkas possessed phonetic writing.

She has managed to phonetically decipher two lineage names on the khipus so far, and is continuing field and archival research to decipher the rest.

Dr Hyland was able to make her discovery after being granted the rare opportunity to examine two khipus guarded by residents of the remote village of San Juan de Collata in the Peruvian Andes, in research funded by the National Geographic Society.

Village authorities invited Hyland to examine their khipus, which were created in the 18th century as letters exchanged by local leaders in a revolt against Spanish authority. They are the only Andean phonetic khipus ever identified.

The Collata khipus, as they are known, contrast sharply with the regional accounting khipus. They are the first ever reliably identified as narrative epistles by the descendants of their creators and indicate a widespread, shared writing system used in the Huarochiri province in the 18th century.

Analysis revealed they contain 95 different symbols, notably more symbols than in regional accounting khipus. At the end of each khipu, three-cord sequences of distinct colours, fibres and ply direction appear to represent lineage (“ayllu”) names.

The Collata khipus express syllables in a profoundly Andean fashion, using differences among the fibres of various animals, to indicate meaning. The reader must often feel the cords by hand to distinguish the fibre sources of these three-dimensional texts. St Andrews University said, they indicate that Andean khipus could constitute an intelligible writing system.