For Immediate Release

Traces of a Lost Language Discovered

(Cambridge, August 23, 2010) Sometime in the early 17th century in Northern Peru, a Spaniard jotted down some notes on the back of a letter. Four hundred years later, archaeologists dug up and studied the paper, revealing the first traces of a lost language.

“It’s a little piece of paper with a big story to tell,” says Dr. Jeffrey Quilter, who has conducted investigations in Peru for more than three decades, and is director of the archaeological project at Magdalena de Cao Viejo in the El Brujo Archaeological Complex, where the paper was excavated in 2008. Quilter explains this simple list offers “a glimpse of the peoples of ancient and early colonial Peru who spoke a language lost to us until this discovery.”

The writing is a set of translations from Spanish names of numbers (uno, dos, and tres) and Arabic numerals (4–10, 21, 30, 100, and 200) to the unknown language. Some of the translated numbers have never been seen before, while others may have been borrowed from Quechua or a related language. Quechua is still spoken today in Peru, along with Spanish, but in the early 17th century, many languages were spoken in the region, such as Quingnam and Pescadora. Information about them today is limited. Even so, the archaeologists were able to deduce that the lost language speakers used a decimal system like our own.

“The find is significant because it offers the first glimpse of a previously unknown language and number system,” says Quilter. “It also points to the great diversity of Peru’s cultural heritage in the early Colonial Period. The interactions between natives and Spanish were far more complex than previously thought.”

The name of the lost language is still a mystery. The American-Peruvian research team was able to eliminate Mochica, spoken on the North Coast into the Colonial Period but now extinct, and point to Quingnam and Pescadora as possible candidates. Neither Quingnam nor Pescadora, however, have been documented beyond their names. There is even a possibility that Quingnam and Pescadora are the same language but they were identified as separate tongues in early Colonial Spanish writings, so a definitive connection remains impossible to establish.

The research is detailed in the cover story of American Anthropologist published today. Read the article, Traces of a Lost Language and Number System Discovered on the North Coast of Peru, Volume 112, Number 3, September 2010.

Watch a short video of Dr. Jeffrey Quilter about the discovery. Dr. Quilter, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, is available for selected interviews on request.

 

Article Authors
Jeffrey Quilter, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Marc Zender, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Karen Spalding, Department of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT & Pontifical Catholic University of Peru
Régulo Franco Jordán, Fundación Wiese, Lima 27, Peru
César Gálvez Mora, National Institute of Culture, Trujillo, La Libertad, Peru
Juan Castañeda, Murga National University of Peru, Trujillo, La Libertad, Peru

About the Peabody Museum
The Peabody Museum is among the oldest archaeological and ethnographic museums in the world with one of the finest collections of human cultural history found anywhere. It is home to superb materials from Africa, ancient Europe, North America, Mesoamerica, Oceania, and South America in particular. In addition to its archaeological and ethnographic holdings, the Museum’s photographic archives, one of the largest of its kind, hold more than 500,000 historical photographs, dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the present and chronicling anthropology, archaeology, and world culture.

Hours and location: 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., seven days a week. The Museum is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for students and seniors, $6 for children, 3–18. Free with Harvard ID or Museum membership. The Museum is free to Massachusetts residents Sundays, 9 A.M. to noon, year round, and Wednesdays from 3 P.M. to 5 P.M. (September to May). Admission includes admission to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. For more information call 617-496-1027 or go online to: www.peabody.harvard.edu. The Peabody Museum is located at 11 Divinity Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Museum is a short walk from the Harvard Square MBTA station.

Find us on Facebookfacebook link, Flickrflickr link, Twittertwitter link, and YouTube YouTube link

Media Contact:

Faith Sutter
Communications Coordinator
Peabody Museum
Tel: 617-495-3397
sutter@fas.harvard.edu 

Share this
traces of a lost language

The back side of an early 17th-century letter shows translations for numbers from Spanish to a lost language. Photo by Jeffrey Quilter.

High resolution image available on request. 

Watch a short video of Dr. Jeffrey Quilter about the discovery. Dr. Quilter, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, is available for selected interviews on request.

 

 

Harvard University | Department of Anthropology | Human Evolutionary Biology
Privacy | Terms of Use | Site Map | Webmaster 
Calendar of Events

©2013 Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
Harvard University, 11 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University

 


.