Inside the Peabody Museum: September 2010

trace of lost languageNew Discovery: Traces of a Lost Language

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 it up and found 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. He is director of the archaeological project at Magdalena de Cao Viejo in the El Brujo Archaeological Complex, where the paper was excavated in 2008, and Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs at the Peabody Museum. Quilter explains that 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 (unodos, 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 this month's cover story of American Anthropologist. 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.


Peabody Museum Meets YouTube

FeeJee Mermaid

What is a FeeJee Mermaid and why does it look like this? Why did early chocolate drinkers in North America want frothy chocolate? And who is the Decapitator God? [Hint: The Decapitator God can be found in the Latin American galleries.] All the answers and more can be found on the Peabody Museum’s new YouTube channel.

An eclectic mix of videos about current exhibitions (including staff picks), research, and behind-the-scenes explorations awaits the intrepid YouTube viewer, with new videos debuting every few weeks. To find out the latest, click the “subscribe” button on the channel, and you’ll receive an alert every time the Museum posts a new video.

The YouTube channel joins Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter as social media connections to the Peabody Museum where the doors are open 24/7 and friends and fans of the Museum gather.

mosaic bladeMosaic Blade

Boldly covered with a mosaic of turquoise, shell, and lignite (soft coal), this flint blade is pierced just below its widest point. It may have hung around the neck.

A 1923 Peabody Museum expedition discovered the blade in a prehistoric Anasazi cliff dwelling in southeastern Utah. One of the dwelling's 75 rooms contained a small red bowl, and the blade was found inside it, among other objects.

Turquoise mosaics have been recovered from a number of prehistoric sites in the American Southwest. Today the art is practiced by the Pueblo peoples. In prehistoric times, however, the mosaic technique was more common  among tribes of the Gila Salt Basin in southern Arizona.

The blade was probably created between A.D. 1000 and 1200, and it is one of the finest examples of ancient mosaic found north of Arizona's Mogollon Rim.




Visible Language Series Begins

visible language series

How did ancient cultures develop writing? What do they write about, and what does their writing method reveal about them?

On Thursday, September 16, the Peabody Museum launches Visible Language, a year-long series of lectures about writing systems. Scholars and researchers will illustrate how ancient cultures from China and Egypt to Mesoamerica and the Middle East developed writing systems and used them for trade, taxes, prophecies, and more.

The first lecture, "Visible Language: On the Origins and Development of Writing," will offer an overview by Peabody Museum Research Associate Dr. Marc Zender. He is an epigrapher, specializing in deciphering ancient Maya hieroglyphs.

Later talks will focus on cuneiform, (the earliest known writing system), Chinese or Han characters, the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the Alphabet.

Visible Language Lecture Series (Fall)


16 Visible Language: On the Origins and Development of Writing
Marc Zender, Peabody Museum Research Associate


6 Diviners and Scribes: The Origins and Development of Writing in China
Adam Smith, Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Columbia University

13 The Origins and Development of the Cuneiform Script
Benjamin John Studevent-Hickman, Lecturer on Assyriology, Near Eastern Languages
and Civilizations, Harvard University


18 Art as Writing: The Magic of Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Peter Der Manuelian, Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology, Lecturer on Assyriology, Near Eastern Languages
and Civilizations, Harvard University
Yenching Institute
2 Divinity Ave., Cambridge


2 The Alphabet: Its Origins and Early History
Peter Machinist, Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages, Divinity School, Harvard University

All lectures begin at 5:30 pm, and are located at the Geological Lecture Hall, 24 Oxford St., Cambridge, unless otherwise indicated. All lectures are free.