A glimpse of lost language

A glimpse of lost language

In the early 1600s in northern Peru, a curious Spaniard jotted down some notes on the back of a letter. Four hundred years later, archaeologists dug up and studied the paper, revealing what appear to be the first 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.

“It’s a little piece of paper with a big story to tell,” said Jeffrey Quilter, who has conducted investigations in Peru for more than three decades.

Quilter is deputy director for curatorial affairs at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, as well as director of the archaeological project at Magdalena de Cao Viejo in the El Brujo Archaeological Complex, where the paper was excavated two years ago.

The El Brujo Archaeological Complex, just north of Trujillo, La Libertad Province, Peru, is an ancient archaeological site that was occupied from preceramic times. Huaca Prieta is the earliest part of the complex. Later, the site was part of the Cupisnique culture and the Salinar culture.

But the biggest constructions on the site belong to the Moche culture. In this area, there are also the remains of the later Lambayeque and Chimú. El Brujo was one of the most important religious sites of the Moche culture. One of the pyramidal structures found there has beautiful preserved high relief murals, still with original paint – making it one of the most important archaeological sites too.

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) into the unknown language. Some of the translated numbers have never been seen before, while others may have been borrowed from Quechua or a related local language. Quechua is still spoken today in Peru, but in the early 17th century many other languages were spoken in the region, such as Quingnam and Pescadora.

Naked prisoners being led by warrior at El Brujo in El Brujo complex

Information about them today is limited. Even so, the archaeologists were able to deduce that speakers of the lost language used a decimal system like our own.

The Quingnam language

The Quingnam language is a pre-Columbian language of the area that is believed to have disappeared before the beginning of the Inca Empire. Quingnam was spoken by ethnic Chimú, who lived in the former territories of the Mochicas: an area north of the Chicama Chao River Valley. At the height of Chimú conquests, the language was spoken extensively from the Jequetepeque River in the north, to the Carabayllo (near present-day Lima) in the south.

Quilter said 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 find is significant because it offers the first glimpse of a previously unknown language and number system,” said 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.”

Moche period

Huaca El Brujo (or Cortada/Partida) and Huaca Cao Viejo (or Huaca Blanca) were built by the Moche sometime between AD 1 and 600. Huaca Cao Viejo is famous for its polychrome reliefs and mural paintings, and the discovery of the Señora de Cao, the first known governess in Peru. Both appeared in National Geographic magazine in July 2004 and June 2006. The site officially opened to the public in May 2006, and a museum exhibition was proposed for 2007.

Polychome adobe bas-relief at El Brujo, a Moche culture site north of Trujillo, Peru

The name of the lost language is still a mystery. The American-Peruvian research team was able to determine it was not Mochica, spoken on the north coast into the colonial period but now extinct, and pointed 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 has not yet been established.

The research is detailed in the Aug. 23 edition of American Anthropologist. To read the article, “Traces of a Lost Language and Number System Discovered on the North Coast of Peru.”

Read Harvard Article Here