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Traces of a Lost Language Discovered

Reposted from Peabody Museum Press 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

Media Contact:

Faith Sutter
Communications Coordinator
Peabody Museum
Tel: 617-495-3397