National Geographic News
A letter reveals a lost language.
Translations scribbled on the back of a Spanish author's letter.

Photograph courtesy Jeffrey Quilter

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Published August 27, 2010

Notes on the back of a 400-year-old letter have revealed a previously unknown language once spoken by indigenous peoples of northern Peru, an archaeologist says.

Penned by an unknown Spanish author and lost for four centuries, the battered piece of paper was pulled from the ruins of an ancient Spanish colonial church in 2008.

But a team of scientists and linguists has only recently revealed the importance of the words written on the flip side of the letter.

The early 17th-century author had translated Spanish numbers—uno, dos, tres—and Arabic numerals into a mysterious language never seen by modern scholars.

(Related: "'Lost' Languages to Be Resurrected by Computers"?)

"Even though [the letter] doesn't tell us a whole lot, it does tell us about a language that is very different from anything we've ever known—and it suggests that there may be a lot more out there," said project leader Jeffrey Quilter, an archaeologist at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

"Lost" Language One of Two Already Known?

The newfound native language may have borrowed from Quechua, a language still spoken by indigenous peoples of Peru, Quilter said.

But it was clearly a unique tongue, and likely one of two known only by the mention of their names in contemporary texts: Quingnam and Pescadora—"language of the fishers."

Some scholars suggest the two are in fact the same tongue that had been misidentified as distinct languages by early Spanish scribes.

(Related: "Languages Racing to Extinction in Five Global 'Hotspots.'")

Also, the writings include translated numbers, which means that the lost language's numerical system was a ten-based, or decimal system—like English.

While the Inca used a ten-based system, many other cultures did not: the Maya, for example, used a base of 20, according to Quilter.

Church Misfortune is Archaeologist's Gain

The letter was found during excavations of the Magdalena de Cao Viejo church at the  El Brujo Archaeological Complex in northern Peru. (The National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News, has sponsored fieldwork at the site in the past.)

(Related: "Ancient 'Lost City' Discovered in Peru, Official Claims.")

The church served a nearby town once inhabited by indigenous people forcibly relocated to the site by Spaniards, probably for purposes of conversion to Christianity, Quilter said.

The tantalizing fragment is just one of hundreds of historic papers recovered at the site, which has been well preserved by the extremely arid climate—and also by the church's collapse, Quilter added.

"Archaeologists live on other people's misfortunes," Quilter said.

The Spanish colonialists "had the misfortune of having the church collapse—we think probably in the mid-to-late 17th century—which trapped the library or office where they kept their papers."

Language Hints at Diversity of Cultures

Finding the new language at Magdalena de Cao Viejo helps to reinforce the rich diversity of cultures found in early colonial Americas, Quilter said.

"You know that Chinese curse, 'may you live in interesting times'—well that was an extremely interesting time," he said.

“We often think of a confrontation of Spanish and Native Americans, but in almost every location, from Massachusetts to Peru, it was a confrontation of a much more diverse group of people."

For instance, colonialists from many parts of Europe were grouped into "the Spanish," and in the Americas there were many people who spoke different languages and had different customs, he noted.

"it really shows how rich and diverse that world was."

Discovery of the lost language is described in the September issue of the journal American Anthropologist.

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