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Scrap of paper found with traces of lost language

A 17th century scrap of paper may contain traces of a lost South American 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.

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