Fragments of a Lost Language Discovered in Peru

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A team of archaeologists working in Peru just announced a major discovery: written fragments of a 400-year old indigenous language that has never been seen before. The language is related to Quechua, the language family that includes the tongue of the ancient Incas.

According to National Geographic, the language fragments were found scribbled on  a 400-year-old letter found buried in the rubble of the old church of  Magdalena de Cao Viejo in Peru. The church was thought to be a place where native Americans were brought in an effort to force them to convert to Christianity. Although the letter was found in 2008, the team that discovered it just now revealed its existence to the public. They believe it was likely spoken by a group of indigenous Peruvian fishermen, as texts from Peru during that time period sometimes refer to Pescadora, “the language of the fishermen.”

Archaeologist Jeffrey Quilter told Reuters:

“Our investigations determined that this piece of paper records a number system in a language that has been lost for hundreds of years…We discovered a language no one has seen or heard since the 16th or 17th century.”

The fragments consist of Arabic numerals, the same numbers written out in longhand in Spanish, and finally translated into the unknown language. It’s no Rosetta Stone, but it’s still fascinating, and it shows that the people who originally spoke the language used a numerical system based on increments of 10, just like we do today.

Speaking to National Geographic, Quilter explained that the discovery indicates how diverse the indigenous people of the Americas were before European conquest:

“You know that Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’—well that was an extremely interesting time. 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.”