Traces of Lost Language and Decimal Number System Discovered in Peru

The back side of the Magdalena document shows translations for numbers from Spanish to a lost language. Photo by Jeffrey Quilter. Excavations at a Colonial Period site on the North Coast of Peru have revealed the first traces of a lost language. Sometime in the early 17th century, a Spaniard jotted down some notes on the back of a letter. Four hundred years later, archaeologists dug up and studied the paper, revealing how Peruvian natives used numbers.

The find is significant because it offers the first glimpse of a previously unknown language and number system, says Dr. Jeffrey Quilter, director of the archaeological project at Magdalena de Cao Viejoand curator at the Peabody Museum Harvard. It also points to the great diversity of Perus cultural heritage in the early Colonial Period. The interactions between natives and Spanish were far more complex than previously thought.

Magdalena de Cao is located within the El Brujo Archaeological Complex in the Chicama Valley, Northern Peru and was built on the remains of an abandoned Moche temple. It was a reduccin, a town in which the conquered native populations were forced to live, subject to the Spanish authorities’ attempts to ‘civilize’ and Christianize them.

The archaeologists were able to deduce that the lost language speakers used a decimal system like our own.

The folded, 21 centimetres by 12 centimetres documentwasburied in the 17th century as the Magdalena de Cao church collapsed, and discovered at the archaeological site in 2008. The obverse of the Magdalena document contains a letter concerning a minor dispute over the price of some cloth. The reverse of the paper is far more important, as it wasused to record a list of translations from Spanish names of numbers (uno, dos, and tres) and Arabic numerals (4 to 10, 21, 30, 100, and 200) to the unknown language.

The archaeologists were able to deduce that the lost language speakers used a decimal system like our own, and that whomever was nothing down the numbers was trying to understand the combinatory rules of the number system. Charimeansone, andmarian two. Three is apar, ten is bencor, and mari-bencor chari tayac is twenty-one, which would makethirty-oneapar-bencor chari tayac (three-ten one and/plus, or three tens and/plus one)?

The name of the lost language is still a mystery. In the early 17th century, many languages were spoken in the region and information about them today is limited. Some of the numbers have never been seen before, while others may have been borrowed from Quechua, still spoken today in Peru along with Spanish, or a related language.

The American-Peruvian research team was able to eliminate Mochica, spoken into the Colonial Period but now extinct. Apparent borrowing of some of the numbers on the Magdalena document from Quechuan points the researchers to Quingnam and Pescadora as possible candidates for their newly discovered numeral system. However, neither languages 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.

Its a little piece of paper with a big story to tell, says Dr Quilter. He explains the 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 full research is detailed in the cover story of this month’s American Anthropologist and Dr Quilter explains allabout the Magdalena document inthis video on the Peabody Museum’s website.