Some 400 years ago in North Peru, a Spaniard had jotted down numbers on the back of a letter. The small piece of paper has now been excavated by archaeologists and it has revealed traces of a lost language.
A combined research team of US–Peruvian archaeologists at Santa Mar´ıa Magdalena de Cao in the Chicama Valley of North Peru found this document that lists a few but important words that serve as keys to unlocking the intricacies of a native language that was spoken in prehistory and into the Colonial Period but has since become extinct. The name of the lost language, however, is still a mystery.
Since 2004, the team led by Dr Jeffrey Quilter of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, have been uncovering the remains of a town and church complex occupied from 1578 to 1780. They have so far unearthed a wide variety of artefacts, including a treasure trove of paper documents, all of which provided new information on the early Colonial Period in Peru when Spaniards and indigenous peoples were struggling in one of the great transitions of the Early Modern era.
But a collapse of the walls of the Magdalena de Cao church compound in the late 17th century trapped a wide array of materials under piles of bricks. Combined with the remarkable preservative qualities of the dry desert environment, these materials included items of the daily lives and religious calling. Among these papers was a complete letter concerning a minor event in the life of the church and town community.
"The reverse of this paper was later used to record a list of terms for numbers in a language previously unknown to scholars. How and why this document was created and later discarded is linked to larger issues in the history of the site and of Peru," says Quilter.
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.
When found, the paper was folded; when opened, it measured 21 cm in width and slightly more than 12 cm in height. Writing covered most of one side of the paper, which had been oriented so that its width was greater than its height in relation to the text. "We define this side as the obverse because we assume the letter was written first and then the numbers were recorded later on the back of the letter," the archaeologist explains.
The relatively extensive text on the obverse of the document is a letter to a priest from a servant or agent regarding a dispute between the priest and a tradesman or merchant over the price of some cloth, possibly for church use, as for an altar or liturgical vestment. The handwriting conforms to a style common in the early 17th century.
But the real fascinating bit was yet to come. "The number list, on the folded, reverse side of the paper was written in a different, less florid hand than on the obverse and with a quill with a thicker nib. The recipient may have later used the back of the letter to record the numbers—although, of course, other writers cannot be discounted.
"The person wrote out the Spanish names for the numbers 1–3 in a single column, then changed to writing Arabic numerals for the rest of the sequence on the left-hand side of the page. The numbers proceed from one through ten. Numbers six and eight are each followed by a period and then a dash and the others with only a dash followed by handwritten words for what we interpret as the equivalent number in a native language. After the numeral ten, the sequence continues with 21, 30, 100, and 200." It was an unknown language.
So what were the numbers about? Quilter says, "Both the format and the contents of the brief list suggest that the author may have been recording numbers with the aim of understanding the numerical system in question, possibly during or shortly after an interview with a native informant. This is hard to determine, but it suggests that the recorder understood that by asking for the numbers in question, the rules of the number system could be determined."
A composite image of the nave (central part) of the church as photographed using aerial photography.
The team then worked hard on it. Their painstaking research determined that, while several of the Magadalena number terms were likely to have been borrowed from a Quechuan (still spoken in Peru) language, the remainder recorded a decimal number system in an otherwise unknown language. Historical sources of the region mention at least two potential candidate languages, Pescadora and Quingnam. However, because neither is documented beyond their names, the researchers found a definite connection impossible to establish.
But then these are just first traces of the language as yet. "Although the number list on the document provides evidence of a newly discovered numeral system, it also impedes easy comparison with other languages. Number sequences do not necessarily provide linguistic clues to how languages are generally structured because numbers commonly are relatively isolated within a narrow, repetitive system. The apparent borrowing of some of the numbers on our document from Quechuan, however, does offer some data that allow us to consider the nature of this previously unknown tongue," says Quilter.
This is just the beginning and a lot remains to be done. "Although this small list of numbers has offered new data on language and numeracy in pre-Hispanic and Colonial Peru, it also emphasises how much remains to be learned," he says and goes on to add, "It is certainly a previously unknown language, although we hope that it is further chronicled in documents yet to be discovered, whether by archivists or archaeologists," he says.
The discovery was recently published in the American Anthropologist journal of the American Anthropological Association, according to the Peabody Museum. The Peabody Museum is among the oldest archaeological and ethnographic museums in the world.
Other members of the team were Marc Zender, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University; Karen Spalding, Department of History, University of Connecticut, and Pontifical Catholic University of Peru; Régulo Franco Jordán, Fundación Wiese, Peru; César Gálvez Mora, National Institute of Culture, Peru; and Juan Castañeda, Murga National University of Peru.