Unearthed 400-year-old document shows how Peruvian natives used numbers

Aug 24, 2010 By Faith Sutter
The back side of an early 17th century letter shows translations for numbers from Spanish to a lost language. Photo by Jeffrey Quilter

In the early 1600s in northern Peru, a curious Spaniard jotted down some notes on the back of a letter. Four hundred years later, archaeologists dug up and studied the paper, revealing what appear to be the first traces of a lost language.

“It’s a little piece of paper with a big story to tell,” said Jeffrey Quilter, who has conducted investigations in Peru for more than three decades.

Quilter is deputy director for curatorial affairs at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, as well as director of the archaeological project at Magdalena de Cao Viejo in the El Brujo Archaeological Complex, where the paper was excavated two years ago.

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) into the unknown language. Some of the translated numbers have never been seen before, while others may have been borrowed from Quechua or a related local language. Quechua is still spoken today in Peru, but in the early 17th century many other languages were spoken in the region, such as Quingnam and Pescadora.

Information about them today is limited. Even so, the were able to deduce that speakers of the lost language used a decimal system like our own.

Quilter said that 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 find is significant because it offers the first glimpse of a previously unknown language and number system,” said Quilter. “It also points to the great diversity of Peru’s 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 determine it was not Mochica, spoken on the north coast into the colonial period but now extinct, and pointed 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 but they were identified as separate tongues in early colonial Spanish writings, so a definitive connection has not yet been established.

The research is detailed in the Aug. 23 edition of American Anthropologist. To read the article, “Traces of a Lost Language and Number System Discovered on the North Coast of Peru.”

Explore further: Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

Related Stories

What is unique in the brain of an Arabic speaker?

Nov 04, 2009

Literary Arabic is expressed in the brain of an Arabic speaker as a second language and not as a native language. This has been shown in a new study by Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim of the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the ...

Bilingual babies: The roots of bilingualism in newborns

Feb 16, 2010

It may not be obvious, but hearing two languages regularly during pregnancy puts infants on the road to bilingualism by birth. According to new findings in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Scienc ...

Mandarin language is music to the brain

Dec 12, 2006

It’s been shown that the left side of the brain processes language and the right side processes music; but what about a language like Mandarin Chinese, which is musical in nature with wide tonal ranges"

Probing Question: What is lost when a language dies?

Feb 15, 2008

Oy vey! Although English dictionaries list "Oh dear!" as a rough equivalent of this Yiddish expression, Yiddishists will tell you how short that falls in conveying the phrase's varied, flexible and nuanced meanings, ranging ...

NZ PhD research documents endangered language

May 21, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- PhD graduate Laura Dimock spent nine months on an island in Vanuatu documenting the Nahavaq language, a previously undocumented language in danger of extinction.

Recommended for you

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

17 hours ago

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

20 hours ago

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

21 hours ago

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

21 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gwrede
1 / 5 (1) Aug 24, 2010
Nothing says the person wasn't actually teaching Peruvians the decimal system.
nochez
5 / 5 (1) Aug 25, 2010
Nothing says the person wasn't actually teaching Peruvians the decimal system.

If you look at the picture, you will see that numbers are related to words in a local Peruvian language. If there is a 'word' for the numbers, it means that the concept of the numbers was already known by these people. If the Peruvians were learning the numbers from the Spanish, it is likely that they would 'borrow' not only the symbols but also the names for the numbers.

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

White House updating online privacy policy

A new Obama administration privacy policy out Friday explains how the government will gather the user data of online visitors to WhiteHouse.gov, mobile apps and social media sites. It also clarifies that ...