The last remnants of a language killed by the conquistadors
September 25, 2011 8:50 PM   Subscribe

In 2008 a letter was excavated during an archaeological dig of a Peruvian colonial town abandoned for unknown reasons around the turn of the 18th Century. On the back of that letter were recorded several numbers and their names in a dead tongue, lost in the upheaval following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Even though this may be the only remnant of an entire language, there is quite a bit that linguists can glean from these fragments. For a brief overview of the findings of research by a joint American-Peruvian research group, read here. And here is the full journal article, which places these numbers in their historical and linguistic context.
posted by Kattullus (11 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
That is a really cool find! Great post.
posted by wowbobwow at 9:42 PM on September 25, 2011

Yet another AR post.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 9:57 PM on September 25, 2011

I cannot wait to fully read this when I get home. thanks!
posted by Busithoth at 9:57 PM on September 25, 2011

Questioning the Inca Paradox: Did the civilization behind Machu Picchu really fail to develop a written language? "[T]he Incas developed a unique way to record information, a system of knotted cords called khipus (sometimes spelled quipus). In recent years, the question of whether these khipus were actually a method of three-dimensional writing that met the Incas' specific needs has become one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Andes."
posted by homunculus at 9:59 PM on September 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

They mention the dry climate in the journal article, but damn it must be insanely dry there for that paper to be in such good condition.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:38 AM on September 26, 2011

Yeah, homunculus. At least that's what we are taught in school in Peru. Quipus hold stories and letters, although nobody knows how to read them.
posted by Tarumba at 5:40 AM on September 26, 2011

Argh! I forgot to link to the Magdalena de Cao Viejo excavation website. But yes, oinopaponton, judging from pictures the place is dry as a bone. Other paper finds have been made.
posted by Kattullus at 5:52 AM on September 26, 2011

Those paper finds are fabulous. Paper objects aren't called "ephemera" for nothing, and it's really cool to see how people this long ago interacted with paper in their everyday life, as opposed to the self-selected texts that are more likely to survive (government documents, religious texts, sometimes journals and bound books). There's a lot of playfulness there.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:58 AM on September 26, 2011

Also, we have a whole bunch of languages, without counting the more than a hundred languages of non-contacted/non-studied Amazonian tribes.

Fun fact: You may be unaware of it, but you know some Quechua words: Jerky (as in beef jerky) comes from Charqui, which was dried meat the messengers would use during Inca times. The meat was usually that of llama, which is probably also a word you know. If you have had quinoa, there you have another Quechua word.

If you want to call someone "son of the devil" you can use Supaypa wawan.
posted by Tarumba at 5:59 AM on September 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

I just wrote an article about this site for Archaeology magazine. The lost language is just one of the many cool things they've found, including lots of clothing and bones.

It's unheard-of to find that much paper that's so old. Luckily they had near-perfect conditions: dry as a bone, and most of it was buried when part of the church collapsed. Apparently you can hear the jaws hitting the floor whenever the researchers present their results at conferences. One grad student said it felt like she was showing "archaeo-porn."

It's interesting to look at the paper in terms of the era of cultural upheaval it comes from--pretty much exactly when power was shifting from the Inca to the Spanish, when Peruvian culture was changing from all-indigenous to indigenous-plus-European, the mix that characterizes it today. In a way it's a window to the birth of modern Peru.

Also interesting to look at how the locals re-used the paper after it was left behind (mysteriously) by the Catholic priests. The written (and printed) word was one of the key tools of the conquest, at least as much as swords, used to set down new laws, keep track of tributes and massive forced population moves, and not least to record at least one version of the events of the conquest itself.

Paper and books were incredibly valuable, at least to the Spanish. So what did the locals use it for when the Spanish were gone? They made cutout figures, wrapped their cigarettes in it, and in at least one case, wiped themselves with it. Not so reverent.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:21 PM on September 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

Excellent post, and thank you for reminding me I have to go visit the Peabody again.
posted by madamjujujive at 12:36 PM on September 26, 2011

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