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Letter with numbers in Spanish and an unknown language This 17th-century letter shows translations for numbers from Spanish to a lost language. (Jeffrey Quilter / Peabody Museum)

Lost Language Found

Archaeologists discover a forgotten language in Peru

By Zach Jones | September 30 , 2010
<br />The letter was found in church ruins near Trujillo, Peru. (Jim McMahon)

The letter was found in church ruins near Trujillo, Peru. (Jim McMahon)

Last week, archaeologists announced the discovery of a language so old that people have forgotten its name.

When a team of archaeologists unearthed a letter buried under the ruins of a church near Trujillo, Peru, they knew they had found something special. But the team kept their discovery a secret until they understood what they had found.

"We discovered a language no one has seen or heard since the 16th or 17th century," says archaeologist Jeffrey Quilter.

One side is a letter written in Spanish. But written on the back of the letter are numbers translated from Spanish into an unknown language lost for hundreds of years.

Quilter and his team think the numbers are related to Quechua, a language still spoken by millions of people in South America. It could even be a language spoken by ancient Peruvian fishermen, nicknamed pescadora by historians. Researchers have been searching for a document written in this language for many years.

But the numbers could be from many ancient languages. Hundreds of languages were spoken in North America and South America before settlers from Europe came into contact with native people, and most of those languages have been lost. "I think a lot of people don't realize how many languages were spoken in precontact times," Quilter says.

Today, almost 7,000 languages are spoken across the world. But more than half are thought to be in danger of dying out. Researchers all over the world are trying to preserve (save) many of these endangered languages by writing them down and recording what they sound like.

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