Lost numerals revealed

Marc Zender of the Peabody Museum (I’ve written about his Tolkien anthropology course before) emailed me the other day to let me know about an article in the new American Anthropologist written by Jeff Quilter, Zender, and several additional co-authors, documenting a lost language from northern coastal Peru (you can read the press release here, with a link at the bottom to the full article for those with access). In the course of archaeological work led by Quilter, a letter was discovered, written by a Spaniard in the early 17th century, on whose obverse is a series of numerals in this otherwise unidentified language, as follows:

5—himic [?]
6.—sut [?]
21. maribencor chari tayac
30 apar bencor
100 chari pachac
200 mari pachac

From this, we can see that this language apparently had a fairly regular decimal numeral system. The one intriguing feature is the word tayac at the end of the phrase for 21, which the authors sensibly interpret as meaning ‘and/plus’. The words for 4, 6, 7, and 100 are all related to Quechua (the major Inka language, imposed on large parts of the precolonial Andes in the 15th and 16th centuries), but the others are (so far as anyone has been able to tell) unrelated to any other documented language. While the borrowing of ‘100’ is quite typical in cases of imperial conquest – but my suspicion is that what we have here is a record of a bilingual Quechua speaker engaged in a little bit of numerical code-switching – it wouldn’t be typical (though not impossible) for just three numerals for 4, 6, and 7 to be borrowed, leaving the rest intact. Of course, given this one text, there’s no way to tell for sure. A further minor mystery is why the writer chose to write the first three numerals in Spanish, then switched to Western numerals thereafter – possibly just to save time.

Because the pre-colonial local languages of the Andes are extremely poorly documented, this find sheds a little light on the range of linguistic variability that existed in the Americas at and just after the time of the early European conquests. No doubt the historical linguists will attempt to go further with this, comparing these numerals with other documented languages. The article is a great little piece of holistic linguistic, historical, archaeological anthropology and deserves all the attention that it will no doubt be getting in the near future.


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