The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has put out a press release summarized in the subhead thus: “DNA analysis of present-day populations in the Chachapoyas region of Peru indicates that the original inhabitants were not uprooted en masse by the Inca Empire’s expansion into this area hundreds of years ago.” As you can see, its primary focus is genetics, but it winds up discussing language:

Paul Heggarty, a linguist and senior author of the study, also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, was first motivated to launch this project after unexpected results from a linguistic fieldwork trip to Chachapoyas. He was able to find a few remaining elderly speakers of an indigenous language that most assumed was already extinct in this region. “Quechua is one of our most direct living links to the people of the New World before Columbus. It still has millions of speakers, more than any other language family of the Americas – but not in Chachapoyas anymore. There are only a dozen or so fluent speakers now, in a few remote villages, so we need to act fast if we’re to work out its real origins here.”

The Chachapoyas form of Quechua has usually been classified as most closely related to the Quechua spoken in Ecuador, but the new DNA results show no close connections between the Quechua-speakers in these two areas. “Linguists need to rethink their traditional view of the family tree of Quechua languages, and the history of how they spread through the Andes,” notes Heggarty. “It seems that Quechua reached Chachapoyas without any big movement of people. This also doesn’t fit with the idea that the Incas forced out the Chachapoyas population wholesale.”

Jairo Valqui, another linguist co-author from the National University of San Marcos in Lima, adds a further perspective on an even earlier language layer. “Once Quechua and Spanish arrived, the local Chachapoyas languages died out. Recovering anything from them is a real puzzle and a challenge for linguists. They left very few traces, but there are some characteristic combinations of sounds, for example, that still survive in people’s surnames and in local placenames, like Kuelap itself.”

Valqui, himself a Chachapoyano, also makes a point of taking these genetic results back to the local population. “For Peruvian society today, this matters. There’s long been an appreciation of the Incas, but often at the cost of sidelining everything else in the archaeological record across Peru, and the diversity in our linguistic and genetic heritage too. As these latest findings remind us: Peru is not just Machu Picchu, and its indigenous people were not just the Incas.”

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. “…its indigenous people were not just the Incas.” I still remember a summer class I took as an idle college freshman/sophomore, at Wash U in St. Louis, in pre-Incan civilizations. Amazing! Also amazing is the collection the Denver Art Museum has of artifacts from those civilizations. (Its European 20th century art collection is pretty scant, since we’re such a new city.)

    Interesting challenge to the traditionally assumed connection between genetics and language, patently absurd anyway.

  2. Here is the original article. I’m sitting at a conference right now and have only been able to cast a glance at it, but it looks like a nice piece of interdisciplinary work.

  3. I’ve read the paper and looked at some of the Supplementary Text, and unfortunately it’s linguistic nonsense. Heggarty rightly says:

    To classify certain forms of Quechua [including Chachapoya] all within a putative QIIb branch entails, implicitly, a historical hypothesis: that there once existed a Proto-QIIb language, spoken by some specific, single population, and that all QIIb languages derive from that single source.

    Then he says that linguists don’t all agree on whether QIIb is a valid clade, given that there are only two clearcut shared innovations, and they are both of a natural kind (merger of /q/ into /k/ and voicing of stops after nasals) that might occur independently. Right enough, though I haven’t checked out what the other proposed shared innovations might be.

    But then he goes off the rails:

    So the changes found shared across those varieties may simply reflect similar contexts, of Quechua spreading culturally, by being learnt by multiple populations in situ, rather than demographically, brought by an incoming population from a single Proto-QIIb source that may never actually have existed.

    But this is a false opposition: the fact that a language is spoken by more than one genetic population does not mean that no single source can have existed. Five minutes’ reflection would convince Heggarty that he himself descends (at least in the paternal line) from an anglophone population that does not in any way descend from the original English-speakers in England, but that that does not entail that Hiberno-English is not descended from Middle English just like all the other current varieties of English. When a population acquires a language by shift, there will be traces (as the Supplementary Text correctly says) of the substrate, but the clade remains unbroken.

    So Heggarty’s remark quoted above, “Linguists need to rethink their traditional view of the family tree of Quechua languages”, is unfounded, or at least his work is no refutation of the traditional view, whatever its merits as a corrective in other domains such as population history.

  4. Too bad; thanks for the reality check!

  5. Nelson Goering says:

    Thanks for digging into that, John Cowan! My immediate reaction on seeing anything about how a genetic study forces reinterpretation of a linguistic family tree is always scepticism. I suppose there are really times were that could be the case, but normally it’s just an example of the conflation of genes, peoples, and languages which we all ought to know to be wary of by now. It’s actually kind of depressing to see how much these kinds of confusion seem to be making comebacks these days. (Though there is at least some genuinely very interesting and potentially linguistically-relevant work in ancient DNA going on right now, too.)

  6. As an anthropological archaeologist with more than 30 years of studying the Chachapoya past, I found the article defective in a number of ways. Most disturbing was the premise beneath all of the publicity: “It seems that Quechua reached Chachapoyas without any big movement of people. This also doesn’t fit with the idea that the Incas forced out the Chachapoyas population wholesale.”

    Neither of those assumptions exist in the academic literature. No one ever claimed that the local population was removed “wholesale.” Read the Supplimentary Information and you will see that the authors cite two ethnohistorical publications by Peter Lerche and Inge Schjellerup that estimate a 50% population reduction under Inca authority. But even those are best guesses, not products of quantitative analyses. The Max Planck authors are countering a non-existent argument… not even a straw man. This is disturbing because the authors are of high repute. Dr. Valqui is the authority on preinca language(s) in the Chachapoyas region. The results of the DNA analysis reported here are solid, but the results and interpretation are not so novel as Peruvian anthropologist Evelyn Guevarra published a very similar study with the same basic conclusions in 2016. Dr. Heggarty has not worked in Chachapoyas, nor are any of the authors academic authorities on Chachapoyas archaeology or ethnohistory. The data in this publication are fine. Unfortunately, the article succeeded in seizing international headlines by challenging a pseudo-scientific claim that they don’t seem to recognize is pseudoscientific. Proper peer review should have caught the contradiction between 100% (wholesale), and 50% (estimated) population loss. There are a lot of people who could have said, “Wait. This is not entirely honest” prior to publication. But, as it stands on its claims, the publication strikes me as spurious.


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