The fire that destroyed a Brazilian museum containing 20 million artifacts also eliminated records of entire languages that nobody speaks anymore

  • A huge fire destroyed about 20 million items at Brazil’s National Museum on Sunday.
  • Among the items lost were audio recordings of indigenous languages that are no longer spoken.
  • The president of Brazil has called for the museum to be rebuilt using private and public money.
  • On Monday, some scientists reported that technicians may have managed to save some of the museum’s items.

As a massive fire destroyed roughly 20 million items at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, many audio recordings of indigenous languages that are no longer spoken were lost as well.

The museum – one of the largest natural history museums in Latin America – held collections of indigenous objects that anthropologists used in an effort to preserve native languages. Much of the text and sound material in these archives documented languages that are either gone or on the decline in Brazil.

It’s not clear whether any of the material was digitised, but if it wasn’t, it’s likely these languages have essentially disappeared forever.

“I have no words to say how horrible this is,” Brazilian anthropologist Mariana Françozo, an expert on South American indigenous objects, told National Geographic. “The indigenous collections are a tremendous loss … we can no longer study them, we can no longer understand what our ancestors did. It’s heartbreaking.”

On Monday, Brazilian President Michel Temer called for the museum to be rebuilt using private and public money, saying the loss of artifacts is “incalculable to Brazil.” The museum held its 200th anniversary this year.

It is not clear how the fire, which started after the museum had closed to visitors for the day, began. The Washington Post reported that police in riot gear held back Brazilians who gathered at the museum to call for Temer’s resignation. Crowd members said a lack of funding and modernisation efforts had contributed to the fire.

Agência Brasil reported in 2004 that on a visit to the museum, Brazil’s state secretary for energy, naval industry and oil discovered dangerous wiring with the potential to cause a devastating fire.

Some of the National Museum’s items may have withstood the fire, scientists said on Monday. Paleontologist Taissa Rodrigues told National Geographic that some of the metal cabinets containing fossils may have survived, and biologist Duane Fonseca reported on Twitter that some of the roughly 40,000 mollusk specimens had been saved.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.