5. Jean-Francois Champollion mastered ancient languages from a young age and had discovered how to translate the hieroglyphics of Egypt before he hit 40
Jean-Francois Champollion was just 41-years-old when he died of a stroke in Paris in 1832. However, he had managed to accomplish more in his four decades on Earth than most men could hope to achieve in two lifetimes. The one-time child genius grew up to become an expert linguist and philologist. Champollion was fluent in a number of languages, both modern and ancient and was a true polyglot. Despite these notable skills, however, the Frenchman will forever be remembered for being the ‘Founder and Father of Egyptology‘.
At the age of 16, the precocious Champollion was already fluent in Coptic and Arabic and was giving presentations on the possibility of deciphering Demotic, the written language of ancient Egypt. While he loved the challenge of learning languages, he loved the challenge of cracking the ancient code even more. And when the Rosetta Stone was discovered during the Napoleonic campaigns in North Africa, he was almost on his own in believing that this meant hieroglyphics could finally be translated and understood.
At the age of 18, Champollion was a university teacher. He had also added Sanskrit, Pahlevi, Persian Ethiopic to his repertoire of languages, establishing himself as a true polyglot before the age of 21. However, his greatest achievement came in the 1820s. Building on the work of several other philologists, Champollion published a ground-breaking paper showing how the ancient Egyptian system of writing could be translated. In 1829, he traveled to Egypt to put his theory to the test. To the amazement of his contemporaries, he was able to read hieroglyphics. Champollion was the first person in more than 2,000 years to have understood what was written on the walls of the tombs buried in the Valley of the Kings.