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Christina Calderón, last native speaker of the Yaghan language.          Source: SIGPA

Chile’s SuperGran Is Last Living Keeper Of A 10,000-Year-Old Language and Culture


The 10,000-year-old Yaghan language of Chile's remote Tierra del Fuego has ‘one’ remaining fluent speaker left, and the entire ancient culture is on the very edge of dying out altogether. So what is being done to save these ancient words which echo memories from the very beginnings of human culture?

We are all aware of the plight of the animal kingdom as it holds onto the last bastions of its natural inhabitations. The website claims that of the “two million different species” on our planet, between “200 and 2,000 extinctions occur every year.” But we must also be aware that in ‘changing’ creatures’ natural environments, extinctions are not limited to the animal kingdom but manifest within human culture also; evident in that a 10,000 year old human language is currently on the verge of being forgotten.

At 91 years old, Cristina Calderón spends much of her time in front of her fire in a rocking chair as she gracefully awaits her own end of days. Highlighted in a recent Reuters report, when Calderón dies, not only will 14 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren be left without a grandmother, but with her will vanish an entire language. The Chilean radio station ADN reports that Calderón is the last “full-blooded representative of an entire people, the Yaghan," which have inhabited the area on and around Tierra del Fuego - the far southern tip of South America - “for more than ten millennia.”

Cristina Calderón in 2013. (CC BY 2.0)

Cristina Calderón in 2013. (CC BY 2.0)

Being identified as the ‘last surviving native speaker of the Yaghan language’ it is easy to understand why in 2009 the Chilean government recognized Calderón as a “Living Human Treasure,” a distinction UNESCO reserves for “people who possess to a high degree the knowledge and skills required for performing or re-creating specific elements of the intangible cultural heritage.”

Who Are/Were The Yaghan Culture?

The Yaghan were a nomadic people who traveled and fished by canoe and hunted seals around Tierra del Fuego and the archipelago of Cape Horn, for more than 10,000 years. An estimated 3,000 Yaghan existed in the mid-19th century when Europeans began to colonize the region and a BBC Travel article informs that a 2002 census counted the native population at just under 1,700 people.

The Yaghan language is based on observations in nature and in a 2016 article in Landscape Magazine Calderón said “With few words, we say a lot.” She described birds taking flight in Yaghan being described with one verb for a single bird and another for a flock of birds. Furthermore, different words were used for launching canoes and separate words were assigned to eating fish and shellfish.

In 1871, Anglican missionaries Thomas Bridges and George Lewis established a mission at Tierra del Fuego, and for more than a decade Bridges compiled a 30,000-word dictionary of Yaghan-English. While many of the Europeans had great intentions, their colonization brought with it a host of diseases, and alcohol, which quickly decimated the Yaghan population. Much of their ancestral lands and hunting waterways were lost to European settlers and this is the afore mentioned ‘environmental change’ we discussed.

Because language comes from culture, if the language goes, then so too will the entire Yaghan culture with its traditions and freedoms associated with nomadic living.

The Destiny Of The Yaghan Language And Culture

The second-to-last full-blooded Yaghan, Emelinda Acuña, died in 2005 and Cristina Calderón is the last carrier of the ancestral heritage of the Yaghan culture and in her mind are the ancient voices and memories of the collective conscious of her ancient race who inhabited the southernmost tip of the planet.

2018, the National Director of the National Indigenous Development Corporation (Conadi), Chile, Jorge Retamal, presented a further award of recognition to Cristina Calderón, the last native speaker of the Yagan language. (Gobernación Antártica Chilena)

2018, the National Director of the National Indigenous Development Corporation (Conadi), Chile, Jorge Retamal, presented a further award of recognition to Cristina Calderón, the last native speaker of the Yagan language. (Gobernación Antártica Chilena)

Understanding the importance of her mind and tongue, Calderón actively transmits her ancestral wisdom in her native language to those family members who are closest to her. Her daughter told Landscape Magazine, “We have compiled a great deal of existing material on this language, and for a number of years we have been working with my grandmother, making audio recordings, giving language workshops in the community, and transcribing Yaghan stories.”

Top image: Christina Calderón, last native speaker of the Yaghan language.          Source: SIGPA

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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