An indigenous Chilean language disappears after the death of the last native speaker

Cristina Calderon died Wednesday at the age of 93. She was fluent in the Yamana language of the Yagan community and after the death of her sister in 2003, was the last person in the world who could speak it. She worked to save her knowledge by creating a dictionary of the language with Spanish translations.

“With her, an important part of the cultural memory of our people is gone,” Lidia Gonzalez, Calderon’s daughter, said on Twitter. Gonzalez is one of the representatives currently drafting a new constitution in Chile.

The dictionary, however, meant there was hope for preserving the language in some form, she said.

“Although with his departure a wealth of particularly valuable empirical knowledge is lost in linguistic terms, the possibility of rescuing and systematizing the language remains open,” she said.

Although there are still a few dozen Yagans left, over the generations members of the community have stopped learning the language, considered “isolated” because it was difficult to determine the origin of its words.

Calderon lived in a simple house and made a living selling knitted socks in the Chilean town of Villa Ukika, a town established by the Yagan people on the outskirts of Puerto Williams.

The ancestral ethnic group once populated the archipelagos of the far south of South America, now Chile and Argentina, an area that nudges towards frozen Antarctica.


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