Last native speaker of indigenous Chilean language dies


SANTIAGO — An indigenous language in the far south of South America has all but disappeared after the death of its last living speaker and guardian of its ancestral culture.

Cristina Calderon died Wednesday at the age of 93. She was fluent in the Yamana language of the Yagan community and after her sister’s death in 2003, she 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.

Cristina Calderon was the last known speaker of the Yamana language in Chile.
Cristina Calderon, 89, the last native speaker of the Yagan language, is pictured at the local community center in Puerto Williams, southern Chile.
Before her death, Cristina Calderon was working on a dictionary offering Spanish translations for the Yamana language.
AFP via Getty Images

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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