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Thousands Once Spoke His Language in the Amazon. Now, He’s the Only One.

Thousands Once Spoke His Language in the Amazon. Now, He’s the Only One.

Thursday, 28 December, 2017 - 09:15
Amadeo fishing near Intuto. The Peruvian Amazon was once a vast linguistic repository, but in the last century at least 37 languages have disappeared in Peru alone. Credit Ben C. Solomon/The New York Times

Amadeo García García rushed upriver in his canoe, slipping into the hidden, booby-trapped camp where his brother Juan lay dying.

Juan writhed in pain and shook uncontrollably as his fever rose, battling malaria. As Amadeo consoled him, the sick man muttered back in words that no one else on Earth still understood.

Je’intavea’, he said that sweltering day in 1999. I am so ill.

The words were Taushiro. A mystery to linguists and anthropologists alike, the language was spoken by a tribe that vanished into the jungles of the Amazon basin in Peru generations ago, hoping to save itself from the invaders whose weapons and diseases had brought it to the brink of extinction.

A bend on the “wild river,” as they called it, sheltered the two brothers and the other 15 remaining members of their tribe. The clan protected its tiny settlement with a ring of deep pits, expertly hidden by a thin cover of leaves and sticks. They kept packs of attack dogs to stop outsiders from coming near. Even by the end of the 20th century, few outsiders had ever seen the Taushiro or heard their language beyond the occasional hunter, a few Christian missionaries and the armed rubber tappers who came at least twice to enslave the small tribe.

But in the end it was no use. Without rifles or medicine, they were dying off.

A jaguar killed one of the children as he slept. Two more siblings, bitten by snakes, perished without antivenom. One child drowned in a stream. A young man bled to death while hunting in the forest.

Then came the diseases. First measles, which took Juan and Amadeo’s mother. Finally, a fatal form of malaria killed their father, the patriarch of the tribe. His body was buried in the floor of his home before the structure was torched to the ground, following Taushiro tradition.

So by the time Amadeo wrestled his dying brother into the canoe that day, they were the only ones who remained, the last of a culture that once numbered in the thousands. Amadeo sped to a distant town, Intuto, that was home to a clinic. A crowd gathered on the small river dock to see who the dying stranger was, dressed only in a loincloth made of palm leaves.

Juan’s shaking soon gave way to stiffness. He drifted in and out of consciousness, finally looking up at Amadeo.

The New York Times

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