Indigenous Languages: Guardians of the Ancestral Knowledge

Macuna medicine man gathering Banisteriopsis caapi, Colombia, 1952. Richard Evans

Indigenous Languages: Guardians of Ancestral Knowledge

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By Gabriel Álvarez

Out of nowhere emerged a voice with the following order: “Jumora ujkwoku nkereu ujkwoku.” Then, Buoka was born. He emerged from the void, born already with thoughts and knowledge. From the retina of his eye, Buoka created Wajari, his brother who was born blind but given a voice. He whispered: “Enemey ereuke tjuruode.” Thus emerged Tchejeru. These were the early beginnings of the Piaroa creation.  In a region called Ñuema-a, high mountains rose, and these were called Kwawai. A stream and a large lake formed shortly after. On the other side of the lake, a large tree emerged, and from this tree, our food was born.

Myth of the Piaroa Creation 

For thousands of years, long before the emergence of modern education, the only way to transmit knowledge from generation to generation was to speak through the word. From every corner of the globe, myths, legends, and stories were vital to understanding how cultural tradition was passed down.

Oral transmission was the way to preserve and transmit vital knowledge for the survival and adaptability of the community. In turn, younger members socialize into the group. The creation of utensils, cooking, worldview, religious rituals, and plant medicine are a few examples of the teachings passed down from parents to children.

In turn, language evolved along with the development and adaptation of each of these communities. They became something more than a vehicle for communication but instead served as a living library to keep the greatest secrets of each community.

During the colonial period, many of these languages and the knowledge linked to them abruptly disappeared, losing an irreplaceable wealth that had been developing for millennia. Some were lost due to the demise of their speakers, but others fell into oblivion due to forced cultural assimilation from dominant Western powers.

Although it seems that the atrocities of the past are left behind, especially as we move towards an increasingly homogenous society– the situation is not likely to improve. Almost half of the 6,700 languages believed to exist in the world (most of which are languages spoken by indigenous people) are in danger of disappearing— and with them, a vast source of ancestral knowledge.

Audrey Butt Colson

To understand the value of indigenous languages, we must talk about these peoples. When we speak of indigenous peoples, we have to talk about diversity. Although their number is relatively low concerning the world population, they represent the majority of the linguistic and cultural diversity of the planet. In addition, the lands in which they occupy hold the greatest variety of species— both flora and fauna.

On the other hand, indigenous knowledge about natural medicine is unique and varied. According to researchers from Evolutionary Biology at the University of Zurich, after analyzing more than 3,500 species of medicinal plants associated with 236 indigenous languages, they observed that 75% of these plants and their uses link to a single language. This means that if a language disappears, all the knowledge that it contains will disappear.

“Each indigenous language is a unique reserve of medicinal knowledge: a Rosetta stone to unravel and learn about the contributions of nature to people.”

Another important conclusion: of those 3,500 plant species, only 5% are on the red list of threaded species. This means that these languages are at a greater risk of disappearing compared to the species themselves.

One of the most critical places in terms of indigenous knowledge is the American continent. In both North and South America, most medicinal knowledge links to endangered languages; therefore, it is a priority area for conservation efforts. Additionally, discoveries in Papua New Guinea, a territory with a sizeable indigenous presence, the linguistic data is worrisome. Only 58% of the young people speak their language fluently compared to the 91% of their parents’ generation. Something easily replaceable to the vast majority of languages in the world.

We have a challenge that will be crucial in the coming decades. In addition to protecting biodiversity and the environment in which we live, we must also realize the importance of conserving the cultural diversity that identifies us as a species. Perhaps maintaining the balance between these two factors is the only way to live in true harmony with nature.

Let us commit to revitalizing indigenous languages. Let us celebrate diversity. Let us celebrate life.

A Yanorami shaman. Claudia Andujar