INTUTO, Peru — 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. 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.
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.
“The strange thing was how quiet Amadeo was,” said Tomás Villalobos, a Christian missionary who was with him when Juan died. “I asked him, ‘How do you feel?’ And he said to me: ‘It’s over now for us.’”
Amadeo said it haltingly, in broken Spanish, the only way he would be able to communicate with the world from that moment on. No one else spoke his language anymore. The survival of his culture had suddenly come down to a sole, complicated man.
An unexpected burden
Languages are typically passed down through families, but Amadeo broke his apart decades before he realized what the consequences would be for his culture and its place in history. He still has five children, dotted across the Americas. But after his wife left him in the 1980s, he put them into an orphanage when they were still young, thinking it was safer than a life in which children were abducted by traffickers or lost to war. None of them lived with him after that. They never learned his language.
“For those languages that are in this critical situation, many times it seems their fate is already sealed — that’s to say, it’s hard to ever recover a language at this stage,” said Agustín Panizo, a government linguist trying to document Taushiro. “Amadeo García, he wants Taushiro to come back. He wants it, he dreams of it, he longs for it, and he suffers to know that he’s the last speaker.”
Now Amadeo lives alone in a clapboard house behind the town’s water tower, spending many of his final days drinking. Desperate to speak and hear whatever Taushiro he can, he sits alone on his porch in the morning, reciting the only literature ever written in the language — verses of the Bible translated into Taushiro by missionaries who sought to convert the tribe years ago.
Ine aconahive ite chi yi tua tieya ana na’que I’yo lo’, he read aloud one morning. It was the story of Lot from the Book of Genesis. Lot and his family become the sole survivors of their city when God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot loses his wife when she looks back at the destruction, against the instructions of God.
The Summer Institute of Linguistics had been founded four decades earlier by an evangelical minister who wanted to translate the Bible into every language still spoken. By the 1970s, the group had become a fixture in the forests of Latin America, often under government contracts for literacy programs.
Contact — followed by conversion — was the ultimate goal of the Christian linguists.
In 1971, Daniel Velie approached the edges of the Taushiro settlement. From the back of a canoe, he hauled out a heavy device to make the first recordings of their language.
But the Taushiro were in no state to speak.
An illness had swept through the village. When Velie arrived, seven Taushiro were near death. He pulled out a first-aid kit and gave them penicillin, the first antibiotics the Taushiro had taken. When they recovered, he took down the first 200 words of a Taushiro glossary.
Using hand gestures, the group conveyed their appreciation to the missionary. But Velie wanted something in return. He eventually asked for Amadeo, who was thought to be in his 20s at the time, to return with him and start teaching the language to others.
“They said yes, Amadeo could go; they were so thankful to have been saved,” said Nectali Alicea, the linguist soon put in charge of the Taushiro project by the language institute. “It was medicine that was the key.”
For Alicea, as with many of the missionaries, the languages were a bridge to Christianity.
“You cannot evangelize in Spanish,” she said.
A race against time
Even in the twilight of Amadeo’s life, a few hold out hope that some part of the Taushiro language will persist after him.
This year, Peru’s Ministry of Culture decided to take up the work that Alicea began. Working with Amadeo, government linguists have created a database of 1,500 Taushiro words, 27 stories and three songs, with plans to make recordings of Amadeo available to academics and others interested in the language.
It is a race against time — and against Amadeo’s own memory, which sometimes fails him after so many years of having no one to speak with in Taushiro.
But linguists involved in the work say that even if Taushiro dies with Amadeo, a record of it will be kept, at least.
“It’s the first time that Peru has made this kind of gesture,” said Panizo, the linguist leading the project.
Last February, the government flew Amadeo to Lima to give him a medal for his contribution to Peruvian culture.
While Amadeo knew that he had not passed his language to his five children, he took comfort in the fact that they were safe. They had not suffered the fate of their relatives, who had all perished in the forest. One of them, Daniel, was even in the audience that day to see him.
After the ceremony, the two men embraced. Daniel introduced Amadeo to his 6-year-old daughter, the first time Amadeo had met his grandchild.
“I just want to be proud of my father, of the tribe that we were, that I was born into, that we lived,” said Daniel, who works as a construction worker in Lima.