Death of Cristina Calderon, last speaker of the Yagan people in Chile

Considered a “living human treasure” by Unesco, the last person to speak the language of his ancestors from the far south of Chile, died on Wednesday at the age of 93 in Punta Arenas.

The last speaker of the unwritten language of the Yagan people, inhabitants of the icy regions of the far south of Chile, has died at the age of 93, her daughter, a member of the Constituent Assembly, announced on Wednesday in Santiago.

“My mother, Cristina Calderon, passed away. I am deeply saddened not to have been with her when she left. This is sad news for the Yagans.”wrote on Twitter Lidia Gonzalez Calderon, deputy vice-president of the Assembly in charge of drafting a new Constitution for Chile. “All the work that I currently do (in the Constituent Assembly) I do in its name”she added.

Southernmost inhabitants of the globe

The Yagan are considered the southernmost inhabitants of the globe after having populated Cape Horn and the Great Island of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of the American continent, more than 6000 years ago. This people of seasoned navigators has long been nomadic. Their population reached 3,500 people before the arrival of Europeans in this area in the 19th century. It then fell sharply in a few decades, in particular because of the diseases carried by the settlers.

The one her relatives called “grandmother Cristina” had become a symbol of the cultural resistance of the indigenous peoples of Chile. “I am the latest yagan speaker. Others still understand but they don’t speak and don’t know like me., Cristina Calderon had declared in 2017 to a group of journalists who visited her in the village of Ukika. This is where most of the approximately 100 descendants of the Yagans who still survive live, one kilometer from Puerto Williams, the southernmost city on the planet, south of Ushuaia (Argentina).

A “living human treasure”

After the death of her sister Ursula, the Chilean government recognized Cristina Calderon in 2009 as a “living human treasure”, highlighting his work as a repository and disseminator of the language and traditions of his people. Until the last years of her life, she devoted herself to crafts and managed to pass on to one of her granddaughters and a niece part of her knowledge of this unwritten and melodic language in endangered.

“Other generations also know the Yagan language but not at the level of Cristina, so there will be an irreparable loss”warned anthropologist Maurice van de Maele five years ago.

Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric, a native of Punta Arenas, southern Chile, said on Twitter that he mourned the death of Cristina Calderon, but stressed that “his love, his teachings and his struggles from the south of the world, where it all begins, will live on forever”.

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