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Documentation of mythology and shamanic songs of the Nahua


Language Panoan
Depositor Conrad Feather
Location Peru
Deposit ID 0088
Grant ID FTG0160
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online


Summary of the deposit

This is a collection of audio and video recordings with transcriptions.


Group represented

The Nahua are a Panoan speaking people who currently live in the village of Santa Rosa de Serjali which is situated at the confluence of the Serjali and Mishagua rivers in the rainforests of South East Peru.

Townsley shows that the multitude of Nahua names correspond to distinct local groups which once formed part of a wider intermarrying ethnic and linguistic complex. Their fragmentation and current distribution is a result of the rubber boom at the end of the 19th century (Townsley 1988: 22). Until the late 1980s the Nahua lived in the headwaters of the Manu river where they lived avoiding all direct contact with any “outsiders” including other Nahua groups. In April 1984, four Nahua men were captured by loggers exploiting valuable mahogany and were taken to Sepahua, the nearby logging town. This first direct contact with “outsiders” triggered an epidemic of respiratory diseases with an estimated mortality rate of 42% within one year (Shepard 1999: 38). Today the Nahua do engage in sustained and direct contact with Peruvian society; they live in the village of Serjali, three days upriver from Sepahua and three days downriver from their old settlements in the Manu.

Currently, there are approximately 280 residents in the village of Serjali although over half are under 10 years old. Those who were born after 1984 and have attended school are bilingual in Spanish (approximately 150). Individuals who were born before 1984 (approximately 100) speak limited or no Spanish. Nahua is the first language for almost all residents and is spoken in everyday domestic and public contexts within the village. Nahua is also spoken in their regular encounters with Yaminawa in Sepahua. Linguistic style and content is quite different in other contexts most obviously in shamanic healing songs (xoiti), myths (xidipo), and the laments (fidi) and love songs for dead and absent kin. The linguistic skills required in these domains are the province of an ageing generation and with their increasing participation in Peruvian national society younger Nahua have less exposure to storytelling and shamanic healing. Given the current speed of social and economic change such ritualistic language use could disappear in two generations. This has occurred in Yaminawa communities on the river Yurua where there are no longer any practicing shamans.


Language information

The Nahua are members of the Panoan language family, who have lived historically in lowland South East Peru. Panoan languages are one of around twenty language families in the Amazon basin but share some lexical and grammatical similarities with Tacana. Panoan languages are spoken by groups occupying a relatively continuous area of Western Amazonia extending from the eastern side of the Andes in Peru to neighbouring regions in Brazil and Bolivia. According to Loos there are probably no more than thirty distinct Panoan languages, the most numerous group is the Shipibo who number approximately 8,000 people (Loos 1999). Typically Panoan languages use no definite or indefinite articles, they are “characteristically agglutinating, entirely suffixing and use postpositions and the number of verb suffixes can exceed 130 in some languages” (Loos: 234). Loos’ linguistic classification shows Nahua to be part of the Yaminawa sub-group of one of three Panoan language sub-groups. The sub group comprises nine largely mutually-intelligible Panoan varieties spoken in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, including Yaminawa, Sharanawa, Amawaka, and Cashinawa. Loos estimates a total population of these groups of about 2300 (Ibid: 229). None of these varieties is thoroughly documented, and the degrees of similarity among them is not well understood.The Nahua identify their language as almost identical to that spoken in several nearby Yaminawa villages but they regard it as distinct from Sharanawa, Cashinawa and Amawaka. The researcher estimates that the language group of which the Nahua identify themselves as forming a part comprises less than 1000 people.


Special characteristics

Panoan speakers live in the border areas between Bolivia, Brazil and Peru but D’Ans (cited in Townsley 1988:11) classified the Panoan language family into three linguistic branches. The Nahua belong to the ‘South Eastern Panoan language group’ which corresponds to the languages spoken by groups inhabiting the headwaters of the Purus and Yurua rivers and includes the Cashinahua and Amahuaca. Cashinahua and Amahuaca are both considered sufficiently distinct to occupy their own linguistic categories while the various other Nahua groups (Sharanahua, Yaminahua, Marinahua, Chitonahua etc.) are classified as Purœs Panoans as they speak languages that are mutually intelligible and because it seems that historically they have all occupied the headwaters of the Purus and Yurua rivers. These different Nahua groups should not be confused with a coherent ethnicity. They are best understood as unstable local groups of the same broader ensemble.


Deposit history

From the depositor:

‘Since 2000 I have been working with the Nahua both as a PhD student in social anthropology (University of St Andrews, UK) and as a political advocate helping them to defend and protect their lands and rights. As a result I have been able to achieve good fluency in everyday Nahua. During my research and with the help of two young Nahua field assistants whom I have trained in the use of mini disc and video cameras I have been able to collect over 80 hours of myths and oral histories as well as 25 hours of healing and other songs. I have also trained one of my field assistants in the use of a transcription software’.

‘In this project I worked with my Nahua assistants to complete the process of transcription and translation of existing material ensuring that a standardised orthography is used in all cases and providing appropriate meta data. My aim was not to conduct a comprehensive linguistic documentation project or to provide an in depth linguistic analysis of the existing orthography. Instead I aimed to produce a substantial archive of ritual linguistic material in text, sound and video format that is archiveable and accessible to other researchers and provide the necessary equipment to ensure it is accessible for the Nahua themselves’.


Other  information

Orthographic Note:
The texts in this collection use the practical orthography for Yora/Yaminahua (Eakin 1991) developed by the linguist/missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). The descriptions of pronunciation are drawn from Eakin and G Shepard (1999). In this orthography there are four vowels: a, e, i, o and 13 consonents (including digraphs): ch, f, j, k, m, n, p, r, s, sh, t, ts, x, y.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Feather, Conrad. 2012. Documentation of mythology and shamanic songs of the Nahua. London: SOAS University of London, Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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