Fieldwork on Vacacocha

In an earlier post I outlined my plans to do some exploratory work this summer on Andoa, a minimally documented Zaparoan language spoken on the Rio Pastaza, near the Peru-Ecuador border region. As I was preparing for my trip to the Rio Pastaza, however, some of my travel arrangements fell through, and it became apparent that I would not be able to make it to the Andoa community in the time I had available. Fieldwork on Andoa would have to wait until next year.

I thus found myself in the lovely city of Iquitos with a free week on my hands. Perfect, I though, this would be an opportunity for me to see if I could find any speakers of Vacacocha. Now, if you haven’t ever heard of Vacacocha (also known as Aushiri), you are not alone. It is among the most poorly documented of Peruvian Amazonian languages, and the language is known only from a few short word lists, none of them collected by trained linguists (a bibliography of Vacacocha references is available here (pdf)). Based on this limited information, the language is considered by most classifiers to be a linguistic isolate, but for the most part, so little is known about the language that it tends to elude linguists’ attention. The one clue about where to locate speakers of Vacacocha, repeated in many sources, is that in the early 20th century, there were several families of Vacacochas in a place on the Rio Napo known as Puerto Elvira.

Two days later, then, I found myself on the Rio Napo with a theoretical destination and a general direction to head in — upriver. After two more days’ travel up the Napo I pulled into Puerto Elvira, a community of about 200 people, situated on a bluff overlooking a majestic bend in the Rio Napo. Shortly after touching down I was shuttled over to the community’s three school teachers, who politely asked me what I was doing in their community. After I explained that I was looking for speakers of Vacacocha, the teachers put their heads together and came up with some recommendations for whom I might speak to.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon shuttling back and forth between various little islands upriver of Puerto Elvira, following up on suggestions about where older individuals with some knowledge of Vacacocha might be found. Eventually I met Delia Luisa Andi Macahuachi, a slight woman of some 70 years, who explained that she spoke Vacacocha as a child, and had used it intermittently as a young adult, but had not spoken the language in several decades. She expressed willingness to work with me, however, to document anything she could remember.

Delia Luisa Andi Macahuachi with one of her granddaughters
Delia Luisa Andi Macahuachi with one of her granddaughters

It very quickly became apparent that the language is tonal — in fact, shortly after beginning the first elicitation session, Delia reprimanded me for repeating the words with a flat intonational contour, and I subsequently paid more attention to carefully reproducing the tone contour of the words. Also obvious is the fact that the language has a contrast between oral and nasal vowels. Neither the tonal nature of the language nor the oral/nasal contrast is mentioned in the available material on the language, so it became clear that even if I were only able to collect lexical data, it would be possible to significantly improve linguists’ knowledge of this isolate.

From what I was able to determine, Delia is the only remaining individual in the Puerto Elvira area with any significant knowledge of Vacacocha. During the two days I was with her, Delia worked hard to remember aspects of the language she had not used regularly in close to sixty years. Although she initially found the work frustrating, she came to find the exercise of recovering long-dormant parts of her knowledge quite gratifying. I promised to return to her at the earliest opportuniry a copy of all the words and phrases I was collecting from her, and she was especially excited about the idea of leaving the linguistic documentation as a legacy for her grandchildren.

Delia and her family members mentioned another relative who they considered to be the best and sole other remaining speaker of the language. Unfortunately, this other speaker was taken several years ago by her children to live on the Rio Momon, near Iquitos, and I did not have the opportunity to work with her. I hope to locate her next year.

After two days, I had to return back downriver, as I had other pending fieldwork obligations. I was quite excited, however, to have found at least one semi-speaker with who I could work to recover aspects of Vacacocha phonology and lexicon, and I am looking forward to returning next year to make some further progress.

7 thoughts on “Fieldwork on Vacacocha

  1. Great stuff Lev! I hope you’re able to collect more data on Vacacocha. By the way, in The Amazonian Languages, Wise (1999) lists Aushiri as Zaparoan, but I guess that’s not correct?

    On the subject of Andoa, the first mention I’ve found of the ethnonym Aguaruna (Jivaroan) is from Juan Magnin who said in 1740: “Los Andoas son parcialidad de Ahuarunes, naturales del río Sant-yago”. This suggests a historical contact situation and I’m curious to find out whether there is any linguistic evidence to be found…

  2. Hi Simon,

    Great points. The reason the Wise (1999) classifies “Aushiri” as Zaparoan is that the name “Aushiri” has been used to refer both to Vacacocha (which is not obviously Zaparoan) and to a Zaparoan language that was formerly spoken to the northeast of Puerto Elvira. The full story is even more complicated than this, but I think I’ll wait until I’m back in the US with references at my fingertips before I write a post sorting it all out. In any event, I’ve looked at the available word lists of the Zaparoan “Aushiri”, and I concur with Wise’s assessment that the language is Zaparoan. So the bottom line is that Wise is right, but the name has also been used to refer to Vacacocha, which does not seem to be Zaparoan.

    That quote from Magnin is *really* intriguing. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. My first reaction, based solely on my experience with sorting out colonial era ethnographic/linguistic identifications, is that the Andoas may have displayed some cultural similarities to the Aguarunas. I think this is what you are suggesting. (Incidentally, I think that cultural similarities of this sort are what is ultimately behind the old and incorrect classification of Taushiro as Zaparoan.)

    It would be really interesting to look over some Andoa and Aguaruna data together and see if anything jumps out as an indication of language contact. The currently available Andoa data is sufficiently scarce and spotty, though, that I think we would need to wait until some new data is available before such an effort would be fruitful on the Andoa side of things.

  3. Lev, thanks for the clarification about the two Aushiris.

    I read the Magnin quote as referring to some kind of alliance between (a subset of?) the Andoas and Aguarunas. The traditional Jivaroan culture of feuding involved constantly shifting alliances between various family groups. We know that neighbouring non-Jivaroan tribes were also involved in these alliances and feuds, particularly the Candoshi, whose language was for some time classified as Jivaroan. Since the Pastaza is basically the eastern boundary of traditional Jivaroan territory, it is likely that the Andoas were part of the same cultural bloc.

    Just to keep you interested, here’s a quote from Farabee (1922: 115):

    “There are nine tribes speaking dialects of the Jivaran language, and having similar cultures: Huambesa, Tamora, Cuanduasi, Ashira, Andoa, Copotaza, Arapeca, Chargaime, and Upano. The first five of these tribes are friendly among themselves, and are enemies of the other four tribes.”


    Farabee, William Curtis. 1922. Indian tribes of eastern Peru. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum Papers, vol. X.

  4. Simon,

    Wow. Thanks for bringing these sources to my attention. I had absolutely no idea that Jivaroan and Zaparoan (i.e. Andoa) groups had any history of significant interaction. I agree with you that looking for traces of the associated language contact situation would be well worth our while.

  5. Hello Lev,

    I was wondering if you are aware of a book written by Jane Dolinger in 1958? “The Head With The Long Yellow Hair”.
    Jane includes a few pages of basic Aushiri language at the end of the book.
    Obtained from the Padres Josefinos at Tena Ecuador.

    Best wishes, Juan

  6. Lev, I just came across another mention of Zaparoan-Jivaroan contact so I might as well add it to the little list here :)

    “[E]n la cuenca del Río Bobonaza, en las inmediaciones de su confluencia con el Río Pastaza, existen unos aborígenes que hablan el idioma ZAPARO o CHIMIGAE, actualmente en situación de extinguirse.”

    “La tribu de los Shuaros o Jívaros tienen más contacto y relaciones comerciales con sus vecinos los Záparos. Esta vecindad se traduce también en influencia idiomática; pues en su lenguaje los unos emplean palabras de la otra tribu y viceversa. Especialmente los Shuaros buscan a las mujeres Shimigaes y se casan o forman su jivaría o familia, hablando ambos idiomas.” (p.15)

    Julio A. Montalvo Montenegro (1971). Gramática Elemental del Idioma Kichua, Kichua Shimi: Notas para el estudio de idiomas comparados. Quito: Editorial “Vida Católica”.

    • Wow, Simon. This is really remarkable, especially the tantalizing comments indicating borrowing between the languages. If you ever collect Shuar data from this area it would be really interesting to scan it for Zaparoan loans. I realize I should a bit like a broken record, but I am really fascinated by this Zaparoan-Jivaroan link.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s