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The secrets of Machaj Juyai-Kallawaya


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Developed down through the centuries, Machaj Juyai is a “secret language” still spoken  by a few families of traditional herbalist healers, the Kallawaya, who live in the Bolivian Andes. They propagate a now-threatened ancestral knowledge, which UNESCO is working to safeguard.

By Carmen Beatriz Loza

The Kallawaya, itinerant herbalist healers from Bautista Saavedra province in the state of La Paz, have developed down through the centuries a “family language” in their kinship groups (ayllu), within which they have transmitted their holistic medicinal know-how from generation to generation. They named it Machaj Juyai, the “folk language”, still spoken today by the eight ayllus of the Kallawaya in a province where the language of social relations and daily life is Quechua. Already colonial administrators were curious about this language and writers of Hispanic and mixed origin testified to its “rareness”. As early as the 17th century, information circulated regarding the existence of a specialized language of herbalist healers who spent their time concocting remedies for Inca kings and their entourage.

The Kallawaya and the Eiffel Tower

Scientists in the 19th century, however, would not recognize the Kallawaya as having their own language, and questioned them on their knowledge of herbal medicines in the dominant language of the high plateaus, Aymara. The Kallawaya speak it, in order to communicate with a larger number of patients and to enlarge their sphere of activity.

With the aim of publishing a list of medicinal plants with industrial properties and present it at the 1889 Universal Exposition, the one for which the Eiffel Tower was built, Bolivian scientists and civil servants asked the Kallawaya to describe in Aymara the properties of more than 100 plants brought to France for this great “celebration of civilization”. This was the moment the idea spread that the Kallawaya were Aymara.

Another half-century had to elapse before the Kallawaya were accepted as a specific group with its own language and forms of expression. The Machaj Juyai-Kallawaya language was heard by scientists in ceremonial and healing contexts, and it was also proven that it was used to a great extent as a language of communication within the group.

There was thus, mid-20th century, renewed interest in the Kallawaya’s language as an expression of their know-how. According to some, Machaj Juyai-Kallawaya was the secret language of the Inca kings and those closest to them. Other experts attempted in vain to find parallels between Machaj Juyai and the ancient Puquina language, or the Uru from the Andean high plateaus. Others imagined a possible link to languages of the Amazonian forest, where the Kallawaya traveled to seek out the herbal, animal and mineral resources they used to prevent and cure illness. The Kalawaya’s role as intermediaries between the Incas and the Amazonian populations may have influenced their language.

Chronicle of a death foretold

Obviously the Kallawaya’s language was subjected to the influence of Quechua, which was the instrument of their forced conversion to Catholicism. The Kallawaya elite were persecuted in the 17th century in the battle led by the Catholic Church known as “extirpation of idolatry”. Children were separated from grown-ups, to be brought up by Spanish people or Quechua Catholic priests. Quechua exerted further influence on the Kallawaya in the 19th century, when the latter emigrated massively to Peru, where they found numerous clients and even became in the early 20th century the official doctors of President Augusto Bernardino Leguía. On their own territory too, the Kallawaya felt the demographic pressure of neighboring ayllus, who spoke Quechua. This is why today Machaj Juyai-Kallawaya has absorbed nearly all the phonology and grammar of Quechua.

More recently, Machaj Juyai-Kallawaya’s vitality was sorely tested during two historical events. The first was the Chaco War (1932-1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay. The Kallawaya were mobilized as aides to the doctors responsible for giving care to the enormous contingent of indigenous Bolivians, comprised of Aymara and Quechuas. Kallawaya lost their lives in great number, which would have serious repercussions on subsequent demographic development.

The second event was the 1952 revolution led by the National Revolutionary Movement (NRM), which led to structural social change: the right to vote was extended universally, the biggest national mining companies were nationalized and agricultural lands were redistributed. The Kallawaya’s traditional nomadic way of life gave way to settlement in cities, where they became herbalists or jewelers.

The idea of sending young Kallawaya to medical school, sparing them criminal prosecution for practicing indigenous medicine outlawed by Bolivian law, came out of this urban environment. This has created space for the struggle to decriminalize indigenous medicine in Bolivia. The Kallawaya are becoming professionals within the framework of Western university knowledge, but they are doing so at the cost of a crucial cultural dimension: the Machaj Juyai-Kallawaya language. These days a large majority of Kallawaya is trilingual – Castilian, Aymara and Quechua – but few of them are fluent in their original language.

During the 2001 census conducted by the Bolivian state, the existence of the Kallawaya ethnic group and its language was not recognized. Nor is UNESCO’s proclamation of the Cosmovision of the Kallawaya as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible cultural heritage of humanity legally recognized. At present, the Kallawaya are taking steps in order to obtain legal recognition from the Bolivian Parliament for themselves and their language. The new Constitution (currently in the making) could prove them right.

Carmen Beatriz Loza

 Carmen Beatriz Loza is a researcher at the Bolivian institute of traditional Kallawaya medicine.