Skip to main content

Kallawaya: A "Secret" language for medicinal knowledge

The Kallawaya, herbalist healers whom I visited in Bolivia in 2007, cleverly anticipated the information age by half a millennium. They realized that although they could not restrict access to the specimens (nor patent the knowledge) of the thousands of medicinal plants they had discovered, they could encode their specialized knowledge in a secret, mixed language to be transmitted only within practitioner families and between males (e.g., (grand)father to (grand)son). Despite the 400+ year interlude since the fall of the Inka empire, and the widespread use of the Quechua language in the community, the Kallawaya have preserved their secret language, maintained their elite position as healers that attract a national and international clientele and also achieved the (moral but not legal) protection of being recognized by UNESCO as part of Bolivia's (and the world's) intangible cultural heritage.

I'm very interested in the problem of intellectual property vis-a-vis small languages and the knowledge they contain. Western legal regimes have neglected to provide any protection for ideas that are not individually-attributable "eurekas", but rather bodies of collective knowledge worked out and passed down over millennia. The threat of bio-prospecting, so thoroughly exposed by the late Darrell Posey in his work, is that companies will swoop in and (legally) steal traditional medicinal knowledge possessed by indigenous peoples, profiting handsomely while paying them no royalties whatsoever.

Kallawaya is an excellent example of a language that could be patented for both its form and content, for the economic well-being of the community that invented it, and for protection against predatory pharmaceutical corporations that seek to exploit that knowledge without recompense.

This research is in collaboration with Dr. Gregory Anderson and Dr. Jose Lara Yapita, coordinated by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. It will be featured in the forthcoming documentary film "The Linguists" by Ironbound Films.

Kallawaya Resources

  • Aguilo, Federico (1991) Diccionario Kallawaya. La Paz: MUSEF.
  • Bastien, Joseph William (1975) Qollahuaya Rituals: an Ethnographic Account of the Symbolic Relations of Man and Land in an Andean Village.  Ann Arbor: Xerox University Microfilms.
  • -- (1987) Healers of the Andes: Kallawaya Herbalists and their Medicinal Plants.  Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press.
  • Girault, Louis (1989) Kallawaya: El Idioma Secreto de los Incas.  La Paz: UNICEF-OPS-OMS.
  • Mondaca, Jaime (1987) La Lengua Callawaya: Apuntes de un Cuaderno de Campo.  St. Andrews: Centre for Latin American Linguistic Studies, Working Paper no. 18.
  • Poblete, Enrique O. (1968) La Lengua Secreta de los Incas.  La Paz: Los Amigos del Libro.
  • -- (1978) Cultura Callawaya.  La Paz: Ediciones Populares Camarlinghi.
  • Saignes, Thierry (1983) ¿Quiénes Son los Kallawaya? Nota Sobre un Enigma Etnohistórico. Revista andina 1 (2): 357-377.
  • On indigenous knowledge and bio-prospecting, see:
  • Posey, Darrell A. (1990) Intellectual property rights: and just compensation for indigenous knowledge. Anthropology Today 6 (4): 13-16.