jump to navigation
  • The Parrots of the Atures November 2, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Since beginning this blog five months ago Beachcombing has noticed a monotonous pattern. He takes out a long-treasured fragment of bizarre history, all fired up to write a cracking whiz-bang post. And then, when he comes to triple-check the facts, he discovers that the event never happened – that it was based on a misunderstanding or the floored understanding of an over-imaginative historian of generations gone by.

    This pattern has repeated itself with such  irritating consistency that sometimes Beachcombing feels like putting a construction helmet on as he gets ready to write.

    Today’s post was inspired by a long ago reading of WaNW David Crystal’s Language death (CUP 2000). In this book – that Beachcombing no longer has to hand but enjoyed on the steps of Santiago’s cathedral – Crystal relates the story of Alexander von Humboldt’s parrots. While travelling in South America in 1800 von Humboldt stumbled upon a tribe with several pet parrots. These parrots were speaking though words of another language: the great German naturalist learnt that they had been taken from an exterminated people. Crystal sets this up as an eloquent image for language death – a handful of syllables guarded by creatures who cannot even understand the last words of the people that they are perpetuating.

    Beachcombing has to confess to liking the dead-language parrots. But as soon as he started checking out sources an impending sense of ‘timber’ came upon him: as another much loved historical trunk started to creak towards the earth. Certainly, a first check on the internet was not encouraging.  Beachcombing has put in bold the words suggesting bad sources in the extracts that follow.

    He begins with some text from Rachel Berwick who created an art installation based on von Humboldt’s parrots (another post another day) with a haunting audio internet page.

    During his travels Von Humboldt was said to have acquired a parrot from a Carib Indian tribe which, some days before his arrival, had attacked and eliminated a neighbouring tribe, the Maypure’.  During the attack, the Carib tribe had taken parrots which the Maypure’ people had kept as pets.  Von Humboldt noted that the parrots were speaking words, not in the language of the tribe he was visiting, but in the language of the recently destroyed Maypure’: thus the parrots were the only living ‘speakers’ of the Maypure’ language.  They were, in fact the sole conduit through which an entire tribe’s existence could be traced.  Von Humboldt phonetically recorded the bird’s vocabulary; these notes constitute the only trace of the lost tribe…

    Beachcombing didn’t like that ‘was said to’ one little bit. But things were about to get so much worse. We hand over to an Independent article (British newspaper) describing Rachel’s art installation. Uncharacteristically the Independent seems to have done their homework (kind of).

    The story of the lost Maypure tribe was mentioned by the English writer W H Hudson about 60 years after von Humboldt visited South America. Douglas Botting, a more recent biographer of von Humboldt, had never heard the parrot story before but he said that it rang true.

    Then, gulp, what about the following from an excellent online piece by Sue Farlow.

    According to legend, famed 18th-century explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt was traveling along the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela when he happened upon a Carib Indian tribe. When he asked his hosts why their pet parrots were speaking a dialect different from their own language, the Indians told von Humboldt the birds had belonged to the Maypure tribe, whom they had recently exterminated during tribal warfare. The birds were spoils of war. To von Humboldt’s amazement, the parrots were the last remaining speakers of the Maypure language. von Humboldt’s meticulously detailed journals don’t corroborate the legend of the parrots, unfortunately. However, they do contain the Maypure words he heard on his travels, transcribed phonetically since Maypure existed only in spoken form.

    After having read these three pieces and having checked in his own von Humboldt books Beachcombing was ready to take a hatchet to the dead-language parrots, who had been sqwarking around in his brain for far too long. But then a routine and lucky browse of von Humboldt’s writings turned up gold.

    We are in the higher Orinoco, the jungle is alive with insects and screeches and von Humboldt speaks:

    ‘A tradition circulates among the Guahiboes, that the warlike Atures, pursued by the Caribbees, escaped to the rocks that rise in the middle of the Great Cataracts; and there that nation, heartofore so numerous, became gradually extinct, as well as it’s language. The last families of the Atures still existed in 1767, in the time of the missionary Gili. At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants related, and the fact is worthy of observation that ‘they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures’. [5, 620]

    von Humboldt then went on to desecrate some local tombs…

    Gili had written the following on the Atures

    ‘Already in my times there did not exist above a score of Atures in the raudal of this name. We thought this nation almost extinct, there being no longer any of these Indians in the forest. Since this period, the military of the expedition of the boundaries assert that they discovered a tribe of Atures on the east of Esmeralda, between the rivers Padamo and Ocamu.’ [13]

    Just to give some kind of chronology to this: Gili had been in the area since the 1740s, the Expedition of the Boundaries came in 1757-63 and Humboldt was around in 1800. There is nothing then inherently incredible about this tale, especially given the long-life of some parrots.

    Beachcombing is going to come clean. He had actually done a little research on the question of parrot life expectancy, but feels that to pontificate on that would be to push his luck too far. Instead, he is going to rest easy on his laurels and enjoy the words of the redeemed parrots of the Atures.  If you, good reader, cannot do the same then at least cherish the mutation from von Humboldt’s account to the modern ‘bastard’ accounts quoted above – history at its best.

    Beachcombing has still though one small dilemma. Should he tell Rachel Berwick, the parrot-installation creator? It seems that Rachel took a year plus to get her parrots speaking Maypure. But it is not clear to Beachcombing that Maypure is the same as Atures. Crikey! Beachcombing has been looking at the impossible interelation between Amazonian languages all morning and he is consoling himself that no one will, in any case, ever know.

    Beachcombing did, however – one final bonus from out of the paps of milky Calliope – turn up a German book title on line, Untersuchungen ueber die von Humboldt am Orinoco entdeckten Spuren der Phoenicishen Sprache (Leipsig 1816). It seems that Phoenician was spoken on the nineteenth-century Orinoco. Hurrah! A loony German linguist off starboard.

    Yet another post, yet another day.

    Any other language stories or advice on what to do about Rachel or even advice on how to get hold of the German book do let Beachcombing know: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    1 May 2011: Guillermo writes in with a precious quotation from Darwin (The Descent of Man, chapter 7) which must be the basis of the fame of this passage: ‘The partial or complete extinction of many races and sub-races of man is historically known. Humboldt saw in South America a parrot which was the sole living creature that could speak a word of the language of a lost tribe’. Thanks Guillermo!!

    31 August 2012: Leandro writes ‘I was looking exactly how much faith I could put on Crystal’s story (I read it in a different book, “A little book of language”) about Von Humboldt and the parrot, and I found your post. I could add a new little turn of this screw. In the last texts you copied the Atures are said to be almost extinct, while the Maipure were alive. If Von Humboldt’s parrot spoke Ature, it means it spoke Piaroa, a language still today spoken by the Piaroa tribe, formerly known as the Ature or Adole. So if Von Humboldt really took notes on what the parrot sounded like, what Rachel Berwick taught her parrots is a language that today is spoken by thousands of people in Venezuela, certainly not Maipure. But it seems to be implied in that text extract you copied that Von Humboldt never had contact with the parrot, so he hardly could had taken notes on what it spoke like. So my question is how did Rachel Berwick teach the parrots how to speak “Maipure” using the “bird’s vocabulary” “phonetically recorded” by Von Humboldt? What’s the source of that? Did she use Gilij’s account, despite saying she based Von Humboldt’s? Or the parrots talk is also made up?’ Thanks Leandro!

    28 Feb 2014: Richard writes: ‘I have just read your fascinating post about von H’s parrot. I’m glad you’ve shed a bit of light on the story. One thing that confuses me still, though, is how obliquely von H. speaks about the old parrot. It’s odd that he doesn’t quite write as if it’s a first hand account. Elsewhere, he seems to write very directly, for example ‘We took several skulls, the skeleton of a child of six or seven years old, and two of full-grown men of the nation of the Atures…’  But by saying  ‘At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants said, and the fact is worthy of observation, that they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures,’ von H. stops just a bit short of saying that he actually saw the parrot or exactly when. It’s interesting too that he doesn’t confirm that it was the language of the Atures that it was speaking, only repeating the claim made by the people of Mypures. It seems that this is still not quite confirmed.  Here’s the German text: ‘Noch im Jahre 1767, zur Zeit des Miſſionärs Gili, lebten die letzten derſelben; auf unſerer Reiſe zeigte man in Maypures (ein ſonderbares Faktum) einen alten Papagei, von dem die Einwohner behaupten, „man verſtehe ihn nicht, weil er aturiſch ſpreche“. I’d translate it it like this:  “In 1767, at the time of the missionary Gili, the last of them were still alive; on our voyage, an old parrot was shown in Maypures (a strange fact) which the locals claim “We don’t understand him because he speaks Aturish.”‘  It’s a strange bit of grammar here at the end because v. H. uses the subjunctive mood (for reported speech) but still puts it in quotes. Another way of translating it would be like this:  “[…] which the locals claim can’t be understood because he speaks Aturish.” At least in the original German, it doesn’t say “at the period of our voyage” but more directly “on our voyage”, so the ambiguity that someone else witnessed the parrot at around the same period can be excluded.  I’m honestly not normally this pedantic, but the full legend of Humboldt’s parrots (note the plural), that he recorded 40 words etc., seems to be an embellishment of the facts, and this sexier version of the story is becoming the Accepted Truth.’ Thanks Richard, knowing H a bit I’m convinced you are right. This was a good story about which he had heard.

    30 Jun 2017: Some new information! Old rather: Rachel Berwick was interviewed about her parrot installation by NPR in 2005 – the audio is still online here:

    In her first bit (2:40) she relates her version of the story pretty confidently but says that von Humboldt didn’t “lay claim” to the story of the parrot but that it’s been “published in a number of different publications”. She does say that she went to von Humboldt’s original notes for the phonetic Maypure – clearly she didn’t check whether he claimed Maypure as the language of the parrot.

    The second time she speaks (16:00) she’s asked why the language went extinct and she replies that we don’t know, but that to her the important thing was “to treat the story as true and look at the possibilities that arise”. She’s asked how many words the parrot knew but she misunderstands and says how many words parrots in general can remember. She’s then asked if the meanings of the words are known and she says yes, they are, because von Humboldt recorded the meanings. On rereading her version of the incident I see it does not say that the parrot was not understood by the Caribs. So she seems to believe that the Caribs understood the parrot and relayed the meanings of the words to von Humboldt, who copied them into his journal.

    At 39:15 she speaks again but not directly to this subject.

    At 44:30 she’s asked how much of the Maypure culture we are able to recreate from the parrot’s words. She fudges a bit with linguistic “levels of removal”, saying that the translation from the French to English might have lost a lot. She also says she consulted with a linguist, who was presumably knowledgable in South American languages.