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Scientists aren’t sure when humans developed the ability to communicate orally. Depending on whom you ask, human language may have emerged alongside our fascination with jewelry some three million years ago or upon the descent of our throat’s larynx about 200,000 years ago. What’s clear is that, at some point, our ancestors developed language: these audible systems made up of grammatical rules that encode meaning in the sounds we shape with our mouths.
It’s an evolutionary marvel, really, to imagine the world’s first peoples so determined to share plans and knowledge that they built entire languages. Today, we have over 7,100 living languages—“living” because languages can die. Since 1950, at least 230 languages have disappeared. Over 40% of our remaining languages are endangered. At least 50% are likely to go extinct by the end of the century.
In the Peruvian Amazon, the Bora people are striving to keep their language alive. Only about 1,000 people in northern Peru still speak Bora, a language nearly lost to colonization and slavery. While most languages (like English) use tonal contrasts to mark stress, Bora relies on tones to distinguish between words: a word can mean different things depending on the tone a person uses when speaking. The Bora have so many unique words—and a fascinating structure: they have about 70 categories for words that describe inanimate objects according to shape, similar to how Romance languages use gender to describe nouns.
The rhythm of the Bora language comes from its syllables’ high and low tones—a rhythm its speakers have learned to translate into drumbeats. The Bora have long used the manguaré, an instrument made up of two drums, to send messages over 15 miles away. Though the Indigenous group originally employed the drums to organize meetings and issue alerts among its communities, the Bora now largely rely on cell phones for that. Yet the manguaré lives on.
We are just beginning to understand the complexities of drum-based communication systems, which exist across the Amazon, as well as in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. How do you condense all the complexities of spoken words into drumbeats? The key, we think, is rhythm: the Bora rely on distinct patterns to create differentiated words that can travel through the thick of the Amazon.
This cultural practice now faces a dual threat: a dying language and a dying forest.
A Dying Forest
The Amazon Rainforest covers nearly 60% of Peru. Peru is home to a vast section of the world’s largest rainforest, second only to Brazil. In the north, the Bora have made themselves a comfortable home in their community of Brillo Nuevo not far from the Amazon River, about two days on boat from Iquitos, known as the capital of the Peruvian Amazon.
Their ancestral homelands, however, lie farther north across the Putumayo River, which marks the border between Peru and Colombia. They wound up in Peru not by choice, but by force.
Around the middle of the nineteenth century, the American inventor Charles Goodyear discovered a new and improved rubber: vulcanized rubber. A boom followed not long after, and the Amazon was ground zero for much of it. The forest region of the Putumayo is home to Castilla elastica, a unique rubber tree species that workers destroyed in order to extract the maximum amount of latex inside.
The death of the trees eliminated the need for long-term relationships with locals. Instead the local industry enslaved the Bora and other Indigenous groups living in the area.
Peruvian businessman Julio César Arana del Águila led these efforts. In an effort to grow rich, Arana del Águila relied on abuse, rape, and murder to coerce Indigenous people to work for him. Various historical accounts have detailed the level of brutality the Bora faced at the turn of the twentieth century. The wounds on the backs of enslaved Indigenous people were known as the “mark of Arana.”
As entertainment, the company workers would set ablaze enslaved Indigenous folks. They also burned their beloved manguarés and the longhouses in which they rested, called malocas.
“Other drums were sold like trophies,” explained Elvis Walter Panduro Ruíz, a Bora community member who has written books about the manguaré and Bora culture. “Still, our Bora knowledge never died. Through that knowledge, our elders built more manguarés like the one we have in Brillo Nuevo.”
Today, we have over 7,100 living languages—“living” because languages can die. Since 1950, at least 230 languages have disappeared.
Before Arana’s British-registered Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company began its ventures along the Putumayo, tens of thousands of Bora people lived there. By the time the rubber boom was over, thousands had died and many others had been forcibly removed or displaced from their ancestral lands either because of industry or the Peruvian and Colombian government’s ongoing border war.
“The communities we see now are more or less diasporic communities that have been reunited after years of hiding in the rainforest,” said Frank Seifart, a linguist at Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics in Berlin who, over the course of about four years, visited the community for a month or two at a time to study their language. “It’s not the same anymore.”
It’s a miracle that the Bora people—and their language—are still alive. Today, the Bora’s numbers are estimated to be about 2,500—and threats still remain. Though the rubber industry has died, the Bora people face another beast: the tragic loss of the Amazon Rainforest.
Deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon reached its highest levels in 2020, driven in part by drug traffickers producing cocaine. The drug comes from coca, a plant that serves important ceremonial and cultural purposes for the Bora. It’s one of many sacred plants to their culture.
Another is the shihuahuaco tree (Dipteryx spp.), called charapilla by the Bora people, which is used to make the beloved manguaré. The shihuahuaco is one of the largest and most ancient trees found in the Amazon, taking some 700 years to finish growing. And yet, scientists believe the species could be gone by the end of the decade. The hardwood that makes the tree so perfect for use in drums also means it’s in high demand from foreign markets.
But the construction of the manguaré isn’t harming the trees. The drums can live for many generations, and some drums around today are over 100 years old. As a result, the Bora don’t cut these sacred trees often.
The logging industry, on the other hand, chopped down 74 shihuahuacos a day from 2008 to 2018. The trees weren’t honored with ceremony; they were sent abroad to become houses and flooring.
A Dying Language
The Bora believe that the manguaré can sense everything happening around him in the forest. Yes, him: the drums aren’t merely musical instruments or even cultural artifacts. They’re ancestors. The Bora legends describe the manguaré as one of their first peoples, so the drums are acutely sensitive to what happens under the canopy. They can feel the destruction caused by loggers and climate change—and they suffer.
There are many stories of how the manguaré came to be. One version goes that the creator had a daughter who was lonely and in need of companionship. To please her, he created a son—but urged his daughter to let him grow into a man. She wasn’t to look at or touch him, but she didn’t listen. Upon touching him, he disappeared. When their father went into the forest to forage for coca leaves, he heard a tree utter his name.
“He realized there was a new, strange tree,” said Gerardo Del Águila Miveco, a 61-year-old Bora tribal member who grew up watching his grandfather play the drums, in Spanish. “It was his son.”
Before the introduction of modern tools, fire—the same element later used to destroy manguarés by the colonizers—was used to fabricate the drums from the shihuahuaco trees. Today, though the methods for making and using the drums have changed, their sound still reminds the Bora of their community. The drumbeats are soothing for Panduro Ruíz, Del Águila Miveco’s brother. “You hear the sound, and you know that you’re close to home,” he explained.
For linguists like Seifart who have studied the drums, the sound of the manguaré is something else entirely: “It fascinates me as a natural experiment in how the speech signal can be reduced to just two beats from the rich acoustic cues that spoken language provides.”
“If our language dies, everything dies.”
Seifart published a paper about the manguaré in 2018 that found that the Bora people’s use of rhythm distinguished their drumming from other cultures that also utilize drums for long-distance communication. Neighboring communities in the Amazon, as well as some across West Africa, have their own drums. What the Bora do is special.
“The whole system is really developed to perfection,” Seifart said. “It is amazing, the way these messages are structured.”
They don’t utilize tone and melody alone in their drum communications. Rather, rhythm is what gets their message across: the Bora use short or long pauses to represent short or long syllables in their language. The drum speed can change depending on the message.
“That’s the real secret of the manguaré,” Seifart said.
Seifart explained that the drums are great at helping Bora speakers decipher the way words should be written. Their sounds reveal whether a word’s syllable is a high or low tone, which isn’t always clear when people speak.
Plus, the drums and the Bora language allow the community to communicate in code during times of crisis. For example, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the community in Brillo Nuevo used the drums to issue alerts related to the virus, especially when visitors or doctors had arrived, Panduro Ruíz said.
This type of use has become rare—but it’s not gone yet.
A Chance For Survival
Del Águila Miveco learned to play the manguaré by the time he was 14. Even before that, the drums were a regular part of his days. He grew up in the maloca where his grandfather was the curaca (whose role is similar to that of a shaman), the keeper of the drums. His grandfather constructed the manguaré that sits in the community today. The drums are now mainly used for ceremonies led by the curaca. At dawn, the curaca uses them to inform the creator of what they need that day. At day’s end, the drums are struck yet again to thank the creator for all he’s given.
When Del Águila Miveco’s grandfather died several years ago, his uncle took on the role. Then just last year, he died. The community is still grieving the loss. Del Águila Miveco’s cousin Elber Manuel Ruiz Sánchez has now assumed the role of curaca to keep the manguaré safe.
“We have been lucky enough to be born in a rather strange, but privileged, land given to us by the creator, where the sound of the manguaré was a kind of lullaby song,” Ruiz Sánchez said over WhatsApp. “From an early age, I learned to play the manguaré because the playtime of Bora children revolved around the cultural school called the maloca.”
Now, Del Águila Miveco is an elder—and he wants to ensure the youth can understand the living language of the drums. He works with the Peruvian Ministry of Education to translate Spanish texts into Bora for first- and second-graders so that they can learn their native tongue in school. Oftentimes, the drums are used to help teach the Bora language.
“When we translate our stories, we lose our message,” he said. “What remains in translation is incomplete. That’s why the elders have to preserve our language, expressions, and ways of communication. If our language dies, everything dies.”
While rhythm may be at the heart of the drums’ communication abilities, it is the rhythm of the Bora that has kept this practice alive for millenia. They learned to live in sync with a rainforest whose size we cannot even begin to fathom. They built drums whose echoes were perfectly optimized to vibrate through the trees, a sound so powerful that not even swollen rivers could drown it out.
It was only after outsiders came in with their barbaric ideas of capitalism and enslavement that the Bora lost their own rhythm.
Now, just a few generations later, the Bora are finding that rhythm again. More importantly, they want to share it far and wide. That’s why, despite the trauma of genocide, the Bora community hasn’t shut its doors. “The Bora don’t want to talk about the trauma…instead, they’re teaching the youth how to keep their culture alive in spite of it,” said Rodolfo Andrés Napurí Espejo, a social scientist at the National University of San Marcos in Peru, in Spanish.
The Bora are reclaiming their narrative by celebrating life rather than dwelling on all the death. Each new year and at the start of their harvest season, they throw parties in which the drums are the main attraction. These cultural events are open to the public, attracting both researchers and tourists.
They welcome outsiders in—with the songs of the manguaré, its beats reverberating through the forest back to the ancient trees that gave the Bora, and their drums, life.
Music Pour Le Sport @ 11th House Agency
This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 08: Rhythm with the headline “Talking Drums.”
Nature is an elaborate orchestra of interconnectedness, in which timing is everything.