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Authors: Wade Davis

The wayfinders

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The Massey Lectures are co-sponsored by CBC Radio, House of Anansi Press, and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The series was created in honour of the Right Honourable Vincent Massey, former Governor General of Canada, and was inaugurated in 1961 to provide a forum on radio where major contemporary thinkers could address important issues of our time.

This book comprises the 2009 Massey Lectures, “The Wayfinders,” broadcast in November 2009 as part of CBC Radio’s Ideas series. The producer of the series was Philip Coulter; the executive producer was Bernie Lucht.


Wade Davis is the best-selling author of several books, includingThe Serpent and the Rainbow,Light at the Edge of the World,One River, andThe Clouded Leopard. He is an award-winning anthropologist, ethnobotanist, filmmaker, and photographer, and his writing and photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including theGlobe and Mail,Maclean’s,Newsweek,National Geographic, theWall Street Journal, and theWashington Post. He currently holds the post of Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., and divides his time between that city and northern British Columbia.


Why Ancient Wisdom Mattersin the Modern World


Copyright © 2009 Wade Davis

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Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Davis, WadeThe wayfinders : why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world / Wade Davis.

(CBC Massey lecture series)eISBN 978-0-88784-969-51. Acculturation. 2. Language and culture. 3. Endangered languages.

4. Indigenous peoples — Languages. I. Title. II. Series: CBC Massey lecture seriesGN366.W33 2009     303.48’2     C2009-903511-1

Cover design: Bill Douglas at The Bang

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.

For David Maybury-Lewis




“I want all the cultures of all lands to be blownabout my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feetby any.” — Mahatma Gandhi

ONE OF THE INTENSEpleasures of travel is the opportunity to liveamongst peoples who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel theirpast in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in thebitter leaves of plants. Just to know that, in the Amazon, Jaguar shamanstill journey beyond the Milky Way, that the myths of the Inuit elders stillresonate with meaning, that the Buddhists in Tibet still pursue the breathof the Dharma is to remember the central revelation of anthropology: theidea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolutesense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one setof intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineagemade, however successfully, many generations ago.

But whether we travel with the nomadic Penan inthe forests of Borneo, a Vodoun acolyte in Haiti, acuranderoin the high Andes of Peru, a Tamashekcaravanseriin the red sands of the Sahara, or a yak herderon the slopes of Chomolungma, all these peoples teach us that there areother options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interactingwith the earth. This is an idea that can only fill us with hope.

Together the myriad of cultures makes up anintellectual and spiritual web of life that envelops the planet and is everybit as important to the well being of the planet as is the biological web oflife that we know as the biosphere. You might think of this social web oflife as an “ethnosphere,” a term perhaps best defined as the sumtotal of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas andinspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn ofconsciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity’s greatest legacy. It is theproduct of our dreams, the embodiment of our hopes, the symbol of all we areand all that we, as a wildly inquisitive and astonishingly adaptive species,have created.

And just as the biosphere, the biological matrixof life, is being severely eroded by the destruction of habitat and theresultant loss of plant and animal species, so too is the ethnosphere, onlyat a far greater rate. No biologist, for example, would suggest that 50percent of all species are moribund. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenarioin the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to bethe most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity.

The key indicator, the canary in the coal mine ifyou will, is language loss. A language, of course, is not merely a set ofgrammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, thevehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the materialworld. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed ofthought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.

Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully halfare not being taught to children. Effectively, unless something changes,they will disappear within our lifetimes. Half of the languages of the worldare teetering on the brink of extinction. Just think about it. What could bemore lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your peopleto speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of yourancestors or anticipate the promise of your descendants. This tragic fate isindeed the plight of someone somewhere on earth roughly every two weeks. Onaverage, every fortnight an elder dies and carries with him or her into thegrave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. What this really means isthat within a generation or two, we will be witnessing the loss of fullyhalf of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy. This is thehidden backdrop of our age.

There are those who quite innocently ask,“Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all spoke the same language?Would not communication be facilitated, making it easier for us to getalong?” My answer is always to say, “A wonderful idea, but let’s make thatuniversal language Haida or Yoruba, Lakota, Inuktitut or San.” Suddenlypeople get a sense of what it would mean to be unable to speak their mothertongue. I cannot imagine a world in which I could not speak English, for notonly is it a beautiful language, it’s my language, the full expression ofwho I am. But at the same time I don’t want it to sweep away the othervoices of humanity, the other languages of the world, like some kind ofcultural nerve gas.

Languages, of course, have come and gone throughhistory. Babylonian is no longer spoken in the streets of Baghdad, or Latinin the hills of Italy. But again the biological analogy is useful.Extinction is a natural phenomenon, but in general, speciation, theevolution of new forms of life, has outpaced loss over the last 600 millionyears, making the world an ever more diverse place. When the sounds of Latinfaded from Rome, they found new expression in the Romance languages. Today,just as plants and animals are disappearing in what biologists recognize asan unprecedented wave of extinction, so too languages are dying at such arate that they leave in their wake no descendants.

While biologists suggest that perhaps 20 percentof mammals, 11 percent of birds, and 5 percent of fish are threatened, andbotanists anticipate the loss of 10 percent of floristic diversity,linguists and anthropologists today bear witness to the imminentdisappearance of half the extant languages of the world. Over six hundredhave fewer than a hundred speakers. Some 3,500 are kept alive by a fifth of1 percent of the global population. The ten most prevalent languages, bycontrast, are thriving; they are the mother tongues of half of humanity.Fully 80 percent of the world’s population communicates with one of justeighty-three languages. But what of the poetry, songs, and knowledge encodedin the other voices, those cultures that are the guardians and custodians of98.8 percent of the world’s linguistic diversity? Is the wisdom of an elderany less important simply because he or she communicates to an audience ofone? Is the value of a people a simple correlate of their numbers? To thecontrary, every culture is by definition a vital branch of our family tree,a repository of knowledge and experience, and, if given the opportunity, asource of inspiration and promise for the future. “When you lose alanguage,” theMITlinguist Ken Hale remarked not long before hepassed away, “you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’slike dropping a bomb on the Louvre.”

But what exactly is at stake? What, if anything,should be done about it? A number of books over recent years have paidhomage to the global sweep of technology and modernity, suggesting that theworld is flat, that one does not have to emigrate to innovate, that we arefusing into a single reality, dominated by a specific model of economics,that the future is to be found everywhere and all at once. When I read thesebooks I can only think that I must have been travelling in very differentcircles than these writers. The world that I have been fortunate to know, asI hope these lectures will demonstrate, is most assuredlynotflat. It is full of peaks and valleys, curiousanomalies and divine distractions. History has not stopped, and theprocesses of cultural change and transformation remain as dynamic today asever. The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist ininterpreting what they experience through the lens of a single culturalparadigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel,it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.

IT MAY SEEM UNUSUALto begin a celebration of culture and diversitywith a nod to genetics, but this is really where the story begins. Fornearly ten years my friend and colleague at the National Geographic Society,Spencer Wells, has been leading the Genographic Project, an ambitious globaleffort to track through both space and time the primordial journey ofhumanity. What he and other population geneticists have discovered is one ofthe great revelations of modern science. We are, as Spencer reminds us, theresult of over a billion years of evolutionary transformations. Our DNA,encoded in four simple letters, is a historical document that reaches backto the origin of life. Each one of us is a chapter in the greatest storyever written, a narrative of exploration and discovery remembered not onlyin myth but encoded in our blood.

Every cell in our bodies is charged by a miracle,a double helix of four molecule types, four simple letters, A, C, G and T,linked in complex sequences that help orchestrate every pulse of sentientexistence. There are six billion bits of data wrapped and coiled and spun inthe darkness of our beings. If the DNA in any human body were to bestretched out in a single line it would reach not just to the moon, but to3,000 celestial spheres equidistant from the earth. In life, of course, thischain, this mystic inheritance, is broken and bundled into forty-sixchromosomes, which pass down through the generations. With each newcoupling, each new child, these chromosomes are shuffled and reassembledsuch that each of us is born as a unique combination of the geneticendowment of our parents.

But vital clues remain. In each cell’s nucleus,the Y chromosome, the factor that determines male gender, a sweep of some 50million nucleotides, passes more or less intact through the generations,from father to son. In each cell’s mitochondria, its energy-producingorganelles, the DNA also passes more or less intact through the generations,but from mother to daughter. Because of this, and only because of this,these two threads of DNA act as a sort of time machine, opening a windowonto the past.

Almost all human DNA, 99.9 percent of the threebillion nucleotides, does not vary from person to person. But woven into theremaining 0.1 percent are revelations, differences in the raw code itselfthat yield vital clues about human ancestry. Inevitably during thetranscription and replication of genetic information, these billions of bitsof data, small glitches occur. Where the letter A ought to be, there appearsa G. These are mutations, and they happen all the time. They are notcataclysmic. Rarely would a single mutation make for phenotypic changes. Ashift in a single letter of the code does not change the colour of the skin,the height of the body, let alone the intelligence and destiny of theperson. This genetic drift does, however, remain indelibly encoded in thegenes of that individual’s descendants. These single inherited mutations arethe markers, the “seams and spot welds,” as Spencer has written, that overthe last twenty years have allowed population geneticists to reconstruct thestory of human origins and migration with a precision that would have beenunimaginable a generation ago. By studying not the similarities but thedifferences in the DNA between individuals, by tracking the appearance ofmarkers through time, and by looking at thousands of markers, the lineagesof descent can be determined. Two entwined evolutionary trees are beingconstructed, one through fathers and sons, the other through mothers anddaughters, and the entire journey of humanity both in time and space broughtinto remarkably precise focus.

The overwhelming scientific consensus suggeststhat all of humanity lived in Africa until some 60,000 years ago. Then,perhaps driven by changing climatic and ecological conditions that led tothe desertification of the African grasslands, a small band of men, women,and children, possibly as few as 150 individuals, walked out of the ancientcontinent and began the colonization of the world. What propelled themultiple waves of the human diaspora can never be fully known, thoughpresumably food and other resource imperatives played a major role. Aspopulations grew beyond the carrying capacity of the land, they splintered,and some bands moved on. What the DNA record reveals is that as smallergroups split off, they carried only a subset of the genetic diversityoriginally present in the African population. Indeed, the science indicatesthat for all human cultures, wherever they ended up, genetic diversitydecreases the further both in time and space that a people are removed fromAfrica. Again, these differences do not reflect phenotype. They do not implyanything about human potential. They are simply markers that highlight asort of cosmic map of culture, revealing where and when our ancestors tookto the open road.

A first wave followed the shoreline of Asia,traversing the underbelly of Asia to reach Australia by as early as 50,000BP. A second migration moved north through theMiddle East and then turned east, dividing once again some 40,000 years ago,sending movements south into India, west and south through Southeast Asia tosouthern China, and north into Central Asia. From here, out of the broodingmountains at the heart of the world’s largest continent, two subsequentmigrations brought people west to Europe (30,000BP) and east to Siberia, which was populated by20,000BP. Finally, some 12,000 years ago, even as a newwave came out of the Middle East into southeastern Europe, and people movednorth through China, a small band of hunters crossed the land bridge ofBeringia and established for the first time a human presence in theAmericas. Within 2,000 years their descendants had reached Tierra del Fuego.From humble origins in Africa, after a journey that lasted 2,500generations, a hegira 40,000 years in the making, our species had settledthe entire habitable world.

BEFORE GOING ANY FURTHER, let me explain why I think this geneticresearch is so important, for this really provides the foundation for all ofthe themes and issues that will be discussed in these lectures. Nothing thathas emerged from science in my lifetime, save perhaps the vision of theEarth from space brought home by Apollo, has done more to liberate the humanspirit from the parochial tyrannies that have haunted us since the birth ofmemory.

As a social anthropologist I was trained tobelieve in the primacy of history and culture as the key determinants inhuman affairs. Nurture, if you will, as opposed to nature. Anthropologybegan as an attempt to decipher the exotic other, with the hope that byembracing the wonder of distinct and novel cultural possibilities, we mightenrich our appreciation and understanding of human nature and our ownhumanity. Very early on, however, the discipline was hijacked by theideology of its times. As naturalists throughout the nineteenth centuryattempted to classify creation even as they coped with the revelations ofDarwin, anthropologists became servants of the Crown, agents dispatched tothe far reaches of empire with the task of understanding strange tribalpeoples and cultures that they might properly be administered andcontrolled.

Evolutionary theory, distilled from the study ofbird beaks, beetles, and barnacles, slipped into social theory in a mannerthat proved useful to the age. It was anthropologist Herbert Spencer whocoined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” At a time when the UnitedStates was being built by the labour of African slaves, and the Britishclass system was so stratified that children of the wealthy were on average6 inches taller than those of the poor, a theory that provided a scientificrationale for differences in race and class was a welcome convenience.

Evolution suggested change through time, andthis, together with the Victorian cult of improvement, implied a progressionin the affairs of human beings, a ladder to success that rose from theprimitive to the civilized, from the tribal village of Africa to London andthe splendour of the Strand. The cultures of the world came to be seen as aliving museum in which individual societies represented evolutionary momentscaptured and mired in time, each one a stage in the imagined ascent tocivilization. It followed with the certainty of Victorian rectitude thatadvanced societies had an obligation to assist the backward, to civilize thesavage, a moral duty that again played well into the needs of empire. “Wehappen to be the best people in the world,” Cecil Rhodes famously said, “andthe more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for humanity.” GeorgeNathaniel Curzon, eleventh viceroy of India, agreed. “There has never beenanything,” he wrote, “so great in the world’s history as the British Empire,so great an instrument for the good of humanity. We must devote all of ourenergies and our lives to maintaining it.” Asked why there was not a singleIndian native employed in the Government of India, he replied, “Becauseamong all 300 million people of the subcontinent, there was not a single mancapable of the job.”

Having established the primacy of race, and theinherent superiority of Victorian England, anthropologists set out to provetheir case. The scientific mismeasure of man began as phrenologists withcalipers and rulers detected and recorded minute differences in skullmorphology, which were presumed to reflect innate differences inintelligence. Before long, physical anthropologists were measuring andphotographing peoples throughout the world, all with the deeply flawednotion that a complete classification of our species could be attainedsimply by comparing body parts, the shape of hips, the texture of hair, andinevitably the colour of skin. Linnaeus, the father of classification, hadin the late eighteenth century determined that all humans belonged to thesame species,Homo sapiens, “man the wise.” But he hedged his betsby distinguishing five subspecies, which he identified asafer(African),americanus(Native American),asiaticus(Asian),europaeus(European) and finally a catch-all taxon,monstrosus, which included essentially everybody else, all thepeoples so bizarre to the European eye that they defied classification.

More than a century after Linnaeus, physicalanthropology, inspired by a selective misreading of Darwin, accepted theconcept of race as a given. The confirmation of such preconceptions becamepart of the agenda and duty of both scholars and explorers. Among those whoset out to chart the racial saga was a British army officer and explorer,Thomas Whiffen. Travelling down the Río Putumayo in the Colombian Amazon atthe height of the rubber terror, he described the forest as “innatelymalevolent, a horrible, most evil-disposed enemy. The air is heavy with thefumes of fallen vegetation slowly steaming to decay. The gentle Indian,peaceful and loving, is a fiction of perfervid imaginations only. TheIndians are innately cruel.” Living for a year among them, Whiffen noted,was to become “nauseated by their bestiality.” At a time when literallythousands of Bora and Huitoto Indians were being enslaved and slaughtered,he offered advice to future travellers, suggesting that exploratory partiesbe limited to no more than twenty-five individuals. “On this principle,” hewrote, “it will be seen that the smaller the quantity of baggage carried,the greater will be the number of rifles available for the security of theexpedition.”

Whiffen, whose book,The North-WestAmazons, was widely read when published in 1915, claimed to havecome upon cannibal feasts, “prisoners eaten to the last bit, a mad festivalof savagery … men whose eyes glare, nostrils quiver … an all pervadingdelirium.” Other academic explorers of the era, if somewhat more restrained,nevertheless subscribed to what Michael Taussig has charitably called the“penis school of physical anthropology.” The French anthropologist EugenioRobuchon, who also descended the Putumayo, the River of Death, noted that,“in general the Huitotos have thin and nervous members.” Another chapter ofhis book begins: “The Huitoto have gray-copper skin whose tones correspondto numbers 29 and 30 of the chromatic scale of the Anthropological Societyof Paris.” A footnote in Whiffen’s book reads, “Robuchon states that thewomen’s mammae are pyriform, and the photographs show distinctly pyriformbreasts with digitiform nipples. I found them resembling rather the segmentof a sphere, the areola not prominent, and the nipples hemispherical.”

Not everyone was interested in the measurement ofbreasts and skulls. Those who preferred to look forward to a brighter worlddistorted Darwinian theory in anticipation of creating a new and bettersociety. Eugenics means “good birth,” and the movement that flourished atthe turn of the twentieth century called for the selective breeding ofhealthy and fit individuals, with the goal of improving the gene pool ofhumanity. By the 1920s this ideal had been inverted into a rationale forforced sterilization and the culling of deviance. If one could improve thegene pool through selective breeding, surely one could achieve the same goalby eliminating from the stock elements deemed to be undesirable. This wasthe twisted scientific principle that in time allowed the Germans to justifythe slaughter and systematic extermination of millions of innocent people.

Given this sordid history, the ludicrousambitions of phrenology, the murderous consequences of eugenics, theperennial confidence and hubris of the scientific community even whenpromoting the most dubious of claims, it is no wonder that many people,notably those from non-Western traditions, remain deeply skeptical of anysweeping theory of human origins and migration. That such research isdependent on the collection and analysis of human blood from remote andisolated populations only further inflames passions and concerns. Indigenouspeoples, in particular, are deeply offended by the suggestion that theirhomelands, enshrined in narrative and myth, may not have been inhabited bytheir ancestors since the dawn of time. There have even been accusationsthat the recent scientific revelations about our genetic heritage may promptopen conflict and the forced removal of tribal peoples from lands that theyhave in fact occupied for all living memory.

I am quite certain that these fears areunfounded. History suggests that dominant groups do not need excuses toravage the weak, and I do not believe that any theory that emerges fromthese new studies will somehow tip the balance and in and of itself lead tothe disenfranchisement of a people. It is true that the Nazis turned topseudoscience about genetics and race to rationalize genocide, but, asSteven Pinker reminds us, the Marxist–Leninists were inspired to equallydespicable and devastating acts of genocide by their pseudoscientificfantasies about the social malleability of human nature. “The real threat tohumanity,” Pinker writes, “comes from totalizing ideologies and the denialof human rights, rather than curiosity about nature and nurture.”

Knowledge poses no threat to culture. What’smore, these research efforts only generate a certain type of knowledge,defined within a specific world view. Western science by definition rejectsa literal interpretation of origin myths that root the Haida, for example,to Haida Gwaii. But that rejection does nothing to quell the spirit of theHaida or to persuade my friend Guujaaw, head of the Council for the HaidaNation, that his people have not occupied the archipelago since human beingsemerged from the clamshell and Raven slipped out of the ether to steal thesun. A scientific suggestion that the Haida may have “come from somewhereelse” has already been made; it has long been the foundation of orthodoxanthropology. But this scientific “truth” does nothing to limit theauthority and power of the Haida today. Their ability to deal nation tonation with the Canadian government has little to do with mythic ancestralclaims and everything to do with political power, a priori evidence ofoccupancy at the time of contact, and the ability of leaders such as Guujaawto mobilize support for his people throughout the world.

Science is only one way of knowing, and itspurpose is not to generate absolute truths but rather to inspire better andbetter ways of thinking about phenomena. As recently as 1965, Americananthropologist Carleton Coon wrote two books,The Origin of RacesandThe Living Races of Man, in which headvanced the theory that there were five distinct human subspecies. Little,apparently, had been learned since the time of Linnaeus. The political andtechnological dominance of Europeans, Coon suggested, was a naturalconsequence of their evolved genetic superiority. He even asserted that“racial intermixture can upset the genetic as well as the social equilibriumof a group.” Coon at the time was the president of the American Associationof Physical Anthropologists, a full professor at the University ofPennsylvania, and curator of ethnology at the university’s Museum ofArchaeology and Anthropology.

That such statements, convenient as they wereduring the last years of Jim Crow and segregation, were seriouslyentertained by the academic community as recently as 1965 should certainlygive us pause as we consider the implications of the new research inpopulation genetics. But when the science in fact suggests an end to race,when it reveals beyond any reasonable doubt that race is a fiction, itbehooves us to listen. We should at least hope that for once the scientistshave it right.

And they do. They have revealed beyond any doubtthat the genetic endowment of humanity is a single continuum. From Irelandto Japan, from the Amazon to Siberia, there are no sharp genetic differencesamong populations. There are only geographical gradients. The most remotesociety on earth contains within its people fully 85 percent of our totalgenetic diversity. Were the rest of humanity to be swept away by plague orwar, the Waorani or the Barasana, the Rendille or the Tuareg would havewithin their blood the genetic endowment of all of humanity. Like a sacredrepository of spirit and mind, any one of these cultures, any one of the7,000, could provide the seeds from which humanity in all its diversitymight be reborn.

What all of this means is that biologists andpopulation geneticists have at last proved to be true something thatphilosophers have always dreamed: We are all literally brothers and sisters.We are all cut from the same genetic cloth.

It follows, by definition, that all culturesshare essentially the same mental acuity, the same raw genius. Whether thisintellectual capacity and potential is exercised in stunning works oftechnological innovation, as has been the great achievement of the West, orthrough the untangling of the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth —a primary concern, for example, of the Aborigines of Australia — is simply amatter of choice and orientation, adaptive insights and cultural priorities.

There is no hierarchy of progress in the historyof culture, no Social Darwinian ladder to success. The Victorian notion ofthe savage and the civilized, with European industrial society sittingproudly at the apex of a pyramid of advancement that widens at the base tothe so-called primitives of the world, has been thoroughly discredited —indeed, scientifically ridiculed for the racial and colonial conceit that itwas. The brilliance of scientific research and the revelations of moderngenetics have affirmed in an astonishing way the essential connectedness ofhumanity. We share a sacred endowment, a common history written in ourbones. It follows, as these lectures will suggest, that the myriad ofcultures of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failedattempts to be us. They are unique expressions of the human imagination andheart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to behuman and alive? When asked this question, the cultures of the world respondin 7,000 different voices, and these collectively comprise our humanrepertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as aspecies over the next 2,500 generations, even as we continue thisnever-ending journey.