There was a time when many Europeans believed they occupied the highest evolutionary status. Indigenous cultures were seen as primitive, while industrial societies were considered advanced. In fact, as we steam forward with technological and scientific advances, it seems like some may still think this way.
In Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (House of Anansi Press, 2009), Davis gives examples from his own anthropological fieldwork of peoples who are living in the modern world in ways still deeply connected to their ancient beliefs. His argument is that people should not have to choose between an “ancient” or “modern” way of life. They are both equally as valid.
Beginning with the loss of languages around the world, Davis gives us grim statistics: although the 10 most prevalent languages are thriving, 80% of the world’s population communicates with only one of 83 languages. The rest are fast becoming extinct. When language is lost, so, too, is the foundation of a culture.
The Wayfinders is filled with fascinating tales from Polynesia, the Amazon, the Andes, Australia, Nepal, and Borneo, focusing on the indigenous peoples who have lived there for thousands of years. A natural storyteller, Davis recounts historical narratives of first contact as if he was there – for more recent stories, he actually was there. Cultures clash as colonizers arrive on new-to-them lands with the mindset of conquering.
A standout is an anecdote from the chapter on the Peoples of the Anaconda in the Amazon. It illustrates the misunderstandings that can happen when two cultures meet for the first time.
In 1957, missionaries wanted to introduce themselves to the Waorani people (in Ecuador) before stepping onto their land, so as to avoid a fight. They decided to drop eight-by-ten glossy photos of themselves from the air. The Waorani had never seen anything two dimensional before and tried looking behind the paper for the real person. They assumed these strange things were calling cards from the devil and “when the missionaries arrived they promptly speared them to death.”
In another tone, this poignant anecdote elegantly describes a custom in the southern Andes:
When men and women meet on a trail, they pause and exchange k’intus of coca, three perfect leaves aligned to form a cross. Turning to face the nearest apu [mountain deity] they bring the leaves to their mouths and blow softly, a ritual invocation that sends the essence of the plant back to the earth, the community, the sacred places, and the souls of the ancestors. The exchange of the leaves is a social gesture, a way of acknowledging a human connection. But the blowing of the phukuy, as it is called, is an act of spiritual reciprocity, for in giving selflessly to the earth, the individual ensures that in time the energy of the coca will return fill circle.
The point Davis is making with this and other accounts is that, to many of the ancient cultures, earth and humans are inextricably linked, animals and plants are as alive as people. Without this connection, we allow the land to be spliced into countries, we create boundaries, pour concrete over the earth, hunt wildlife for sport, clear cut forests and plants in what seems like the blink of an eye; we split ourselves into races and ethnicities and religions – we separate ourselves and set ourselves up to fight against one another.
Do we want earth to reclaim us as a failed experiment when she has had enough of our divisions? Why can’t we begin to respect the wisdom from those who came before us, way before us, who understood the way nature subsists intuitively?
Can we begin to remember the intuition we once had, instead of relying on the newest technology to tell us?
Sometimes the rate we are sprinting ahead makes me anxious to escape to a place where society is intertwined with the natural world and modern equipment is used only to assist in the basics of survival, if at all.
But what if there are no places like this left? What if these cultures are relocated and shuffled to urban centres so their land can be exploited for those of us who live in rich countries? What if we forget ancient wisdom?
Knowing where we came from and why we are who we are is a complicated matter, but Davis is able to convey his lifelong research into thematic chapters that can be digested by the general public. Although the book was written to be read for The Massey Lectures, it lends itself well to the written page, where one can stop throughout and ponder the issues raised and savour the perspectives from the traditions mentioned.
Davis tells stories with the passion of a traveller who has lived with the people he writes about, allowing us to follow his narratives with ease. His knowledge is vast. He closes the book by writing that he is not asking people to forfeit their right “to benefit from the genius of technology.” Conversely, he is asking us to draw inspiration in knowing that this is not the only and best way to live.
Davis moves us to shift our thinking, not by telling us to change, but by sharing the knowledge he has been offered from other cultures. This is reason enough.
“To lose a culture is to lose something of our selves.”
– Wade Davis, The Wayfinders