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Authors: Wade Davis

The Wayfinders

BOOK: 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, including
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Light at the Edge of the World
One River
, and
The Clouded Leopard
. He is an award-winning anthropologist, ethnobotanist, filmmaker, and photographer, and his writing and photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including the
Globe and Mail
National Geographic
, the
Wall Street Journal
, and the
Washington 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 Matters
in the Modern World


Copyright © 2009 Wade Davis

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording,
or any information storage and retrieval system, without
permission in writing from the publisher.

Distribution of this electronic edition via the Internet or
any other means without the permission of the publisher is
illegal. Please do not participate in electronic piracy of
copyrighted material; purchase only authorized electronic
editions. We appreciate your support of the author’s rights.

This edition published in 2009 by

House of Anansi Press Inc.

110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801

Toronto, ON, M5V 2K4

Tel. 416-363-4343

Fax 416-363-1017

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

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

(CBC Massey lecture series)
eISBN 978-0-88784-969-5
1. Acculturation. 2. Language and culture. 3. Endangered languages.

4. Indigenous peoples — Languages. I. Title. II. Series: CBC Massey lecture series
GN366.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 blown
about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet
by any.” — Mahatma Gandhi

pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live
amongst peoples who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their
past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in the
bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that, in the Amazon, Jaguar shaman
still journey beyond the Milky Way, that the myths of the Inuit elders still
resonate with meaning, that the Buddhists in Tibet still pursue the breath
of the Dharma is to remember the central revelation of anthropology: the
idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute
sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set
of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage
made, however successfully, many generations ago.

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

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

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

The key indicator, the canary in the coal mine if
you will, is language loss. A language, of course, is not merely a set of
grammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, the
vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material
world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of
thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.

Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half
are not being taught to children. Effectively, unless something changes,
they will disappear within our lifetimes. Half of the languages of the world
are teetering on the brink of extinction. Just think about it. What could be
more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people
to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of your
ancestors or anticipate the promise of your descendants. This tragic fate is
indeed the plight of someone somewhere on earth roughly every two weeks. On
average, every fortnight an elder dies and carries with him or her into the
grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. What this really means is
that within a generation or two, we will be witnessing the loss of fully
half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy. This is the
hidden 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 get
along?” My answer is always to say, “A wonderful idea, but let’s make that
universal language Haida or Yoruba, Lakota, Inuktitut or San.” Suddenly
people get a sense of what it would mean to be unable to speak their mother
tongue. I cannot imagine a world in which I could not speak English, for not
only is it a beautiful language, it’s my language, the full expression of
who I am. But at the same time I don’t want it to sweep away the other
voices of humanity, the other languages of the world, like some kind of
cultural nerve gas.

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

While biologists suggest that perhaps 20 percent
of mammals, 11 percent of birds, and 5 percent of fish are threatened, and
botanists anticipate the loss of 10 percent of floristic diversity,
linguists and anthropologists today bear witness to the imminent
disappearance of half the extant languages of the world. Over six hundred
have fewer than a hundred speakers. Some 3,500 are kept alive by a fifth of
1 percent of the global population. The ten most prevalent languages, by
contrast, are thriving; they are the mother tongues of half of humanity.
Fully 80 percent of the world’s population communicates with one of just
eighty-three languages. But what of the poetry, songs, and knowledge encoded
in the other voices, those cultures that are the guardians and custodians of
98.8 percent of the world’s linguistic diversity? Is the wisdom of an elder
any less important simply because he or she communicates to an audience of
one? Is the value of a people a simple correlate of their numbers? To the
contrary, every culture is by definition a vital branch of our family tree,
a repository of knowledge and experience, and, if given the opportunity, a
source of inspiration and promise for the future. “When you lose a
language,” the
linguist Ken Hale remarked not long before he
passed away, “you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s
like 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 paid
homage to the global sweep of technology and modernity, suggesting that the
world is flat, that one does not have to emigrate to innovate, that we are
fusing 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 these
books I can only think that I must have been travelling in very different
circles than these writers. The world that I have been fortunate to know, as
I hope these lectures will demonstrate, is most assuredly
flat. It is full of peaks and valleys, curious
anomalies and divine distractions. History has not stopped, and the
processes of cultural change and transformation remain as dynamic today as
ever. The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in
interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural
paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel,
it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.

to begin a celebration of culture and diversity
with a nod to genetics, but this is really where the story begins. For
nearly ten years my friend and colleague at the National Geographic Society,
Spencer Wells, has been leading the Genographic Project, an ambitious global
effort to track through both space and time the primordial journey of
humanity. What he and other population geneticists have discovered is one of
the great revelations of modern science. We are, as Spencer reminds us, the
result of over a billion years of evolutionary transformations. Our DNA,
encoded in four simple letters, is a historical document that reaches back
to the origin of life. Each one of us is a chapter in the greatest story
ever written, a narrative of exploration and discovery remembered not only
in 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 sentient
existence. There are six billion bits of data wrapped and coiled and spun in
the darkness of our beings. If the DNA in any human body were to be
stretched out in a single line it would reach not just to the moon, but to
3,000 celestial spheres equidistant from the earth. In life, of course, this
chain, this mystic inheritance, is broken and bundled into forty-six
chromosomes, which pass down through the generations. With each new
coupling, each new child, these chromosomes are shuffled and reassembled
such that each of us is born as a unique combination of the genetic
endowment 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 50
million nucleotides, passes more or less intact through the generations,
from father to son. In each cell’s mitochondria, its energy-producing
organelles, 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 window
onto the past.

Almost all human DNA, 99.9 percent of the three
billion nucleotides, does not vary from person to person. But woven into the
remaining 0.1 percent are revelations, differences in the raw code itself
that yield vital clues about human ancestry. Inevitably during the
transcription and replication of genetic information, these billions of bits
of data, small glitches occur. Where the letter A ought to be, there appears
a G. These are mutations, and they happen all the time. They are not
cataclysmic. Rarely would a single mutation make for phenotypic changes. A
shift 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 the
person. This genetic drift does, however, remain indelibly encoded in the
genes of that individual’s descendants. These single inherited mutations are
the markers, the “seams and spot welds,” as Spencer has written, that over
the last twenty years have allowed population geneticists to reconstruct the
story of human origins and migration with a precision that would have been
unimaginable a generation ago. By studying not the similarities but the
differences in the DNA between individuals, by tracking the appearance of
markers through time, and by looking at thousands of markers, the lineages
of descent can be determined. Two entwined evolutionary trees are being
constructed, one through fathers and sons, the other through mothers and
daughters, and the entire journey of humanity both in time and space brought
into remarkably precise focus.

The overwhelming scientific consensus suggests
that all of humanity lived in Africa until some 60,000 years ago. Then,
perhaps driven by changing climatic and ecological conditions that led to
the desertification of the African grasslands, a small band of men, women,
and children, possibly as few as 150 individuals, walked out of the ancient
continent and began the colonization of the world. What propelled the
multiple waves of the human diaspora can never be fully known, though
presumably food and other resource imperatives played a major role. As
populations grew beyond the carrying capacity of the land, they splintered,
and some bands moved on. What the DNA record reveals is that as smaller
groups split off, they carried only a subset of the genetic diversity
originally present in the African population. Indeed, the science indicates
that for all human cultures, wherever they ended up, genetic diversity
decreases the further both in time and space that a people are removed from
Africa. Again, these differences do not reflect phenotype. They do not imply
anything about human potential. They are simply markers that highlight a
sort of cosmic map of culture, revealing where and when our ancestors took
to the open road.

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

BOOK: The Wayfinders
4.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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