For many years and over many continents, anthropologist Wade Davis has chronicled the lives, languages, and customs of the globe’s last remaining aboriginal peoples. The outlook is bleak on all counts. Of the approximately 7,000 languages presently spoken, 3,500 face extinction in our lifetime. When the last speaker of a given language vanishes, so will the last vestiges of a culture.
In The Wayfinders, this year’s instalment of CBC’s Massey Lectures, Davis describes several groups he has come to know, peoples who live so closely with the natural world that they can hardly discern a border between the human and the non-human, animate and inanimate. Their art and myths afford outsiders a glimpse of an alternative to the dominant social paradigm that began with Cartesian thought in Europe and eventually spread around the globe. Today, this way of seeing the world is so pervasive that most people probably aren’t aware alternatives exist at all. Such ignorance could prove damaging to the future of life on this planet. If biodiversity and the peoples best equipped to understand it disappear, alternative sustainable lifestyles may vanish along with them. The earth’s ongoing viability requires a spectrum of wildlife and a wide range of human perception. Or, as Davis puts it, “The ethnosphere is humanity’s greatest legacy.”
The author of The Serpent and the Rainbow and The Clouded Leopard, Davis writes powerfully and emotionally. Our materialistic worldview unwisely marginalizes spiritual and intrinsic values, he says. “We take this as a given for it is the foundation of our system.… But if you think about it, especially from the perspective of so many other cultures … it appears to be very odd and highly anomalous human behaviour.” It’s this very behaviour that has created depleted fisheries, toxic pollution, and environmental refugees. Davis argues persuasively that our curent patterns of thought and behaviour could do with input from elsewhere. He urges us to assimilate some valuable lessons from the planet’s ancient cultures before it is too late.