Harvard-born anthropologist and biologist Wade Davis is the author of several award-winning books including The Serpent and the Rainbow. Released in 2009, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World is a lecture-filled work of nonfiction that creates a collage of his life’s work among indigenous populations and carefully selected historical accounts, and discusses the spiritual and geographical knowledge of the old ways and their collision with the ever-encroaching modern world.
In The Wayfinders, Wade Davis discusses the ethnocide (the destruction of culture), something that is still occurring, through the use of several examples of cultures that have been wiped out by the modern world, language loss, political strife and war, and environmental destruction. Once these populations are gone, so is their wisdom. Although language can be translated, it is difficult – he explains – to translate ideas with full meaning once that language has been destroyed. And world languages are currently going through and incredibly fast rate of extinction.
“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 destruction … The 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.”
From the Polynesia diaspora to the Amazonian jungles to the Canadian First Nations to the southern Andes, Davis takes a look at different cultures and their small amounts of surviving or preserved culture and spirituality and discusses their belief sets and lifestyle with an emphasis on geographic location. That is to say, the land around them had been mastered by thousands of generations and was an integral part of their religions and customs. The knowledge they had was vast, knowledge that had been handed down generation after generation – much of which was gone in an instant and lost forever.
“What matters is the potency of belief, the manner in which a conviction plays out in the day-to-day lives of a people, for in a very real sense this determines the ecological footprint of a culture, the impact that any society has on its environment. A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective spirit will be a profoundly different human being from a youth brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined.”
The subtitle: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World was a bit of a conundrum for me when I was hard-pressed to figure out how these nuggets of old wisdom could somehow relate to my life in an industrialized nation and have a meaningful impact other than a brain boost, but with the above quotation, the center of his discussion seems to be environmentalism. That being said, you don’t have to be spiritual to consider the earth sacred ground.