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The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

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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.


Every culture is a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? Anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis leads us on a thrilling journey to celebrate the wisdom of the world’s indigenous cultures.

In Polynesia we set sail with navigators whose ancestors settled the Pacific ten centuries before Christ. In the Amazon we meet the descendants of a true Lost Civilization, the people of the Anaconda. In the Andes we discover that the Earth really is alive, while in the far reaches of Australia we experience Dreamtime, the all-embracing philosophy of the first humans to walk out of Africa. We then travel to Nepal, where we encounter a wisdom hero, a Bodhisattva, who emerges from forty-five years of Buddhist retreat and solitude. And finally we settle in Borneo, where the last rainforest nomads struggle to survive.

Understanding the lessons of this journey will be our mission for the next century. For at risk is the human legacy — a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination. Rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of the human spirit, as expressed by culture, is among the central challenges of our time.


WADE DAVIS is the bestselling author of several books, including The Serpent and the Rainbow, Light at the Edge of the World, and One River. He is an award-winning anthropologist, ethnobotanist, filmmaker, and photographer. Davis currently holds the post of National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and divides his time between Washington, D.C. and northern British Columbia.


Wade Davis - The Wayfinders.mp4
Published Date: 01/16/2010 | Length: 55:33

Anthropologist and author, Wade Davis, delivers the 2009 Massey Lecture The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Davis explores the importance of the myriad and diverse cultures of the world and the impact on all of us when a culture disappears.


Wade Davis - Endangered Cultures.mp4

Duration: 0:22:01
Dimensions: 850x480
Audio: 125kbps 48 kHz
Size: 298mb