50 pages 1 hour read

Wade Davis

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


This study guide refers to the 2009 House of Anansi Press edition of Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. The Wayfinders collects a series of five Massey Lectures that Davis delivered in Canada in 2009. Davis is a Colombian-Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist, and the Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. This position, as well as his long anthropological career, has allowed Davis to spend time with many of the earth’s oldest and most remote cultures, including the San of Southern Africa; indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest, Borneo, Australia, and Canada; Tibetan Buddhists, Saharan nomads, and several others.

These lectures celebrate and explain the traditional wisdom and worldviews of these cultures. Davis argues that despite the primitivist lens we read these peoples through, their worldviews have allowed them to adapt to and maintain health in environments that many of us today could not fathom surviving in without drastic industrial modification. In these lectures Davis couples review of contemporary and historical anthropology and ecology and other scientific fields with insightful personal accounts of meetings with individual members of these cultures and traditions. Through this technique, he crafts an intellectual and empathic argument for the preservation of these cultures and the shifting of Western ideals toward more ancient conceptions of the value of habitat and community.

The book’s title comes from the English term for traditional Polynesian oceanic navigators. These individuals developed precise navigation methods for crossing long stretches of open sea through highly schematized observation of their immediate environment, all before European cultures produced the theory of longitude and the chronometer that allowed them to make the same journeys. Davis sees all of the cultures covered in this book as similar “wayfinders,” or producers of valuable worldviews and environmental knowledge that are crucial for our navigation of earthly existence, forgotten at great danger to our survival in our fragile worldwide habitat. Davis argues for the innate and equal value of each of the world’s cultures and the necessity of their preservation through the decentralization of the Western industrial worldview.

Lecture 1, “Season of the Brown Hyena,” foregrounds the tragedy of culture loss that is occurring at an unprecedented rate. He then gives a history of the Eurocentrism that poisoned anthropology at its inception in the 19th century. He closes the lecture discussing the culture of the San peoples of the Kalahari, an ancient hunter-gatherer group.

Lecture 2, “The Wayfinders,” discusses the history of Polynesian wayfinding, or sea navigation, potentially the most impressive accomplishment of an ancient culture detailed in this book. Davis uses wayfinding as an example of the dual genius of ancient cultural adaptations and the worthwhile conception of this genius as separate from its modern definition through technological innovation. He recounts his time voyaging aboard the traditionally built Polynesian vessel Hokule’a with wayfinder Nainoa Thompson. The lecture closes by discussing the single prestige economy known as the “Kula ring” throughout the islands of Polynesia.

Lecture 3, “Peoples of the Anaconda,” focuses on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest. The lecture begins with the narrative of the first European descent down the Amazon River, on which the Spanish encountered cities of hostile natives. The refusal of European audiences to believe the Amazon could be so well populated contributed to a long history of misinterpretations of the landscape and its inhabitants. Davis then briefly recounts time spent with the Waorani tribe of the Amazon before focusing on the Barasana, one of a network of tribes identified as “Peoples of the Anaconda.” Notable for their religiously motivated land-management techniques, the Barasana are one of the tribes allowed to flourish in relative seclusion due to Colombia’s legal dedication of 250,000 square kilometers of jungle to the Amazon’s indigenous people. This is an incredible victory of cultural revival.

Lecture 4, “Sacred Geography,” dwells more deeply on the crucial relationship between culture and landscape. In British Columbia, forests and rivers sacred to local indigenous people are being destroyed by mining companies. Highlighting the differences in how a Canadian and a Kwakwaka’wakw youth grow up, Davis reminds readers that an individual’s beliefs define how they relate to their local geographies. The lecture then discusses the use of the coca leaf by the Inca people which, despite its import as a social resource and its dietary benefits, has been criminalized by the UN. Transitioning to discussion of the Kogi, Arhuacos, and Wiwa tribes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Colombia and then the aboriginals of Africa, Davis describes two belief systems that develop intense relationships of respect and stewardship for ecology, and refuse Western concepts of industrial progress as beneficial to humanity.

Lecture 5, “Century of the Wind,” revisits the consequences of cultural destruction. The 20th century, in which much of this destruction has occurred, is dubbed the “century of the wind.” Examples of such destruction are given in discussion the Penan peoples of Borneo, who were displaced by industrial logging and assimilated by their government; Tibetan Buddhists, who were massacred by industrially progressive Maoists; the nomadic Rendille of the Sahara, who were forced into extreme poverty; and the Inuit of Northern Canada, who are on the eve of cultural revival at a period when climate change is destroying their traditional way of life. Each of these cultures has a unique genius that will be lost to the rest of humanity. The lecture closes optimistically, noting increasing awareness of ecological issues in the West and hoping the same will occur for cultural issues.