TED2008: Wade Davis – Cultural destruction or cultural survival?

Anthropologist Wade Davis is a guy who has a lot of fun. He’s a photographer, an ethnobotanist, a gentleman adventurer… and he’s fascinated by the sacred through history. Building on Louise Leakey’s talk, he tells us that the human imagination was born with Homo Erectus. By the time Homo Sapiens had evolved from Homo Erectus, we still shared the planet with our Neanderthal cousins. For five thousand years before Neanderthal was extinct, humans were making cave paintings, extraordinary artistic works deep in the caves of France.

This upper paleolithic art lasted 20,000 years as aesthetic expression – a form of expression completely identifiable and emotionally relavent to us today. It’s not just “hunting magic”, Davis tells us, but “postcards of nostaliga”. The nostalgia for the hunt is still emotionaly relavent today.

Davis takes us through a rapid-fire cultural tour of the world, through his various visits to isolated groups of people who have very different visions of life. “All different people are cultural options. And these cultural options are different visions of life itself.”

He tells us about “the sacred geography of Peru” and the rituals of a people who celebrate their community through running through their mountainous terrain. Every year, they choose the fastest boy in the village, and invite him to be a transvestite for the day, wearing his sister’s clothing. He leads a run from the village at 11,000 feet to a peak at 15,000, down again, across other mountains, navigating between sacred points along the way. “You go in as an individual, but emerge as a community which reaffirms its sense of place on the planet.” Davis participated in the run recently. “At the age of 48, I was the only westerner who was able to do it… only by chewing more coca leaves than anyone else on the planet.”

He takes us through a quick tour of Incan mythology, examining a ritual where people bring crosses from their communities to the roots of a glacier. Through ritual dances at the glacier, they “power” the crosses. Davis is fascinated by Incan mythos and engineering, pointing out that the roads built by the architects of Maccu Pichu mirror the celestial geography of the sky above that ancient site.

Davis’s narratives come fast and furious – the miraculous knowledge of Polynesian sailors of the tides, the waves and the stars; the ability of Inuit hunters to embrace the cold, “for whom blood on ice isn’t a sign of death, but an affirmation of life.” These lives are changing as the climate changes – the winter sea ice in northern Greenland exists for half as long as it used to.

He describes as “the most extrordinary trip of my life” his journey with the Arhuacos people of Colombia. They are, he tells us, some of the most spirital people in the world… and some of the heaviest drug users. “They consume half a pound of cocoa per man per day,” in a very ritualized fashion. If the gourds they use to extract the stimulant from the leaves break, you can’t simply throw them away – each line etched in those gourds over the years is a record of human life, a man’s actions. He travelled on a sacred journey with these people, high into the hills, with young men who’d lived much of their lives in seclusion, in the men’s hut. The children are taught the values of their elders, the values of their society, including that “that their prayers alone sustain the world”. “As we climned high onto the hills, we realized the men were interpreting every bump on the landscape in accordance with their own intensive religiosity,” he tells us, up until the moment where he was almost kidnapped by the FARC.

“None of these people are dying or disappearing peoples,” Davis tells us. “The world is not flat – it’s a rich topography, a tapestry of the spirit.” These people we tend to think of as marginal and foreign are “not failed attempts at being you, at being modern,” but are “unique answers to the question, ‘What does it mean to be human, to be alive?'”

Why study these people? Because each group of people, each culture is part of “our human repitoire in dealing with the challenges we face.” When most of us were born, there were six thousand languages spoken around the world – half of those languages are not being taught to children. These languages don’t have to die, but they are. “These cultures are not quaint and colorful, not destined to fade away. They are being driven out of existence by identifiable forces. And that’s good news, because if humans are the agents of cultural destruction, we can be the agents of cultural survival.”

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3 Responses to TED2008: Wade Davis – Cultural destruction or cultural survival?

  1. Pingback: Links 2008-02-27 : simoncolumbus.de

  2. Paulius V. says:

    Hi Ethan,

    I am enjoying your broadcasting right now. Thank you very much for interesting texts. But I found one mistake: ?As we climned high onto the hills, we realized the men were interpreting every bum”.

    climned = climbed

  3. I disagree with him — although his work is very important he tends to romanticise indigenous culture, ignoring the brutal reality. I was totally shocked during his TED talk when he talked about a tribe that brings up its shamans so they never see daylight until age 18 — it made me mad enough to post about the whole idealisation of tribal cultures (http://anadder.com/debunking-mystiques-indigenous-people).

    The extinction of languages and cultures is deplorable but it’s very relativist to want to preserve everything indiscriminately.

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