Explorer on Initiative to Document Cultures on the Edge

Wade Davis
for National Geographic News
May 22, 2003

Author, anthropologist, and botanical explorer Wade Davis is a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. Together with National Geographic Cultures Initiative photographer Chris Rainier, Davis recently embarked on the first of a series of expeditions over the next five years to study the web of cultural diversity around the Earth.

In the essay below, Davis describes the National Geographic Cultures Initiative and its vital mission.

One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live among peoples who have not forgotten the old ways, who feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that Jaguar shamans still journey beyond the Milky Way, that the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning, that the Tibetan pilgrim still pursues the breath of the Buddha, is to remember the central revelation of anthropology, and that is the realization that our particular cultural world does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality; the consequence of one set of adaptive choices that our particular intellectual and spiritual lineage made, albeit successfully, many generations ago. The Penan in the forests of Borneo, the Vodoun acolytes in Haiti, the Tuareg nomads in the searing sands of the Sahara—all these peoples reveal that there are other options, other means of interpreting existence, other ways of being. This is an idea that can only inspire hope.

Together the myriad cultures of the world make up an intellectual and spiritual web of life, an "ethnosphere" if you will, that envelops and insulates the planet. You might think of the ethnosphere as the sum total of all thoughts, beliefs, myths, and intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of conciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity's greatest legacy. It is the product of our dreams, the embodiment of our hopes, the symbol of all that we are and all that we have created as a wildly inquisitive and astonishingly adaptive species.

Just as the biosphere, the biological matrix of life, is today being severely compromised, so too is the ethnosphere. And at a far greater rate of loss. No biologist, for example, would dare suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund or on the brink of extinction. Yet this, the most apocalyptic projection in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity. The key indicator is language loss. There are at present, roughly spoken, 6,000 languages. A language, of course, is not merely a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. It is a flash of the human spirit, the means by which the soul of each particular culture reaches into the material world. Every language is an old growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an entire ecosystem of spiritual possibilities. Of those 6,000 extant languages, fully half are not being taught to children. Unless something changes, effectively they are already dead. What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the elders, to anticipate the promise of the children. This tragic fate is indeed the plight of someone somewhere roughly every two weeks. For on average every fortnight a leader dies and carries with him or her into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. What this really means is that within a generation or two, we are witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity's legacy. This is the hidden backdrop of our age.

The ultimate tragedy is not that archaic societies are disappearing but rather that vibrant, dynamic, living cultures and languages are being forced out of existence. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written literature composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets and saints. In short, the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience. Every view of the world that fades away, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life and reduces the human repertoire of adaptive responses to the common problems that confront us all. Knowledge is lost, not only of the natural world but of realms of the spirit, intuitions about the meaning of the cosmos, insights into the very nature of existence.

Our goal at the National Geographic Cultures Initiative is to focus global attention on the plight of the ethnosphere. To do so, we will be launching a series of journeys that will take our readers and viewers to places where the cultural beliefs, practices, and adaptations are so inherently wondrous that one cannot help but come away dazzled by the full range of the human imagination.

Above all, we hope to encourage our audience to understand that these cultures do not represent failed attempts at modernity, marginal peoples who somehow missed the technological train to the future. On the contrary, these peoples, with their dreams and prayers, their myths and memories, teach us that there are indeed other ways of being, alternative visions of life, birth, death, and creation itself. When asked the meaning of being human, they respond with ten thousand different voices. It is within this diversity of knowledge and practice, of intuition and interpretation, of promise and hope, that we will all rediscover the enchantment of being what we are, a conscious species aware of our place on the planet, and fully capable not only of doing no harm but of ensuring that all peoples in every garden find a way to flourish.

Our first stop in this long journey will be Mali, and the dunes of the Sahara. We'll report from there …

Stories in This Series:
African Tribe's Culture Survives: Fox Prophets, Sacred Masks
In Sahara, Salt-Hauling Camel Trains Struggle On
Reclaiming the Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu
Explorer Wade Davis on Initiative to Document Cultures on the Edge

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