Sun, Apr 29, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Vanishing cultures

Explorer Wade Davis traveled to the four corners of the globe to document the dying traditions of exotic cultures for the National Geographic Society

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

National Geographic Society,section on traditional Polynesian culture.


Wade Davis has, perhaps, the world's most fascinating job. The "Explorer in Residence" at the National Geographic Society has spent the past few years making four documentaries that have seen him journey through the hard biting snow of the Arctic to join an Inuit polar bear hunt, participate in the ancient Polynesian navigational art of Wayfinding, celebrate an ancient ritual with the indigenous people of Peru and seek the secrets of enlightenment on the mountains of Nepal. For Davis, adventurer extraordinaire, it's all in a day's work.

The four-part documentary, called Light at the Edge of the World will premier tomorrow at 9pm on the National Geographic Channel.

Working for an organization that, over its hundred-year existence, has brought some of the remotest cultures into the world's living rooms, is a mission that Davis holds close to his heart. Yet, like Davis, the National Geographic Society's mission has undergone considerable change over the past few years.

"What is [National Geographic's] mission today?" Davis asks. "Our board ... concluded that if its mission in the first 100 years was to tell you about the world, the society's mission in the next 100 years will be to save the world."

National Geographic's transformation from educator to protector of distant cultures parallels the career change of the Canadian-born and Harvard-educated Davis (he holds degrees in biology and anthropology and received his PhD in ethno-botany), who made the leap from hard-hitting academic to conservationist.

"I felt the issues I'd been studying in my academic training as a botanist and as an anthropologist in terms of biodiversity and cultural diversity were simply too important to be left within the constraints of the academy," he said when asked why he made the switch.

"No biologist would suggest that 50 percent of all species is on the brink of extinction because it simply isn't true. And yet, that ... pessimistic assessment in biological diversity hardly approaches the most optimistic assessment in cultural diversity."

Davis' concerns for the threatened indigenous populations throughout the world, as well as his travels and his studies of plants and indigenous cultures, has made him a powerful spokesman for cultural conservation.

"We embrace conservation in all its manifestations: conservation of the oceans, forest and biodiversity, conservation of archaeological sites and critically ... the conservation of our own legacy."

By legacy, Davis means the whole gamut of human civilization of which he says language is the clearest manifestation. And with fully half of the world's languages threatened with extinction Davis says there is an ever-greater urgency to protect them. "Every two weeks on average some elder passes away and carries with them into the grave the last syllables of an ancient language," he says.

Death of diversity

Through his work on the documentaries and his discussions with scientists throughout the world, Davis identifies two fundamental reasons for the erosion of cultural diversity.

The first is the notion that indigenous peoples are primitive and lazy, the ideological underpinnings of which can be traced back to theories of race, such as 19th-century Social Darwinism, that placed white European society at the top of the intellectual ladder and Aboriginals at the bottom.

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