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Rare cultures highlighted in National Geographic lecture

Wade Davis speaks about the rare cultures and tribes in the world and the need to preserve them. (Tom O’Dell / Photo Editor)

By Annette Califano

There is a plethora of small tribes and uncivilized cultures throughout the world that are in need of a greater awareness. There is the possibility that these civilizations could one day risk extinction due to their lack of modernzation. Wade Davis, a renowned ethnobotanist who received his Ph.D from Harvard University and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, wrote a book on this specific issue, titled, “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.”

In a lecture to a full audience of students and faculty on Monday, March 28, at the Mildred & Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall, Davis spoke on the importance of respecting cultures that are on the verge of extinction and the issues highlighted within his book.

The “National Geographic Live” event was sponsored by the Office of the vice president for Student Affairs, Office of Academic Affairs, School of Culture and Society, Liberal Learning, School of Business and the Center for Global Learning.

Davis focused on issues within his book along with his experience of traveling to different areas of the world.

“One of the intense pleasures of travels is the opportunity to live amongst those who have not forgotten the old ways,” Davis said.

Davis traveled to some of the most remote places in the world — the Amazon, Tibet, Polynesia — in order to observe the dynamics of the people who live there and the beauty of their culture and traditions.

These traditions are passed on orally, via storytelling and remembered by indigenous tribes because they choose to practice and preserve the ancient ways of their ancestors.

“What’s interesting is the unique cadence of the song, the rhythm of the dance of every culture,” he said.

With the aid of a picture slideshow — some, if not all, of the photos Davis took himself — Davis highlighted that no single culture is the same.

One example Davis used during the lecture was the sailors of the Polynesia, also known as “wayfinders,” use nature to help them navigate their way to other islands.

The use of nature is prominent in not only the Polynesian civilizations, but others such as in the Northwest Amazon region, as well.

In the Northwest Amazon, there is a plant, ayahuasca, which is also highly hallucinogenic, that is derived from two other plants. The Indians of the Northwest Amazon used a process many would call “trial and error,” Davis said.

According to Davis, when he asked the Indians how they knew which plants to mix, their response was, “The plants teach you.”

Yet in a world where climate change and social changes are occurring at a rapid pace, cultures are disappearing at an alarming rate, he said.

“Change is not a threat to cultures,” Davis said. “Power threatens them.”

Disease and industry are just two examples Davis gave of forces that are wiping out small tribes.

“The people of the Amazons hear the voices of animals and nature,” Davis said.

However, now that major industries are cutting down the forest, the only thing they can hear is the roar of the trucks and the crash of the trees that once made up their homes.

But Davis is optimistic for the future — he believes that social change and a shift in how we perceive other cultures and environments is possible.

“Firstly, we have to respect the rights of people’s beliefs,” he said.

Davis said he is still working to gain an awareness of the indigenous people and the rare cultures with whom he resided.


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