Wade Davis, is "...an anthropologist ethno-botanist, filmmaker and photographer. The core of his work as explorer and anthropologist has been to catalogue these rare and distant cultures as the threat of the modern world is making them disappear at an alarming rate".
Davis, a Canadian, has degrees from Harvard in botany and anthropology and a Ph.D. in ethno-botany, the study of how people use plants. He has chairs at Oxford and Cambridge. He is one of only eight explorers-in-residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington.
In this essay in Scientific American (which is inspired by his latest book, "The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, 2009 Anansi Press) he says:
"Each of the planet's cultures is a unique answer to the question of what it means to be human. And together they make up our repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us as a species in the millennia to come.
"But these global voices are being silenced at a frightening rate. The key indicator of this decline in cultural diversity is language loss. A language, of course, is not merely a set of grammatical rules or vocabulary. It is the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Each one is an old-growth forest of the mind. Linguists agree, however, that 50 percent of the world's 7000 languages are endangered. Every fortnight an elder dies and carries with him or her into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. Within a generation or two, then, we may be witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity's social, cultural and intellectual legacy. This is the hidden backdrop of our age."
"Over the length of a long voyage the navigator had to remember every shift of wind, every change of current and speed, every impression from sea, sky and cloud. Even today Polynesian sailors, with whom I have voyaged, readily name 250 stars in the night sky. Their navigators can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of their vessels, knowing that every island group had its own reflective pattern that can be read with the ease with which a forensic scientist reads a fingerprint. In the darkness they can discern five distinct ocean swells, distinguishing those caused by local weather disturbances from the deep currents that pulsate across the Pacific and can be followed as readily as a terrestrial explorer would follow a river to the sea."
Simply astounding! And to think that such incredible knowledge is at risk of being lost, as these amazing people are undervalued, unappreciated and crowded out of our modern world. Truly high crimes against humanity.
There is hope, however, and Davis' writings encourage us to "...find ways to ensure that in a pluralistic, interconnected world all peoples may benefit from modernity without that engagement demanding the sacrifice of their ethnicity".
* Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire. Island Press, 2010
* The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Anansi, 2009