Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Losing Ancient Wisdom

Came across an interesting article in the September, 2010 Scientific American (special issue), entitled, "Last of Their Kind" by Wade Davis, Ph.D.  It is about the terrifying speed with which many of the world's ancient cultures are disappearing and the valuable knowledge that will disappear with them.

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."



A striking example of a culture we could soon lose are the Polynesians.  Davis says, "Ten centuries before Christ -- at a time when European sailors, incapable of measuring longitude and fearful of the open ocean, hugged the shores of continents -- the Polynesians set sail across the Pacific, a diaspora that would eventually bring them to every island from Hawaii to Rapa Nui, the Marquesas to New Zealand.  They had no written word.  They only knew where they were by remembering how they had got there. 

"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".


It is shameful and frightening to think, in contrast, how recent news reports tell of our culture's descent to threatening unwanted mosques, burning holy writings, banning religious and cultural forms of dress, etc. etc.   Thank you Wade Davis for your work to highlight the plight of so many threatened, ancient cultures and the wealth of knowledge that will disappear with them.    Here are a few of Wade Davis' books that clearly deserve our attention:

* 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
* Light at the Edge of the World.  D&M, 2007
* Nomads of the Dawn: The Penan of the Borneo Rain Forest. Pomegranate Press, 1995



30 comments:

  1. Only one of the many reasons I think humans will not last long especially in this modern age. If a huge catastrophe occurs that robs us of electricity, all our knowledge will be lost. If modern cities fall, there will be massive portions of the population that won't know how to do the simplest things to survive.

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  2. This is fascinating and sad. I do wonder how "we" will manage to keep these threatened cultures intact.

    Recently the NYTimes had this piece asking Does your language shape how you think? He goes through questions of gender in language (why don't we have these in English?), such as "bridge" being masculine in German and feminine in Spanish (or is it the other way around? Where's Lorenzo when I need him?). Imagine how differently you view a bridge, depending on whether it's masculine or feminine!

    But the most interesting part of that article is the last part, which discusses the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr (Australia, if I remember right, I just found the language - believe me I didn't remember that name, but don't have time to search the country of origin). These people learn from the time they learn to communicate, the ordinals for direction. Every sentence practically is infused with information about north, south, east or west. They don't say, The plate is in front of me. They say, The plate is to the north of me. I was blown away to think that at any given time, a three year-old knows the ordinal directions in that culture. And I don't, as a 54-year-old.

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  3. Hi Ellen! Yes the knowledge of our culture about nature and how to survive off of the land leaves much to be desired. Perhaps that is why we are so easily able to dismiss the value in the wisdom of other cultures ...

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  4. Hi Ruth! I would love to read the NY Times article. Here in Quebec, most of us are bilingual. I do notice that I 'feel' slightly different when I speak French as opposed to English. French is more precise and formal and has fewer words to draw from than English. English is such a fusion of so many languages, uses short-forms so easily and has many more names for one item than French. French is a language that assigns feminine and masculine to each noun. My experience has not been that an object is seen differently because of its grammatical 'gender' assignment. But that's just me. I will ask some of my Quebecois friends that very question.

    I have heard there is an Inuit language that has 20 (don't quote me on the number - it could in fact be even more) words for various types of snow.

    It is the height of hubris to think that our language, our culture, our way of walking through the world reveals all. We have so much to learn - and yet do not seem inclined to value what has come before.

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  5. I happen to be reading a book on this very subject. Mayan culture passed down through the ages through oral history - without one word changed! Great post, Bonnie.

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  6. Very interesting! Everything is now homogenized, sanitized, made to feel familiar all over the world. We are losing our appreciation and curiosity to learn from the new, the different, the exotic.

    I wrote my memoir with that sense of loss for the world I knew, the language I longer spoke, the stories and hearth wisdom that died with my parents. Our children used to feel connected to a long tradition. They do not feel that way any more.

    I'm grateful to you for sharing this.

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  7. I am giving up worry and angst about things I can not control. Instead I look forward with curiosity to see how the gifts we all have will fold together to create the "new", the future. Perhaps it will be beautiful, because many, many beautiful people created it.

    As you quoted Bonnie: "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."

    Our new culture will be unique too, and will also pull from many repertoires to deal with current challenges. I vote for a beautiful future!

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  8. bonnie...this is both fascinating and scary...the loss of so mush as we become a homogenized people...the different cultures add so mcuh..just like the polynesian sailors (which is amazing)...

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  9. My husband and I were just having a discussion similar to your post yesterday. Richie used to sweat with Yokut Indians (central California) and the elders would tell him how the Earth would be just fine. It's the humans who are destroying themselves. The irony is the Yokuts in some areas are witnessing their own language disappear at alarming rates due to what Wade Davis talks about with the Polynesians.

    Powerful post, Bonnie. I admire Wade Davis and enjoyed reading more about him. Looks like more books in my future...

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  10. You're a treasure trove of information. I just placed an order.

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  11. This is such a shame. We have also lost so many species of plants and animals at an alarming rate in the last 100 years or so.

    We modern humans think we are so civilized and sophisticated, but we've lost the ability to do some of the most basic things, things that our future survival as a species could depend on.

    Thank you for this post - the comments, too, are very thought-provoking.

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  12. I was particularly fascinated by the part about the Polynesian sailors - today we use technology to do what people did thousands of years ago using only their minds and senses. So much of what we think of as "better" or "more advanced" really just takes us farther away from our human capabilities. Reminds me of the time I bought a 75 cent pack of gum and watched the store clerk take out a calculator to figure out how to make change for a dollar. The modern world allows us to forget the basic skills that got us here.

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  13. Very interesting. I took note of his books, I will try to find at leat one here..You are always finding such intersting topics to post..

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  14. Hi Nancy! Thank you. That sounds like an interesting book. What is the title?

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  15. Hi lakeviewer! So true - many of us even seem to be threatened by what is different.

    The US is often referred to as a 'melting pot', and while everyone needs to find their way to live, work and love in a country ... I have always felt bad about what gets lost in the 'melt'. Would it not be better to be a mosaic of cultures than a melting pot of cultures?

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  16. Fascinating and disturbing. We've become far too removed from nature. Davis is doing great work.. essential knowledge. Thanks for sharing this.

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  17. Hi Leslie! It is true that this worlds gives us many issues and little power to effect change. But there are a range of things we can do between worry/angst and hoping things work out for the best. Awareness of what is taking place in our world is key. Then we can make choices about how we treat our neighbours and their cultural differences, who we give our votes and our money to, who we support by giving of our time and energy.

    If you were bleeding internally, would it not be better to know than to simply hope for the best?

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  18. Hi Brian: Yes, when that knowledge is gone - will it ever be developed again? Or when a plant or animal species is gone ... We have to look at how our day to day choices influence these situations.

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  19. I don't know if it does me any good to know this. I feel so overwhelmed these days about everything. I don't know if we are all doomed, but we are by our habits causing destruction.

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  20. Hi Gwynnie: So much of who we are and how we move through the world is influenced by the words and structures we use to understand and explain ourselves.

    We agonize over the loss of important ancient ruins because of the information they give us about a culture, yet somehow accept it as a given that languages will disappear and do not realize how much we will be the poorer for it.

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  21. Hi Meri! Which book did you choose to order?

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  22. Hi Angela! So true. Thank you for your thoughts.

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  23. Hi Jeff! What a good point! Look how much more of their mind/body/spirit/senses (and perhaps even other functions of which we are not aware) the Polynesians are using than we do.

    Your example is evident all around us, and so very sad. What will be written about this culture down the road?

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  24. Hi Turquoise! I'm sure you could provide many examples of peoples and tongues lost in your area of the world.

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  25. Hi Hilary! It is disturbing isn't it. Thank goodness for the Wade Davis' among us.

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  26. Hi Sandra! It can feel overwhelming, can't it. As Leslie suggested, we have little power, and sometimes the best we can do beyond how we conduct our own life, is to pick a cause or two that we learn about, support, donate to, lobby for etc. We cannot rally for every cause, but we can choose one or two that speak to us and make sure we speak out about them.

    I have learned much about some very important issues from the way you speak out on your blog. And I know what I learned from you has affected how I talk about matters to others and has affected some of the choices I make. All we can do is hope that it adds up and makes a difference ... somehow.

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  27. This is so sad! Thanks for presenting such wonderful pieces.

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  28. A fascinating read, Bonnie. I have a friend here in Spain who is an ethno-botanist and visiting small rural villages is a delight with him. He does interviews with the elderly residents of the hamlets on how they used herbs and plants for medicinal, therapeutic, religious or mystical properties. One delightful word I learned from him was criptocultivo or "crypto-crop". That is where a herb, for example, that was planted in a vegetable patch generations ago, keeps sprouting. Sometimes a village resident will be disturbed by the perennial sprouting of an unknown herb in their fruit and vegetable patch. My friend has on occasion identified the intrusive plant as something cultivated for perhaps centuries, that keeps coming up, offering its no-longer appreciated or understood properties to us still today.

    I sincerely hope that the cultures and languages your post speaks of will not be condemned to this eerie fate, to disappear only to revisit us from the crypt.

    As for Ruth's question, bride is masucline in Spanish, el puente.

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  29. Thanks for such an informative post, Bonnie. Loss of cultural diversity is nothing less than a disaster for the world, and I fear that my own country is responsible for much of the problem. Thanks also for the book references. I plan to pick up one of Davis's books to get a better understanding of his work and proposed solutions.

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  30. This was such an informative post. So sad, too. This craziness has to stop.

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