The Walrus

The Wayfinders

by Steven W. Beattie · illustration by Roxanna Bikadoroff
Walrus Reads · From the November 2009 magazine
The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
by Wade Davis
House of Anansi Press (2009), 240 pp.

We live in an age of disintegration,” writes anthropologist Wade Davis in The Wayfinders, the 2009 edition of CBC’s annual Massey Lectures. While the world’s population has ballooned since the latter half of the twentieth century, this proliferation has occurred alongside a paradoxical contraction of what Davis calls the “ethnosphere”—the agglomeration of cultures, religions, and ways of life that exist around the globe, many of which are at risk of disappearing in our lifetime.

He addresses this issue by juxtaposing our technologically advanced, capitalistic Western lifestyle with a handful of cultures that this lifestyle threatens: the Penan of Borneo, for example, or the Aborigines of Australia, who are losing their languages at the rate of one or more per year. Throughout, he does a solid job of debunking the notion that Western rationalism, espoused from the Enlightenment through to the present, is the only—or even the best—model for humanity. The Western ideology of industrial progress, Davis points out, has brought us two devastating world wars and the emergent threat of global climate change; by contrast, many ostensibly “primitive,” non-resource-based cultures have developed much more sustainable ways of life.

Of course, the risk here lies in idealizing the alternative cultures addressed, assuming that an adherence to an ancient way of life exempts its practitioners from the darker side of human nature. Davis avoids this pitfall for the most part, although he does occasionally sentimentalize his subjects, as when he claims that the Sinikara in South America, at an elevation of 4,750 metres, “feels warm from the mere presence” of the people there. Still, the central message of these lectures—that the ongoing disintegration of the world’s ancient cultures is something that needs to be curtailed—manages to cut through such bald sentimentality.