To be human, to be alive, to have knowledge, and to be successful. These are the concepts that each and every culture has a complex and unique answer to. Much like languages have different words for a idea, cultures have vastly different interpretations on the correct way to exist in their time on earth. “The ideal of a single civilization for everyone implicit in the cult of progress and technique impoverishes and mutilates us. Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life,” (Octavio Paz, 162). Unfortunately people have not always been able to exist cohesively and with pride in oneself there often results in the suppression of another. The Wayfinders seeks to understand and celebrate the cultures of the world most closely connected to the wisdom of their ancestral legacy. In this exploration of Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders, I will bust the myth of prejudicial superiority of “developed” nations and expose the dark impact of conquest and colonialism on native peoples.
One of the most prevalent themes featured in The Wayfinders is the common misconception of ignorance and savagery in the “underdeveloped” worlds. Belief in the existence of a universally correct culture and way of life promotes ethnocentrism and ignores the wealth of knowledge cultivated in just about any culture. Following the neolithic revolution humans were equipped with farming methods more intensive than early hunter gatherer societies, however not all early groups chose to go down these paths. Does this make them less intelligent? No. Each civilization discussed by Davis found a way to survive, communicate, and pass on the history of the generations sometimes 500+ years in the making.
Beginning as early as 60,000 b.c.e. human migration led people out of Africa and east across thousands of kilometers of land and ocean into Asia, Australia, and beyond. Our ancestors settled remote islands and harsh climates using the limited technology of the time. In chapter one, Season of the Brown Hyena Davis brings the reader’s attention to the San people of Kalahari. Currently residing in present day Botswana, Namibia, and Southern Angola the San people are thought to be descended from the earliest inhabitants of Africa. Their DNA is scarce of genetic variation experienced by the peoples of the Anaconda or Marquesa. From the San people we can learn how to survive off of foraging subsistence strategies in one of the most intimidating and greedy deserts on earth. On a daily basis the San battle water shortage and stay alive by digging their way to moisture in the sand. Developing this knowledge alone is enough to earn respect but the San people also created a language comprised of 141 sounds and is uniquely its own. “Language, stealth, spirit, adaptive genius – these were the tools that allowed the San to survive the Kalahari.” (pg 26, Davis)
Even the largest culture sphere in the human imagination found criticism among anthropologists of the 19th and 20th centuries. When the conquistadors of Spain discovered the peoples of the Southern Pacific Islands they decided they were too primitive to have voyaged across the Pacific and created a civilization of their caliber. Known as the Accidental Drift theory, the Polynesians supposedly discovered the islands by drifting off the planned path and merely stumbling upon new lands. Inconceivable to the Spaniards was that the people purposefully settled the Pacific without a compass and instead with knowledge. But they did and they have a wonderful history of being able to track their way. Many anthropologists doubted the origin of the Pacific because prevailing winds in the ocean would not allow travel eastward. However, unbeknownst to them but well known among the indigenous peoples, there was a time every year when the winds reversed and voyagers could explore the vast ocean, all the while knowing that if they want to return they just had to wait for the winds to turn back. Though these people were not developed in the eyes or standards of the european explorers, their genius for exploration is certainly a feat that the “developed” europeans couldn’t even comprehend, let alone accomplish. “The sheer courage that true exploration implies, the brilliance of human adaptation
Peoples of the Anaconda
Small in numbers and without strict hierarchical leadership, the Waorani peoples of the Amazon rainforest were characteristically synonymous with marginalized groups but they were extraordinarily gifted. Dependent on the mercy of the environment to survive, they were looked down upon by outsiders. However it is because of this dependency that the Waorani are an admirable people. The hunters developed keen senses of smell able to track animal urine at great distances and they were even more talented at manipulating plants. “Through generations of empirical observation and experimentation, they had learned to manipulate plants with considerable skill,” (Davis, 90). This included extracting poison from plants and using them to aid in the hunt. They also transformed nutrient deficient soil into a sufficient food source through slash and burn agriculture.
The Aboriginal people of Australia were the embodiment of savagery in the eyes of the European colonists, but of course this was a misunderstanding. For 55,000 years the Aboriginals thrived in the intense ecosystem as hunter gatherers. Heavily acquainted with the land, the story of the peoples was encoded in Songlines and accessible through Dreamtime, which was neither a means of measuring time nor a dream. Dreamtime allowed Aborigines to become part of the ancestors, a place to experience past, present, and future all at once. English settlers named the experience Dreamtime because they had only experienced the phenomena in sleep. The term doesn’t quite fit though, “A dream by western definition is a state of consciousness divorced from the real world, or at least one of two realities experienced in the daily lives of the Aborigines,” (Davis, 149). So you see, they did not have time structured like the Europeans but they did create a rich tradition where they can keep an ongoing relationship with their ancestors.
Lying about 150 kilometers up the Baram River of Borneo are the Penan. A people that managed to preserve a lifestyle of nomadic hunting and gathering, domesticating the forest in their cyclical path all the while acknowledging the great source of life. What is admirable about the Penan is their ability to embrace dependency on the forest and one another and to completely avoid the pollution of entitlement that comes with “advancement”. For the Penan, the strength of the group relies on social relationships, therefore eliminating a thirst for power. They abide by a system of reciprocity where leaving any person out means great shame. This fundamental belief curbs starvation and homelessness, something the “developed” nations struggle greatly with. They are without a written language and instead pass on the oral tradition through generations. Stories sharpen the memory of the Penan and give them great insight to the voices of animal and plant life that make up their home. The Penan lived their tradition until disturbed by outside forces that perceived them as backwards and lacking their ideas of civilization. However, it is the so called developed world that should be ashamed, for they simply can’t comprehend a society where people care for one another. “It is neither change or technology that threatens the integrity of culture. It is power, the crude face of domination,” (Davis 167).
Theme 2 Paragraph (The Dark Impact of Conquest and Colonialism)
Ten thousand years ago marks one of the greatest shifts in human history; the Neolithic Revolution. Instead of hunter/gatherer subsistence methods humans turned to domesticating plants and animals. Depending on the environment and ecosystem different subsistence strategies, such as pastoral nomadism and agriculturalism, took place. Settling down allowed groups to generate surpluses, specialize labor, and instill leadership. The more food a group could produce the bigger population it could sustain. Time told the story of groups growing into civilizations, rising conquering and falling all within a matter of time. For the conquerors domination meant land, resources, and sometimes glory. For the conquered life could change entirely. The second theme of Wayfinders explored by Davis highlights the dark impression conquest and colonialism left on indigenous peoples all over the world.
The first chapter of Wayfinders acts primarily as an introduction to the concepts of anthropology, especially culture. Though it doesn’t touch on a specific culture, Season of the Brown Hyena outlines what can happen to a culture when outside influences appear, occasionally thats positive but for most of history its a burden. Just as the state of an environment can deteriorate so can the welfare of a culture or people. “And just as the biosphere, the biological matrix of life, is being severely eroded by the destruction of habitat and the resultant loss of plant and animal species, so too is the ethnosphere, only at a far greater rate,” (Davis, 2).
Much like the stolen genius of the Pacific Islanders, the American Natives were robbed of their accomplishments and were left with not much more than grain crops and disease. In this society of reciprocity the natives gave tobacco, maize, squash, the potato, the sweet potato, peanuts, the tomato, peppers, pineapples, chocolate, and medicines such as d-Tubocurarine, quinine and cocaine and received good things such as wheat, oats, barley, cows, goats, and steel but what affected them most was the gift of slavery, typhus, malaria, measles, influenza, smallpox, and the plague (Davis, 65-66).
For the peoples of the Anaconda, life is incredibly spiritual and deeply connected to the land. “A rapid is an impediment to travel but also a house of the ancestors, with both a front and a back door. A stool is not a symbol of a mountain; it is in every sense an actual mountain, upon the summit of which sits the shaman. A row of stools is the ancestral anaconda, and the patterns painted onto the wood of the stools depict both the journey of the ancestors and the striations that decorate the serpents skin,” (Davis 102-103). Outsiders couldn’t even begin to fathom the love and respect for nature the Anaconda have. This is evident when missionaries from the late 1900’s came close to destroying several cultures but were stopped with action from the Colombian administration. This action secured legal land rights for Indians in the Colonial Amazon and preserved not only the land cherished by the peoples but also the culture embedded in the nature itself.
Much like the effect Europeans had on the American Native population, contact with the Aborigines of Australia resulted in death and destruction of epic proportions. “By the early years of the twentieth century a combination of disease, exploitation, and murder had reduced the Aboriginal population from well over a million at the time of European contact to a mere thirty thousand,” (Davis 152). Rich traditions like the Songlines and Dreamtime were interrupted in the name of conquest, thereby disturbing the balance of nature and man. It was the responsibility of the Aborigines to not improve on the earth but to maintain it. By limiting the rights to explore their ancestral territory the Europeans restricted their access to the Songlines and effectively destroyed an integral aspect of the Aboriginal identity and culture.
The crude face of domination came in the late twentieth century and in the form of Penan’s Malaysian neighbors. At this time Malaysia produced roughly sixty percent of timber exports by collecting from the territories of the Sarawak and the Penan. Logging became one of the greatest threats to the Penan with seventy percent of the land being reserved for that purpose. Industry was forced upon them, ravaged their way of life, and demanded their assimilation into Malaysian culture. Women were working as servants and prostitutes, rivers were polluted, fishing was futile, and children fell to the foreign illnesses of measles and influenza. A penanian delegate addressed the UN General Assembly and expressed the true horror of reality, “The government says that it is bringing us development. But the only development that we see is dusty logging roads and relocation camps. For us, their so called progress means only starvation, dependence, helplessness, the destruction of our culture, and the demoralization of our people,” (Anderson Mutang Urud, 178). Suffice to say, life for the Penan was truly bleak following the conquest of a “developed” nation.