Long, long ago, Teutonic storytellers told tales by the fire. Many of them mention a deity who was a wisdom seeker, singer, poet, and warrior. Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who daily flew out over the world, observed the events, and returned to report the news. The names of his birds meant “thought” and “memory.” Odin cherished these ravens. He knew that the loss of thought would be terrible, but that the loss of memory would be far worse. Thought is clever and useful, but memory is essential and indispensable. When thought is disconnected from memory, the result is the world outside your window.
Wade Davis is very tuned into the high cost of forgetfulness. Modern folks have not only forgotten who we are, and where we are from, but we are busy erasing the surviving remnants of much ancient knowledge. There are about 7,000 languages in the world today, and half are approaching extinction.
When we wander amidst an endless herd of loud and smelly consumers, it’s easy to forget that our worldview is just one of many. Our culture is a freak in human history, because of its blitzkrieg on future generations of all species. Most perceive this to be perfectly normal; it’s all they know. In his book, The Wayfinders, Davis takes us on a fascinating tour, visiting lucky people who have not been cut loose from their past.
We have been trained to perceive other cultures as inferior and primitive. When the British washed up on the shore of Australia, they failed to recognize and respect the incredible genius of the Aborigines. Through tens of thousands of years of trial and error, the natives learned how to live in balance with a damaged ecosystem that was hot, dry, and lean. The white colonists have attempted to transplant a European way of life, which is starkly inappropriate, and can only exist temporarily.
The Aborigines have a network of travel routes that were sung into existence by the ancestors. The songs describe the landmarks that travelers will find along the route. If you know the song, you know the route. Songs are maps. The routes are called songlines. The entire continent is spiritually alive, and the people have a remarkable awareness of place, and a profound reverence for it.
The Polynesian culture is found on thousands of islands scattered across a vast region of the Pacific. The Spanish first encountered them in 1595, when they arrived in the Marquesas, a society of 300,000 people. Within a month, eighty-five percent of the people died from European diseases. For some reason, the islanders thought that the visitors were demons.
Polynesians were highly skilled at sea travel. They built excellent catamarans, using Stone Age technology, that were fifty percent faster than the floating monstrosities from Spain. Even with their state of the art sextants and charts, Europeans remained primitive navigators who got nervous when they drifted beyond sight of land.
Davis went on a voyage with Polynesians who remembered the ancient knowledge. The navigators always knew exactly where they were. They paid careful attention to the wind, clouds, stars, wave patterns, sky colors. They noted the water’s salinity, phosphorescence, plant debris, and temperature. Sharks, dolphins, porpoises, and birds provided information. For example, white terns indicated land within 200 kilometers (124 mi.), and boobies stayed within 40 kilometers (25 mi.) of land.
On the Sahara, the people who understand the desert do not get lost. They can read the winds, the texture of the sand, and the forms of the dunes. They can smell water. In Canada, the vast province of Nunavut is home to the Inuit people. They were geniuses for surviving in a harsh climate with Stone Age technology. Travelling by dogsled in the long months of darkness, they never got lost, because they were experts at reading the snow.
These older cultures learned how to adapt to their ecosystems, because this encouraged stability and survival. They were blessed to inhabit ecosystems that did not provide ideal conditions for the birth of industrial nightmares. Unfortunately, they have been “discovered.” They now live in the shadow of spooky people from industrial nightmares. Many natives have been absorbed into the consumer monoculture, and have lost their identity.
All species routinely produce mutations. The mutants that can smoothly blend into the ecosystem, and live in balance with it, have a decent chance at continuing in the dance of evolution. Disruptive mutants eventually end up on the bus to Extinctionville.
Experts now believe that the San people of the Kalahari may be the oldest culture on Earth. As humankind migrated out of Mother Africa, folks found themselves in ecosystems quite different from their tropical place of origin. Different regions inspired different cultural mutations.
Social Darwinists typically imagine a hierarchy of cultures, with industrial civilization at the gleaming pinnacle. Every student in our culture has this dodgy notion repeatedly pounded into his or her brain. It is a sacred myth that is commonly mistaken for truth. Colonists felt a religious obligation to illuminate primitive people, invite them into the wondrous world of wage slavery, and provide them with brassieres and Bibles.
Well, Big Mama Nature is in a rather furious mood these days, and she’s in the process of pounding an unforgettable lesson into our cheesy civilized brains. It’s called reality — reaping what you sow. Our culture is a psychopathic mutant, an immaculate failure. We could not be farther from the pinnacle of successful adaptation, or closer to the tar pits of Extinctionville (can you smell the methane?).
Davis takes us on many intriguing side trips. In remote regions of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta we find cultures that escaped from the colonial invaders, and have not been severed from their roots. They call themselves the Older Brothers, the guardians of the world. We are the immature Younger Brothers, the zombie-like demolition crew. They are sure that the Younger Brothers will eventually wake up — when Big Mama Nature pulls the rug out from under us. They invite us to join them, and live with respect for life.
Our culture has created a monster that is a menace to all life on Earth. A culture of perpetual growth is both insane and suicidal. We need to stop destroying ancient cultures. Every culture that goes extinct removes important knowledge for living on Earth. Older cultures provide living proof that there are other ways of thinking and living, and they can inspire us to search for the long-forgotten wisdom that lies outside the walls. Stable long-lasting cultures are far more interesting than flash-in-the-pan burnouts. Imagination gets better mileage than despair or denial.
Davis, Wade, The Wayfinders — Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Anansi Press, Toronto, 2009.
YouTube has several videos of Davis talking about The Wayfinders.