Weapon of Choice: The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
By: Wade Davis
How’s this for some wordsmithing:
‘There is a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Quelling this spreading inferno and rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of human culture and language, is among the central challenges of our times’.
This passage pretty well sums up The Wayfinders, a tight little book written by anthropologist/explorer extraordinaire Wade Davis. The book addresses the deep wisdom of the world’s remaining ancient cultures, the threats facing them, and how the whole world could benefit from taking them more seriously.
Who cares/why care? Here’s why:
The thoughts and practices of many billions of people over the course of 200,000+ years are recorded in cultures and languages. When a language or culture disappears, it’s like wiping a hardrive with a billion terabytes of irreplaceable and highly valuable data. Languages/cultures are humanity’s greatest legacy, and many are becoming increasingly fragile in our modern era. Within a generation or two, we are facing the loss of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy. That’s a lot of data.
Why is this happening?
There is a lack of appreciation of the profound wisdom contained in many ancient, indigenous cultures. There is a bias that because these cultures are not materially sophisticated, they are primitive and not worth keeping around, especially if they occupy land that a mining/logging company has its eye on.
Despite their material simplicity, though, many/all ancient indigenous cultures possess hidden depths that require a discerning eye to appreciate. Wade Davis is an expert at explaining how indigenous societies stand toe to toe with technologically advanced societies in terms of intellectual horsepower and raw genius. Simple societies just apply their genius in radically different, non-material directions (e.g., by knowing every minute ecological detail of a desert landscape for hundreds of miles). In terms of raw brain power and ingenuity, their accomplishments are as impressive as sending a man to the moon.
And the award for most ancient culture goes to….
Using new advances in genetic testing, scientists have been able to verify the oldest, most original ethnic group in the world. This indigenous population in Africa that gave rise to the migrants who subsequently populated most of the earth.
These people are called the San, and looking at them gives us a glimpse into what our ancestors looked and acted like over 60,000 years ago. Studying these people is as close as you’ll ever get to boarding a time machine.
At one time, the San populated almost all of Africa, but are now only thinly scattered in scorching desert regions in Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. Their language is a linguistic marvel — totally unrelated to any existing language families. The San language has 141 sounds (English has 31), including distinctive clicks that linguists believe formed the basis of human language.
The San have devised many ingenious solutions to surviving in one of the harshest environments on earth with very few tools. For example, during the most scorching times in the Kalahari desert, the San scrape hollows in the ground, moisten the earth with urine, and then lie completely still beneath a covering of sand as they wait out the heat of the day.
Using only simple tools and glistening ingenuity, San hunters successfully compete for food with top predators like leopards and lions, bringing down elephants and hippos. Simply by looking at animals’ tracks in the sand, they can discern direction, time, rate of travel, and whether the animal was injured. The San believe they engage in a dance with their prey, a “ritual exchange that ends with the creature literally making itself an offering”. Contrast that with the barbarism that is trophy hunting.
Despite the fact that the San are basically the indigenous people of the whole world, they now face threats similar to those experienced by North American indigenous populations of the last century. The San’s way of life is “being shattered by alcohol, formal education, and the false and twisted promises of development”.
“Development” can be used to justify almost anything when it comes to treatment of indigenous populations. And as Wade David puts it, “development for the vast majority of the world’s people has been a process in which the individual is torn from his/her past, and propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere”.
The Polynesians – More Stealth Awesomeness
Even though the San are the oldest game in town, they ain’t the only game in town. There still exist hundreds of other incredibly impressive and ancient-as-f$%k indigenous cultures. Consider Polynesians. Their culture is spread across the entire Pacific Ocean, covering distances twice the width of Canada. Despite this extreme isolation, all Polynesians have somehow maintained the same culture/language for thousands of years. This is even more impressive when you consider that even today British people find the accents of other British people mutually unintelligible, innit.
Five hundred years before Columbus even set foot on a ship, Polynesians had settled every island group over 25 million square kilometers of Pacific Ocean. On rafts. Built with tools made of coral, stone, and bone. If western European naval powers had even an inkling of depth of Polynesians’ seafaring brilliance, they wouldn’t have been so quick to pat themselves on the back for “discovering” the New World.
The navigators were the rock stars of Polynesian society. On open-sea voyages, they would remain awake for weeks on end, sleeping only for fleeting moments. If these navigators (aka “wayfinders”) fell asleep for too long, they would lose their bearings and their vessel would be lost at sea forever. They therefore sat monk-like, undisturbed by the crew, tracking the entire course of travel with their minds.
Wayfinders didn’t think of their vessel as moving through the ocean. Rather, they viewed it as an immoveable spot, with the earth’s rotation delivering the destination to them. Navigators therefore gave the impression that they conjured islands out of the sea. Modern Polynesians now refer to their sacred vessels as “spaceships of the ancestors”.
As recently as 40 years ago, it was assumed Polynesians were backwater idiots who only “accidentally” colonized every single Pacific island. The prevailing wisdom was that they simply got lost when out on fishing expeditions. Europeans and Americans were so eager to discount Polynesian seafaring wisdom, they managed to swallow this improbable piece of intellectual pap without gagging. Thankfully the record has now been set straight, thanks to clear-eyed researchers like Wade Davis. This was cultural arrogance at its best, and the fact that it occurred in living memory should make us reflect more thoroughly on whether we too may be unjustifiably dismissive in our attitudes toward indigenous groups in our own backyard.
Check yo‘ self before you wreck yo‘ self, King O’Malley
As recently as 1902, an elected Australian politician, King O’Malley, rose in Parliament to declare: “There is no scientific evidence that the aboriginal is a human being at all.” That’s a show stopper for sure, but he was simply channeling the attitudes of those who elected him. Unfortunately, the residues of these views still exist over 100 years later. These residues mostly hang out in the floorboards, popping up in insidious, barely recognizable ways (like the most vocal opposition to Idle No More here in Canada). Just this past weekend, I had front row seats for some culturally buffoonish banter about “native laziness”, “tax breaks for natives”, and questions like, “What more do they want?” Then there’s the fact that Canadian governments still regularly allow complete annihilation of lands considered sacred by our indigenous people mainly for the benefit of distant mining companies with no connection to that land at all.
If Western societies took the time to understand and appreciate indigenous people and cultures, rather than clearing them out of the way for industrial development, we may not be facing the real possibility that the life supports of our planet are in jeopardy.
What’s to be done?
Realistically, there’s not a whole lot the average North American can do to help the plight of the San in Africa. That’s a bummer, too, because they are debatably the most important indigenous culture in the world.
But there are some things we CAN do. Probably the easiest is to avoid electing political parties that have a dismissive attitude toward our own native populations. I’m not going to name names, but it’s fairly obvious who the worst offenders are.