A Life Among the Shamans: Wade Davis

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The Royal Canadian Geographical Society awarded National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis its top honor, the Gold Medal, at its 80th anniversary dinner in Ottawa last night. The anthropologist, ethnobotanist, writer, photographer, and lecturer is an eloquent and passionate voice for the world’s indigenous peoples and cultures. He has been described as the “real-life Indiana Jones.”

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Wade first journeyed to the Amazon as a 20-year-old Harvard student in 1974. He would go on to live with 15 different indigenous groups in eight Latin American countries over three years on a quest to learn about the uses and traditions surrounding coca, the source of cocaine. But the project that would make him famous was his harrowing quest to discover the formula for potions used to create zombies in Haiti, chronicled in his book The Serpent and the Rainbow.

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“Haiti, more than anything else, taught me that different cultural beliefs manifest themselves in unique and remarkable ways,” says Wade.

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Many of those beliefs, and the traditions they embody, vanish as cultures and languages disappear. “Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind,” says Wade, but half of the world’s more than 7,000 languages are no longer taught to children. He believes humanity’s cultural heritage, the “ethnosphere—the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness”—merits recognition and protection analogous to the biosphere, and that its diversity is dwindling even more rapidly.

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Wade has published more than a dozen books, including Light at the End of the World, The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Shultes, and (as editor) Book of Peoples of the World: A Guide to Cultures. (David Harrison, who co-edited this volume with Wade, is a leader of National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project to document endangered languages and cultures and to support their revitalization.)

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Wade’s Gold Media comes on the heels of another Canadian national recognition: He delivered the prestigious Massey Lectures in October, a week-long series of talks on a political, cultural, or philosophical topic broadcast nationwide by CBC Radio. His theme: The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. The lectures have been published as a book, and are available as free podcasts from the CBC until December 1, 2009. They will also be available as a boxed CD set.

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Listen to Boyd Matson’s interview with Wade Davis on National Geographic Weekend, or view Wade’s TED Conference talks, including his June 2008 address on the worldwide web of belief and ritual.

Photograph of Wade Davis by Ryan Hill, other photographs by Wade Davis

Wildlife

Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.