Dreams from endangered cultures
Reviewed by Sean Seary on
People from other cultures teach us that there are other ways of being. The ethnosphere is humanity's great legacy, argues anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis. But is it in danger of disappearing forever?
Davis, an ethnobotanist currently working with National Geographic, is searching for the "old ways" of endangered cultures across the world. From the Jaguar Shaman of the Amazon, to the myths of Inuit in the Arctic, to Buddhist Dharma in the Himalayas, Wade Davis explores the myriad of human realities that create a massive web of cultural and spiritual life, also known as the ethnosphere.
Our surrounding environments, whether in New York City or the Amazon rainforest, exemplify just two of the various realities that contribute to the formation of the ethnosphere. These various webs of social, spiritual, and environmental knowledge are all manifestations of humanity's legacy in the world.
However, sheer political, economic, and social clout threaten the ethnosphere and will cause the eventual death of the ethnosphere, thus limiting the range of the human imagination and creating a bland world of monotony in the process.
For the people of the Northwest Amazon, the creation of a hallucinogenic mixture known as ayahuasca represents not only a fascinating discovery of pharmacological knowledge, but also symbolizes the interrelatedness and interdependency of a group of people to the their surrounding environment and its resources.
The Kogi of the Sierra Nevadas de Santa Marta in Colombia metaphorically lie in the womb of the "great mother" in vacant, dark shelters for two nine-year periods, all in the hopes of becoming enculturated into the values of society that maintain the all-important ecological and cosmic balance of the world.
This emphasizes the interdependency of indigenous peoples and their environments. The "Elder Brothers," as they call themselves, hold us, the "Younger Brothers," responsible for the destruction of not only the biosphere, but also the ethnosphere.
The sociocultural Earth, in all of its environments and realities, exists only because it is given life by human consciousness, whether by child in the Amazon rainforest or a child in the urban concrete jungle of New York City. Both represent a reality that is crucial to understanding humanity's role in the world.
As humans, we are all responsible for being fully conscious of the world around us and need to understand how our usage of the surrounding environments and its resources has both global and local implications. Indigenous cultures hold knowledge of their local environments, including the pharmacological usage of plants and understanding how the preservation of the environment is inherently tied to our sociocultural survival. Yet we still justify ethnocide as a necessary evil of modernization and development.
Wade calls anthropologists are called to be the agents of global and local inequality, and interdisciplinary ethnographic research and action will be necessary to change political policy, all in the hopes of stifling the sociocultural and biological impacts of globalization.