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Wade Davis: Ancient Cultures & Globalization Convocation

Anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis shared evocative stories and stunning photographs from remote locations across the globe during an all-school convocation on Friday, and his representations of indigenous cultures and their unique contributions to humanity revealed an imperative for preservation of cultural diversity in an increasingly globalized world.

"Culture is not decorative and it's not trivial," Mr. Davis said. Culture defines our set of values and creates order and meaning in our universe, he furthered. Our traditions and culture define our humanity and "keep at bay the barbaric heart that lies within us."

Mr. Davis' visit to campus was in keeping with this year's school theme of "Globalization."

"Studies of the human genome have left no doubt ... that we are all cut from the same genetic cloth," he said, and we all have the "same raw potential for mental acuity." How that genius is expressed is a matter of cultural choice, he explained.

Throughout his presentation, "The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World," Mr. Davis showed photographs and told stories about his experiences living among the people from indigenous cultures on several continents — cultures that have thrived in parts of the world far-removed from and, until recently, largely untouched by westernized civilization.

Among the peoples and cultures he described were the "Wayfinders," of Polynesia, who for thousands of years successfully navigated the ocean in handcrafted vessels using only the sky and movements of the water as guides. The Wayfinders are representative of many of the world's cultures that thrived and honed skills and traditions long before modernization.

Mr. Davis also discussed the role of the "shaman" among indigenous peoples living in the Amazon of South America. Ubiquitous among the tribes is a respect for the medicinal and mythical properties of plants and an understanding of the plant's role to teach and to heal.

Cultures celebrate spirituality through various rituals, and Mr. Davis gave examples from people in the Andes Mountains who observe a fusion of Catholicism and pre-Columbian rituals, from people in Haiti who are acolytes of Voodoo, and from other religious expressions that originated in sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Davis described the spirituality and social structures of the Tibetan people in Nepal, the nomadic tribes of Borneo, and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, all of whom developed their own cultural set of values, traditions, and ways of life that, he emphasized, deserve to be respected and protected as part of the Earth's diverse "ethnosphere."

Ideally, according to Mr. Davis, "we should find ways for all people to benefit from the genius of modernity without that engagement demanding that they give up who they are as a culture." Just as humans are agents for cultural destruction, so too can they be facilitators of cultural survival, he said.

Mr. Davis is a professor of anthropology and the BC Leadership chair in cultures and ecosystems at risk at the University of British Columbia. He has served as explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, is a member of the NGS Explorers Council, and is honorary vice-president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He has written nearly 300 articles for popular and scientific journals and 20 books.His photographs have been widely exhibited, including in National Geographic, Time, People, and Outside magazines. Mr. Davis earned degrees in anthropology and biology and received his doctorate in ethnobotany from Harvard University. His visit to Loomis was made possible with support from The Bussel Family International Lecture Series, the Hubbard Speakers Series, and Loomis' Alvord Center for Global and Environmental Studies.