Tag Archives: Anthropology

The Wayfinders by Wade Davis

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

By Wade Davis

House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2009

This book comprises the 2009 Massey Lectures broadcast in November, 2009, as part of the CBC Idea Series.  I borrowed it from my library but am adding it to my holiday wish list.

When I was last at university I planned on getting a degree in Cultural Anthropology.  Due to changes in my life this didn’t work out, but I am still fascinated by the subject.

Wade Davis, now the Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society, has spent decades living with and getting to know different peoples all over the Earth.  While we are all aware and disturbed by the loss of species, both flora and fauna, across the planet, few know that many anthropologists believe that we will lose fifty percent of the 7,000 languages spoken around the world today within next 50 years.  Human cultures are going extinct at an alarming rate.

From the islands of Polynesia to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria of Columbia and the High Arctic of Greenland, Davis tells of the people who live and thrive in these many different environments.  Their skills and accomplishments are amazing.  Take for example the Polynesian Wayfinder, navigator of the canoe Hokule’a.

It is one thing, for example, to measure the speed of the Hokule’a with a simple calculation:  the time a bit of foam or flotsam, or prehaps a mere bubble, takes to pass the known length separating  the crossbeams of the canoe.   Three seconds and the speed will be 8.5 knots, 15 seconds and the vessel slogs at  a mere 1.5 knots.
But it is quite another to make such calculations continually, day and night, while also taking the measure of stars breaking the horizon, winds shifting both in speed and direction, swells moving through the canoe, clouds and waves.  The science and art of navigation is holistic.  The Navigator must process an endless flow of data , intuitions and insights derived from observations and dynamic rhythms and interactions of the winds, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef – in short the constantly changing world of  weather and the sea.  From page 60.

Most of these people are what Westerners would consider poor and suffer for lack of modern conveniences,  but they carry within their cultures the abilities to adapt and survive in marginal landscapes.  They are physically and spiritual connected to the land they where they live and, it seems, wonder at us and all we have and do.  Some of them want what we have, many do not, regardless of what those of us who cry for development and modernization choose to believe.

What made this book wonderful for me was the level of description and detail, the care Davis’ has taken with each person he writes about, each story he tells.  Davis has spent years visiting with and living with many different individuals who are part of these many different cultures.  He has come up with some interesting observations.

The problem is not change.  We have this conceit in the West that while we have been celebrating and developing technological wizardry, somehow the other peoples of the world have been static and intellectually idle.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Change is the one constant in history.  All peoples in all places are always dancing with new possibilities for life.  Nor is technology per se a threat to the integrity of culture.  The Lakota did not stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow for the rifle any more than a rancher from Medicine Hat ceased being a Canadian when he gave up the horse and buggy in favour of the automobile.  It is neither change nor technology that threatens the integrity of culture.  It is power, the crude face of domination.  We have this idea that these indigenous peoples,  these distant others, quaint and colourful as they may be, are somehow destined to fade away, as if by natural law, as if they are failed attempts at being modern, failed attempts at being us.  This is simply not true.  In every case these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiably and overwhelming external forces.  This is actually a optimistic observation, for it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be the facilitators of cultural survival.  From page 166/167.

In the end, Davis believes that we in the West have much to learn from indigenous cultures.  In fact, in order for us to survive climate change and our massive impact on the planet, we need to realize and honor the fact that there are different ways for human beings to live, to thrive in social and spiritual connection with each other and with their home ground.  I was enthralled by this book, saddened in some ways, but also filled with joy in the knowledge that these people are out there, living in ways that are not destroying the planet.  There are some wonderful videos on this subject here.

Other reviews:

she reads and reads


Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Culture, Nonfiction, Review

The Collectors of Lost Souls by Warwick Anderson

The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen

By Warwick Anderson

John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008

Bought a used copy.

Those of you who have visited this blog in the past may know I have a love of anthropology and a love of science.  This intriguing book fills the bill on both counts.

It is the story of the Fore, a group of people who live in the isolated highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the mysterious disease that affected their villages. When white people first met the Fore in the 1930’s and 40’s,  they found them suffering from an illness that caused muscle weakness, tremors, lack of coordination and eventually death.  They also discovered that the Fore eat their dead as a sign of respect and that they believe in sorcery. It was mainly women and children who were ill and the Fore attributed this frightening, wasting sickness to very evil magic.  They call it Kuru.

Warwick Anderson, a medical doctor and science historian,  through years of research, travel and interviews with Fore people, medical researchers, anthropologists and others,  brings together all the different elements of the study of Kuru, that includes cultural anthropology, virology, epidemiology, colonial history and leads to the science of medical anthropology and to questions of medical ethics.  He follows the research of many anthropologists and epidemiologists and tells of their discovery  that, by eating their loved ones after death, the Fore where actually spreading the disease.  All this research, and the many scientists taking part in the study,  lead to the idea of a  “slow virus” and eventually to the discovery of Prions, the same biological cells that spread  “Mad Cow'” disease.

This book is also a record of the Fore, a previously isolated people, and how they made contact and adapted to the world by engaging with scientists, researchers and administrators.  How they struggled to make the meeting of the modern and the “primitive” something other than the usual colonial process.  How, once they realized that their blood and flesh was of value to modern science, they began to demand to be part of the undertaking.

We might also learn from the Fore how to understand the social dynamics of global science.  Kuru research occurred in the shadow of World War II and on the edges of the cold war.  It took place a scientific institutions flourished in advanced settler societies such as the United States and Australia, extending their reach into “primitive” colonies like Papua and New Guinea.  The traffic in specimens, equipment, reagents, and texts linked laboratories in large metropolitan centers with bush huts where autopsies were performed and tissues prepared.  Scientists came and went between these diverse sites, becoming cosmopolitan as they made their careers.  Parts of the Fore circulated, too, turned into globally available specimens.  Fore thus became medicalized even as they were first colonized.  They found themselves caught up at this striking conjunction, though never completely subsumed in it.  Rehearsed at a multitude of local sites, yet performed as though on a global stage, kuru research dramatized claims and contest over territory, bodies, and persons.  It shows us hoe science travels in the modern world and what it does when it arrives…

Anderson gives everyone, scientists, researchers and Fore alike, a say in the story.  He also exposes the moral and ethic dilemmas  involved with this type of medical research.  Who owns the findings?  The researchers, the biomedical companies or the people who donated their blood and bodies to the study of this disease?  It is a very important question as we delve deeper into the human body and its genetic makeup.


Filed under Nonfiction, Science, Science Books 2010

Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures In The Search For The Origin Of Species – Sean B. Carroll

Rem015101485X.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures In The Search For Origins Of Species by Sean B. Carrroll

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston & New York, 2009

A 5 out of 5 ScienceBook 2009 rating.

A book to fill my head with thoughts of fieldwork!  Great stories from the history of geology, zoology, anthropology and genetics.

Carroll, a professor of molecular biology and genetics,  follows scientific explorers from naturalist Alexander Von Humbolt to geneticists Vincent Sarich and Allan Wilson as they pursue the geological history of earth and the evolution of life over time.  Covering the past 150 years he charts the development of, and changes in, the understanding of  human evolution.  Carroll is a wonderful writer and frames this book like a detective story, following the adventures of people who are familiar, like Charles Darwin, and those who are unfamiliar, like John Ostrom.

This is a wonderful book for those familiar with the sciences and those who just like a good adventure story.  My only problem with it is now I have a list of about a dozen books to add to my to-be-read pile!


Filed under Challenges, Nonfiction, Review, Science, Science Books 2009

Sunday Salon




What a wild week!  I spent three days in Vancouver, B.C. with 16 fifth graders and we had a wonderful time.  We took the train.  The kids planned where we would go, organized some meals,  figured out how to get around  and prepared history “presentations” on different areas of the city.  The best part for me was spending the night at The Vancouver Aquarium and sleeping next to the Beluga habitat.  There were three of them in the tank, a grandma, a mom and a 11 month old baby named Tiqa. It was amazing, I hardly slept, neither did the kids.  If you get to Vancouver the aquarium is worth a visit as is beautiful Stanley Park, where it is located.

We also visited the  Museum of  Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, another of my favorite places.

The trip has thrown off my writing  for NaPoWriMo and my book reviews.  I’m going to work on some poems this evening.

I finished reading Someone Knows My Name and a graphic novel, Laika, which I will try and review by mid-week.  I am reading The Forever War.  This is an astounding book, I am recommending it to several friends and will try and review it when I’m done.  I’m just not sure I know how.

What are you reading?  Have a wonderful week!  To find out about Sunday Salon go here.


Filed under Animals, Sunday Salon

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett

51bgzr4cupl_sl160_1A 4 out of 5 ScienceBook 2009 rating

I was excited to read  Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes because it covers two of my favorite topics, anthropology and linguistics. It is well-written, fast moving and filled with great stories about life in the Amazon jungle .

Daniel L Everett is the Chair of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University. He has written a book that is the story of his young family’s stay with the Piraha, a small group of people who live in the Amazon basin. Everett went to the jungle as a missionary. His original purpose for going was to learn the language so that he could translate the Bible. It is a strategy Christian organizations use, hoping for religious conversions. The Piraha culture is very different than that of their American visitors and Everett struggles to understand it. His visit and the work he did with this group of people changed his world view completely.

This book is also an anthropological study of life among the Piraha and the other groups that share the land along the Maici River. It tells of their daily life, their knowledge of their environment and their relations with their neighbors. His observations of their daily life are filled with a a sense of excitement and interest.

From page 100: It is interesting to me that in spite of a strong sense of community, there is almost no community-approved coercion of the village members. It is unusual for a Piraha to order another Piraha about, even for a parent to order about a child. This happens occasionally, but it is generally frowned upon or discouraged as indicated by the remarks, expressions and gestures of others watching. I cannot recall having seen an adult intervene to stop another adult from violating community norms.

Most importantly \”Don\’t Sleep, There Are Snakes\”, tells of Everett\’s study of the Piraha language. He describes his struggle to understand their language, the differences he found between Piraha and other languages and his reevaluation of his own linguistic education.  I enjoyed reading about his struggle trying to figure out what these people were telling him, and his analysis of his own misconceptions.  His conclusions about the Piraha language run counter to the prevailing understanding of linguistics and have caused researchers to reevaluate beliefs about the relationship between language and culture.

I was fascinated by Everett’s eventual reevaluation of his own beliefs. This is a very honest book and a perfect  book for those interested in a very different way of life.


Filed under Review, Science Books 2009