The Wayfinders

HALF OF THE seven thousand existing languages in the world are not being taught to the youngest generation of thirty-five hundred separate tribes, and will thus disappear in two decades, along with the cultures, ecological knowledge, and wisdom contained in those languages. According to Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis, this loss should matter to the whole world.

The Wayfinders, like Davis’s four previous books — The Serpent and the Rainbow, Light at the Edge of the World, One River, and The Clouded Leopard — focuses on the lifeways, culture, and wisdom of native peoples, with whom Davis has spent an impressive portion of his fifty-seven years. Their villages have been his home, their world his school, their worldviews his lessons. The “wayfinders” Davis tracks and follows in this book — Polynesian settlers, desert nomads, Arctic hunters, Andean runners, and Aboriginal outback walkers — have learned to navigate vast open reaches of the planet without any of the modern tools of navigation such as compass, sextant, or GPS. For millennia they were, and many still are, guided by stars, wind, swells, dunes, and scents to the islands and villages that have sustained them and their descendants for generations. Davis is troubled, as he always has been, by the fast-growing threat to their survival.

But of all the threats to native people’s existence, Davis is, at least in this work, most concerned with loss of language, which he says “is not merely a set of grammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world.” “Every language,” he asserts, “is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities,” and thus we cannot afford to lose them.

It’s not easy convincing the modern world that indigenous peoples and their cultures matter, that they are in fact vital to our ecological and cultural health. Many who have tried have failed to articulate the value and beauty of ancient cultures without belittling the technological and cultural accomplishments of modernism. Davis succeeds by reminding readers that “the path we have taken is not the only one available,” and that we need to listen closely to people, many of them illiterate, who are nonetheless “alive and fighting, not only for their cultural survival but also to take part in a global dialogue that will define the future of life on earth.”

“What does it mean to be human and alive?” This is the central question Davis addresses in a series of five lectures that make up the book. There is no single, defining response, and no one religion or ideology that can offer a complete answer, he says. The cultures of the world will respond to this question in thousands of different voices, which “collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species . . . as we continue this never-ending journey,” with whatever navigation tools we possess.