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Saving the ethnosphere
We all suffer when cultures disappear
By Wade Davis, 4/28/2002
In Haiti, a Vodoun priestess responds to the rhythm of drums and, taken
by the spirit, handles burning embers with impunity. In the Amazon, a
Waorani hunter detects the scent of animal urine at 40 paces and
identifies the species that deposited it. In the deserts of northern
Kenya, Rendille nomads draw blood from the faces of camels and survive
on a diet of milk and herbs gathered in the shade of frail acacia trees.
Just to know that such cultures exist is to remember that the human
imagination is vast in its capacity for social and spiritual invention.
Our way of life in the West, with its stunning technological wizardry,
is but one alternative rooted in a particular intellectual lineage. The
Polynesian seafarers who sense the presence of distant atolls in the
echo of waves or the Juwasi Bushmen who for generations lived in truce
with the lions of the Kalahari, reveal that there are other ways of
Together the cultures of the world make up an intellectual and spiritual
web of life, an ethnosphere that envelops and insulates the planet. It
is as vital to our collective well-being as is the biosphere upon which
all life depends. Think of the ethnosphere as the sum total of all
thoughts, beliefs, myths, and intuitions brought into being by the human
imagination. It is humanity's greatest legacy, the symbol of all that we
are and all that we have created as an astonishingly adaptive species.
Tragically, just as the biosphere is being severely eroded, so too is
the ethnosphere, and at a far greater rate. No biologist would dare
suggest that half of all species are on the brink of extinction. Yet far
worse is at hand for the world's cultures. The key indicator is language
loss. Every two weeks an elder carries a language to the grave. Of the
6,000 languages still spoken, fully half are not being taught to
children. A language is not merely vocabulary or a set of grammatical
rules; it is a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle through which the
soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Within a
single generation, we are losing fully half of humanity's legacy.
Many people view this as progress, the inevitable consequence of
modernity. Indigenous cultures, though quaint and colorful, are somehow
destined to fade away. This is not true. Neither change nor
technological innovation implies the elimination of culture. When the
Sioux gave up the bow and arrow they did not stop being Sioux, any more
than Americans stopped being Americans when they abandoned the horse and
It is not change that threatens the ethnosphere; it is power. Dynamic
living cultures are being destroyed because of political and economic
decisions made by outside entities. In the upper reaches of the Orinoco,
a gold rush brings disease to the Yanomami, killing a quarter of the
population in a decade. In Nigeria, pollutants from the oil industry so
saturate the floodplain of the Niger River, homeland of the Ogoni, that
the once fertile soils can no longer be farmed. That such conflicts
result from deliberate choices made by men is both discouraging and
empowering. If people are the agents of cultural loss, we can also be
the facilitators of cultural survival.
What is at stake is humanity's repertoire for dealing with the unknown
challenges that will confront us in the coming centuries. At risk is a
vast archive of knowledge, a catalogue of the imagination containing the
memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen,
midwives, poets, and saints. In short, the artistic, intellectual, and
spiritual expression of the full diversity of the human experience.
People have been around for a million years. Agriculture emerged but
10,000 years ago; industrial society within the last two centuries. No
single worldview, let alone one with such a shallow history, holds all
the keys to our survival as a species.
Once we look through the anthropological lens and see that all cultures
have unique attributes that reflect adaptive choices made over
generations, it becomes clear that there is no universal progression in
the lives of human beings, no single trajectory of progress. Were
societies to be ranked on the basis of technological prowess, the
scientific West would no doubt come out on top. But if the criteria of
excellence shifted, for example, to the capacity to thrive in a
sustainable manner, with a true reverence for the Earth, our paradigm
would fall short.
This is not to imply that we are wrong, but rather to suggest humbly
that we are not the paragon of human potential. These other cultures, so
alive and so magical, are not failed attempts at modernity; they are
vibrant facets of the diamond of human existence.
There is a fire burning over the Earth, taking with it plants and
animals, human languages, ancient skills, and visionary wisdom. Quelling
this flame and kindling in its wake a new respect for cultural diversity
is one of the great challenges of our age.
Wade Davis, an anthropologist and explorer-in-residence at the National
Geographic Society, is the author of ''Light at the End of the World: A
Journey through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures.''
This story ran on page E8 of the Boston Globe on 4/28/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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