The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

SMU professor Susanne Scholz in the West Bank in 2018.
SMU professor to return to campus after being trapped in Gaza for 12 years
Sara Hummadi, Video Editor • May 18, 2024

Davis shares stories from travels

Tate Lecture

Detailing his adventures studying the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, Haiti, Central Borneo, Tibet and the Arctic, renowned anthropologist Wade Davis was the speaker at last night’s Tate Lecture.

Davis’ lecture utilized the backdrop of a PowerPoint presentation showcasing photographs from many of the cultures he studied.

The biggest thing Davis learned from these peoples is that their perspectives of the world differ from culture to culture.

“All of these people tell us there are other ways of being, other ways of thinking,” he said.

Davis first began his expeditions as a student at Harvard. There, he studied under another renowned anthropologist and Harvard professor, Richard Schultes.

Schultes was one of the early explorer of the Amazon and studied the indigenous people there. Like Schultes, Davis began his study of the ethnosphere in the Amazon, where he spent a year and a half studying the various cultures living within the rainforest.

From his treks in the Amazon, Davis said he was amazed at the ability of the indigenous people to spot different types of plants from the same family from a distance, something he and his colleagues could not do.

Shortly after he familiarized himself with

the region, Davis, an ethnobotanist, conducted a study on the coca plant that is chewed by many South American indigenous people. Coca contains the alkaline of cocaine, and Davis, sponsored by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, conducted a study into the nutritionalism of the plant.

He discovered that the plant was a great source of calcium and also an energy booster, but not the ingredient believed to cause habitual cocaine use. He compared the amount of cocaine in a single leaf of cocaine to the amount of caffeine in a single coffee bean.

Davis also highlighted the sense of community important to most of the indigenous peoples he studied.

Some cultures foster community through traditions, while other rely on each other through day-to-day tasks such as the nomadic cultures.

“In most of the cultures of the world, the collective means more than the individual,” he said.

Davis said each culture in the world is important to the ethnosphere.

Davis defined the ethnosphere as the makeup of all the cultures on the globe and said that the ethnosphere was “humanity’s great legacy.”

He compared the ethnosphere to the biosphere and point out that both or shrinking, but added that the ethnosphere is doing so at a much quicker rate, although the biosphere’s degradation receives more attention.

One of the largest ways the ethnosphere is shrinking, according to Davis, is in the amount of languages spoken in the world.

“Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind,” Davis said. Davis pointed to the fact that earlier in the century there were over 6,000 native tongues throughout the world. Today, he suspects that less than half of those remain.

To illustrate the effects of the degradation of the ethnosphere, Davis posed the following question, “Would you rather live in a monochromatic world of monotony or a polycratic world of diversity?”

Davis believes culture is more than what most people perceive it to be.

“Culture is not beads, colors and feathers,” he said. “Culture is the blanket of ethics and morality.”

While Davis blames global changes for some of the degradation of the ethnosphere, he still believes it is a necessary.

“The whole idea is how do we find ways for these cultures to adopt modernity,” he said.

He also believes that most of the developed world is not fully awake to smaller cultures’ needs.

“We’re blinded by our affluence,” he said. “It’s kind of hard for us to understand a world where two billion people get by with less than two dollars a day.”

Davis praised the “cultural myopia” that America is, but said that as the nation has aged, we’ve lost a full sense of what that myopia is.

“We can no longer really afford to [celebrate our cultural myopia],” he said.

All of these factors contribute to the degradation of the ethnosphere according to Davis. According to Davis, this “massive destruction of both the biological and cultural [quality] of the world” will be one of the biggest challenges facing the global population this century.

“This really is a matter of geo-political survival,” he said. “This disparity of those who have and those who have not … is really going to be one of the biggest challenges in the next 100 years.”

Turner Student Forum

Wade Davis’ question and answer session at the Turner Construction Student Forum heavily focused on his many expeditions to South America and Africa.

An audience member asked Davis about his first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1986, and whether the anecdote about him deciding to go on his first expedition was true.

“I know it sounds fake, but I really did point at a map in a café and that’s how I decided to go to the Amazon. My friend at the time pointed to the Arctic and wound up traveling there.”

Davis describes his life as serendipitous, and encouraged audience members to listen to the voice inside them regarding choices about their lives.

“If you listen to yourself, then you cannot make a wrong decision. Everything I have done has been right for me.”

Davis’ study of anthropology began uneventfully. It was the day before he had to declare his major at Harvard, and decided to declare in anthropology after talking to a major that night. During his studies, he met the man who would become his mentor – Professor Richard Schultes. Schultes is widely considered the founder of ethnobotany, the study of plants as a cultural artifact.

“I walked into his office one day and told

him that I wanted to travel to the Amazon, and within three weeks I was there.”

Davis then spoke at length about the myths and realities of voodoo in Haiti.

“A lot of the misconceptions about voodoo and zombies came from movies and books during the 1940s – and they stuck with people. I wanted to find out the truth and a scientific basis out of the myths.”

Davis did lengthy research into Haitian history before traveling to the nation in 1982. Once there, he found himself immersed in a culture with strong traditions and a unique social structure. He started working on a case of a man who had been checked into a hospital alive after being declared dead by government officials.

“It was with him that we began to discover the folk poison that produced death like symptoms, but left people alive.”

Further research led to the finding of a toxin in the poison that put people into the zombie like state. Rituals and a sense of social justice permitted leaders to use such folk poisons on people.

When asked how he gains the trust of the people he studies, Davis responded that it is the food offered to him.

“I always eat the food offered to me – even if I know I eat it I’ll get dysentery or some other disease. I can always treat the disease, but I can never reestablish the trust lost.”

Davis is currently working for National Geographic on a series dedicated to showing remote cultures around the world. He will travel to southern Peru this June.

“Hopefully everyone will be amazed by these people and want to do something about preserving these cultures.”

More to Discover