By Kian Sahani, VI Form
Humans as One: How The Wayfinders Illustrates Human Integrality
Language and culture are like animals and plants: the forcefulness of Western culture endangers many of them. In The Wayfinders, Wade Davis explores the concepts of language, culture, race, and the ways they fare in a world primarily dominated by Western ideology. Within his first two lectures, Season of the Brown Hyena and The Wayfinders, Davis argues that although differences between people are fascinating, it is the similarities that are worth celebrating; below the surface, each person is virtually the same.
Season of the Brown Hyena begins with the statement that “on average, every fortnight an Elder dies and carries with him or her into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue” (Davis 2009, 3). Davis then continues with the argument that with every language there is an associated culture; therefore, for every language lost, there is a culture lost as well. Each language has the idiosyncrasies that make it unique, allowing a whole new culture to bloom from it. For example, the different ways in which people may describe a color can reflect something about their culture, such as how much of a role color plays into tradition or how specific one must be with different shades. Each ethnic group’s Sprachgefül, as Germans would call it, affect how the group views language. Lera Boroditsky’s TED Talk regarding “How Language Shapes the Way We Think” explains how differences in language are reflected in physical differences in the brain. These differences will affect thoughts, which, in turn, change beliefs and morals, generating a unique culture. Each of the latter is worth celebrating as Davis states, “every culture is by definition a vital branch of our family tree, a repository of knowledge and experience, and, if given the opportunity, a source of inspiration and promise for the future” (Davis 2009, 5). At the same time, every human on this Earth is almost identical to one another, according to biology.
Davis spends a large portion of his first lecture explaining genetics and their relevance to different social concepts seen around the world today. Davis calls it a “nod to genetics,” and it is just that. Nevertheless, this detailed reference makes it clear that human DNA gives a different perspective on race and culture. Given that “almost all human DNA, 99.9 percent of the three billion base pairs, does not vary from person to person” (Davis 2009, 7). The only differences are in “geographical gradients.” In her book RACE IN NORTH AMERICA: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, Audrey Smedley describes how race is simply a knowledge system, a way of perceiving and interpreting the world. Race is not biological, and it never was. Davis stresses throughout the first chapter that the human migration story demonstrates how everyone is of the human race and that the differences most people see today are minuscule in the grand scheme of primate genetics. Nonetheless, everyone focuses on the differences.
Davis uses the San people as a prime example of the two points stated above. Their language has over a hundred more sounds than English does, and they had remained sedentary since before the Beringia land bridge ceased to exist. However, their DNA will be almost identical to that of anyone else. The San people were some of the first Homo Sapiens, and yet they share numerous similarities in culture and traditions with many other ethnic groups found today. The transition from boyhood to manhood, adapting to the seasons, gender roles, and the significance of the hunt are all parts of the culture that define the San people. One such aspect, learning from animal tracks, is an integral part of the society. As Davis puts it, “Everything is written in the sand… From a single animal track, San hunters can discern direction, time, and rate of travel” (Davis 2009, 23-4). Using animal tracks to hunt is the most common way of hunting, used by hunter-gatherer tribes from the Americas, Asia, and Africa. The example of the San people shows that all humans are fundamentally identical in the sense that everyone has the same instincts, the same facets that make each person human.
In his second lecture, The Wayfinders, Davis refers to the cause of many different cultures and traditions today: Western exploration and imperialism. Whether Spanish, Belgian, French, or English, Westerners were seen as alien to the rest of the world. The critical part from Davis’ discussion on Polynesia, though, is his mention of the implications of his research.
“I am drawn to the story of Polynesia because it reveals so much about the issues and misconceptions that both inspire and haunt us to this day: the sheer courage that true exploration implies, the brilliance of human adaptation, the dark impact of conquest and colonialism. It reminds us, too, of the need always to be skeptical about the tenacious grip of academic orthodoxy. Knowledge is rarely completely divorced from Power, and interpretation is too often an expression of convenience” (Davis 2009, 64).
In her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie emphasized that having only one perspective on a group of people is detrimental to any attempt at understanding who they are. The imperialistic ideas of the Western world allowed for these “single stories” to arise, and many persist today, especially in Western culture. For example, in the Disney movie Moana, Disney paints a single story of the people of Polynesia though there are numerous different cultures present even today, similar to the way Binyavanga Wainaina tells her reader to describe Africa in “How to Write About Africa.” Davis’ description of single stories presents the claim that single stories undermine the uniqueness of a group of people.
Humans almost always focus on the differences between them. The tendency to ignore the 99.9% that makes everyone the same is all too common, and it skews one’s judgment of the world around them. Davis exemplifies the need to understand that groups that Western society views as “primitive” or “barbaric” are worth exploring. Especially as more and more languages and their associated cultures disappear, now may be the last chance.
Kian is a VI form day student from Sudbury, Massachusetts. He thoroughly enjoys science and anthropology, and he spends lots of his time in the theater and on the squash or tennis courts. He is particularly interested in cancer immunology and stem cell research.
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. 2009. The Danger of a Single Story. TED. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story, accessed November 7, 2019
- Boroditsky, Lera. 2017. “How Language Shapes the Way We Think.” TED. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/lera_boroditsky_how_language_shapes_the_way_we_think, accessed November 7, 2019
- Davis, Wade. 2009. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Toronto, Canada: House of Anansi Press.
- Smedly, Audrey. 2019. RACE IN NORTH AMERICA: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. S.l.: Routledge.
- Wainaina, Binyavanga. 2005. “How to Write About Africa.” Granta Magazine. Granta. https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/, accessed November 8, 2019.