Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.

Photo by Yogesh Pedamkar on Unsplash

This article is one in a series of profiles highlighting “wayfinders”: individuals whose work explores, supports, or suggests the means to reawaken the essential powers of the human being. Each segment includes a brief introduction to the person whose work it highlights, a short reflection, and links for the reader to explore more deeply.

I profile these wayfarers, in part to share the work of people I admire, and in part to ease my troubled soul. Studying the work of inspiring kindred spirits gives me hope. It reminds me that I don’t have to do it all. So much has already been done, by our ancestors and our contemporaries, that none of us need light our own way into reconnection. We only need to add our voices to those already speaking, remember what we already know, and live our own unique contribution into the world.

Wayfinder: Wade Davis

Wade Davis is a Canadian ethnographer, photographer, and filmmaker, and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. A passionate student of native traditions and plant medicines, for decades Mr. Davis has studied and lived in diverse world locales, documenting the cultural practices of peoples who maintain their connection to their lands, languages, and ancestral roots. His list of accomplishments and contributions is too long to list here, but can be found, along with his body of work, at www.daviswade.com.

“Wayfinder,” the title word that anchors this series, was inspired by Mr. Davis. His book, “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World,” is an exploration of our innate human wisdom as expressed through the world’s indigenous cultures.

Davis celebrates such cultures as unique and relevant expressions of human knowing, valuable not only for their own sake, but for the benefit of all humanity. According to Davis, earth-based or ancient-rooted cultures do not represent primitive or underdeveloped versions of the human being. On the contrary, they are the water bearers, trustees of the deepest wells of our species’ embodied wisdom about the world, and our place in it.

Those of us enmeshed in the busy rush of the “modern” world must understand what will be lost if we continue our current path of annihilation and assimilation of native cultures into our ever-expanding worldwide monoculture of sameness. The work of Wade Davis, and others like him, can make us stop and question. What does is it mean to be human? And what really matters in this life?


What follows are my reflections, incorporating ideas and quotes by Mr. Davis. If there is anything inaccurate or poorly explained, please assume the error is mine.

We, who sit in our manufactured chairs atop chemical-laden flooring, drinking from plastic cups and eating from take-out containers, forget we once slept in tall grasses on ancient beds of soil. We, who sequester ourselves away in walled-off buildings and computer-aided separation, forget we once lived our lives in the open air, walking barefoot, free of possessions, speaking the language of nature.

What’s more, we’ve forgotten how important that soil, that air, and that language used to be to our physical, mental, and spiritual health. We’ve forgotten the deep communion with the elements that birthed our bodies, minds, and native wisdom.

There are other cultures that have not forgotten this. And we need them.

“Other cultures are not failed attempts
at being you.”

Wade Davis

Modern culture does not have it all figured out.

We modern, fast-moving, tech-addicted and progress-craving humans are not the only culture.

We are not the best culture.

We are not the culmination of culture.

The human family is not a hierarchy. There is no better human, lesser human, more advanced human, or more savage human. There is only human.

Science has undeniably confirmed: “We’re all cut from the same genetic cloth.” Outward appearances—skin color, ethnicity, cultural and social norms, religious and spiritual beliefs—are no more relevant to our humanity than a thin layer of dust covering a fine piece of furniture. Wipe it away, and beneath the dust lies our unity, one solid and dignified thing of beauty.

One culture is not smarter, more successful, or more important than any other culture. Intelligence, success, and importance rest in the eye of the beholder. What we think is smart is only a thought. What we perceive to be successful is only our perception.

We may visit another culture and laugh at them for not knowing. They may laugh at us for the same reason.

Our culture is not better than other cultures of the world. And it is not worse. It is simply one way of being.

Humans are a technological species. We make tools and we create meaning—all of us.

Our technology is not better than the dreaming technology of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In fact, in the rush to perfect our technology, we may have forgotten the reality of the dream.

Our unbridled urge toward progress is not better than those native peoples’ urge to stand still and hold up the world. In fact, in our rush to progress, we may have forgotten how to be still.

In our mastery of the written word, we may have forgotten how to speak the language of the trees—and the animals, the stars, the moon. We may be missing the messages life has for us. From the point of view of nature, we may have even become dumb: unable to see, hear, or speak the language of all things.

Yet we cry to the heavens, and read self-help books and google for answers and join intentional communities and go fly fishing and take vacations to the beach, and try our darndest to answer the question: what is the meaning of life?

It is no wonder we are losing access to the answer.

In the wake of ecological destruction, economic expansion, and epidemic devaluing of the ancient in favor of the new, our wise old cultures are dying.

Not only have we lost the memory of our own resilience, though it rests within our very bones; but we are now destroying the ability of our indigenous brothers and sisters to be resilient in their own intelligent, wise ways.

In this, we all lose.

By preserving the knowledge and health of native communities, we enrich the entire human race. When we respect them, we can learn from them. When we lose them, we lose a piece of our shared humanity.

Do we really want to know the meaning of life? Do we want to put all the pieces back together? If so, we must stop destroying, not only the carriers of the knowledge of life, but the very knowledge itself.

“Culture is not decorative. Culture is what allows us to make sense of the world.”

Wade Davis

All people—and all cultures—are equally valuable.

I am not more valuable because I speak English. You are not more valuable because you speak Spanish, or Hindi, or ten other languages.

I am not more valuable because of my skin color. Neither are you.

My genius did not come from my education. It is not reflected in my test scores, or my ability to do math problems or write clean code.

Your genius did not require you to grow up in New York or London, or on a farm, or in a spiritual community or in a musical family.

Our genius was born into life with us, and through us, before our first breath.

Every human being is genius.

The fact that our culture might have more material wealth than another culture is not a sign that we are more advanced. Claiming such would be like stealing bread from our neighbor, and arguing that we’re more advanced because have two loaves, while our neighbor has none.

No, we are not more valuable because we “have” more. There are cultures with no incentive to accumulate anything. How do they measure value? By relationship.

One way to measure value is not greater or lesser than another. It’s just a manifestation of culture.

But it also suggests a loss. What have we lost by forgetting there are forms of value not measurable by money and achievement? What have we lost by forgetting there are other ways to succeed?

Every culture is a strand in the interconnected web of life. All human beings are brothers and sisters of a shared creative consciousness. We live in symbiosis with all life, interdependent upon one another, human and non-human alike.

Except, some of us honor the forests as our brothers, and some of us cut them down. Some of us honor non-human animals as our sisters, and some of us farm them in factories and wrap their meat in plastic.

This is not a difference in levels of advancement (though, the trees and animals may disagree). It is a difference in priorities.

Our way to solve problems is not the only way. Nor is it necessarily the right way, or the best way. What do we forfeit by denying there are other solutions?

You only know where you are
by remembering how you got there.

Wade Davis

We are all endowed with innate knowledge and power.

The ocean-savvy sailors of Polynesia understand how to navigate the vast waters of the Pacific without a map. It is not that they rely on the stars to guide them, though they could if they wished. Rather, they call the land toward them by riding multiple currents at once, reading the pattern of directional flows that surge beneath the hulls of their boats. They discern their throughline in the matrix, and follow it home.

These sailors are wayfinders.

They find their way not by GPS, but by dead reckoning.

They find their way across vast expanse of ocean, using only the power of their memory, and their finely-tuned perception.

And as Wade Davis reminds us, arrival by dead reckoning requires knowing not only where we want to go, but also where we came from. Our origin.

We modern humans have become quite good at entering location data into an app, tapping “start,” and trusting technology to guide us to our destination. And that is fine—nothing wrong with efficiently mapping a tidy route. We don’t need to hold in our consciousness all possible global coordinates to get from point A to our doctor’s appointment.

But if we superimpose such common shortcuts over the matrix of our lives and trust them to light our way, we may find they are not so efficient.

When we live only for the moment, chop time into boxes, instantly gratify desires, or throw away perfectly good things when we don’t need them anymore, we lose sight of the inherent value of the whole.

Practice such “efficient” living long enough, and we can unwittingly come to give more attention to our gadgets and to-do lists than to learning the wisdom of our ancestors, or preserving the natural world for our grandchildren. If we get too efficient, we may lose our grip on our sense of place, and become lost, without a definitive meaning or purpose to guide us.

Maybe we’re already lost.

How will we find our way, if we forget where we came from?

We can ask guidance from those who have never forgotten.

For we have not forgotten it all yet, but we may be close. Every culture we destroy, every landscape we tear asunder, every language we dismiss as primitive and allow to die, snips one more thread of connection that binds us to our history, our native wisdom, and the possibility to heal our world.

Not only do our threatened cultures risk the loss of their lands, languages, and ways of life, but in that loss, our entire species risks losing the memory of who we are.

“Change is not a threat to culture.
Power is a threat to culture.”

Wade Davis

The power of preservation is in our hands.

All cultures are myopic. We naturally focus our lives around our own needs and the needs our family and community. No need to beat ourselves up for valuing and caring for our own. But we would do well to recognize our near-sightedness, and adjust our lenses to make room for other points of view.

For when we live as though “we” are more important, implicit in that belief is that “they” don’t matter as much.

When we become convinced that our cultural narrative is the right one, and others wrong, ours good and theirs bad, where does that lead us?

If taken to any length, we fall from cultural superiority into cultural imperialism, the imposition of our culture upon another, and creating structures of inequality to maintain our superiority.

If taken far enough, it leads us to the edge of ideology: the belief that our story about life is more important than life itself. What happens when ideology trumps life? War. Genocide. Destruction. Assimilation. Trails of tears.

Native and indigenous cultures are not “destined to fade away” with time and change, or to be “understandably” replaced by modern alternatives. No. Culture is stronger than that. Cultures die because we let them.

And when a culture dies, what goes with it? All the ways that unique manifestation of humanity knew to be alive: reality as they described it, history as they remembered it, the essential powers they knew to use. Their wayfinders. One more strategy for making sense of our human journey, the great mystery, and our place within it, is lost.

When we cancel cultures, we cancel other truths. We cancel pieces of ourselves.

We can’t afford to cancel any truths right now. We need them all to survive.

But good news: if we are the agents of our own cultural destruction, we can also be the facilitators of cultural survival. What is in our power to destroy is in our power to save.


Those beds of ancient living soil still await, beneath the concrete foundations of our modern lives. They call to us and offer to remind us where we came from.

Step outside. Walk barefoot on the earth. Let her electrons energize you from the ground up. Lie in the dirt. Learn to be still and listen. Find out what is important to preserve life on this planet. Preserve it.

For if we do not, we may find ourselves out to sea, with no wayfinder to guide us home.

We may forget what we already know, and have to start over again to remember it. Or worse yet, we may forget, and never even realize we’ve forgotten.

So let us remember now, and recover all we can of our shared human heritage. May we listen to the stories. Preserve the languages. Nurture the cultures. Learn from the wise ones. May we support our indigenous brothers and sisters to live the wisdom of their ways. May we humbly learn from them, and generously offer them the best of our knowledge. Thus, we will rise together.

We get to make the choice: preserve, or perish.

What will we choose?

“Understanding the lessons of this…will be our mission for the next century.

For at risk is the human legacy—a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination. Rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of the human spirit, as expressed by culture, is among the central challenges of our time.”

Wade Davis


The website of Wade Davis
Link to the video that inspired this piece

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