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The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (CBC Massey Lecture)

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  2,223 ratings  ·  233 reviews
Every culture is a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? In The Wayfinders, renowned anthropologist, winner of the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize, and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis leads us on a thrilling journey to celebrate the wisdom of the world's indigenous cultures.

In Polynesia we set sail with
Paperback, 262 pages
Published October 1st 2009 by House of Anansi Press
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Start your review of The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (CBC Massey Lecture)
The Wayfinders is a passionate exploration of several modern-day traditional cultures - ancient people practicing ways of life which have barely changed over thousands of years, often passed down without written language and rich in social, spiritual and environmental significance.

The book details epic pilgrimages and exceptional feats of human ingenuity rivaling the most advanced technological capabilities of modern times and far exceeding any religious feats of the "developed" world. Perhaps
Nov 25, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: massey-lectures
I found this book a little difficult to follow. It wasn't that it was poorly written, or that the individual parts didn't make sense. I found myself waiting for the kicker in his argument, the part where he told the reader why ancient wisdom really does matter.

The chapters all told very compelling stories about various indigenous cultures, and documented the decline of these same cultures in the face of "economic development". Davis talks about different ways of seeing the world, and various
Aug 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world is what Wade Davis wants us to understand. He points out universal attributes of indigenous peoples and how they are connected to the land and in tune with the natural world they inhabit. The early Polynesian navigators, or “Wayfinders”, could read the movement of the clouds, the stirring of the ocean currents and celestial movements. Long before European explorers like Captain Cook who claimed so many of the islands in the south Pacific to belong ...more
Jan 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
There is a new book by Jared Diamond that is getting a lot of publicity, but it strikes me that Wade Davis lectured on a similar topic back in 2009 for the Canadian Massey Lecture Series, from which this book was taken.
(The Massey Lectures, a week-long annual series of lectures on a political, cultural, or philosophical topic, given by a scholar, have been around since 1961. The series is sponsored jointly by Canadian Broadcasting Corp. radio, Anansi Press--which then publishes the lectures in
Apr 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
With the converging crises of imminent energy scarcity, environmental degradation, resource depletion and economic insolvency, suddenly I’m recognizing the apogee of our modern civilization may have passed us by a few decades ago. Being on the slope of globalization’s decline as opposed to its ascent or plateau is a precarious position, mainly because the evidence increasingly indicates an ever more bleak definition of the future. But that’s precisely why I found Wade Davis’ 2009 CBC Massey ...more
Jan 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
That different people from different cultures experience the world in radically different ways is neither new nor controversial. Frequently, however, the conversation ends there, and we might not have a sense of what a totally Other worldview can actually look like. In The Wayfinders, anthropologist Wade Davis brings the reader along as he explores numerous peoples he has lived amongst and traveled within, from Polynesian navigators "pulling islands out of the sea" to Australian Aborigines ...more
Katlyn Twidle
Nov 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Easily the best book I've read in awhile, if not ever. I picked it up with no expectations and minimal interest and was immediately sucked into his story telling. He takes you on a journey through science, history, human genius, our natural relationship with the earth, the mistakes we've made and the conquences we are facing now and going forward. Having just finished the book, I feel as though I have a responsibility to the planet and a new respect for the diverse cultures in it. Wade is an ...more
Dana Larose
I picked this up on my recent Toronto trip. I'd heard one of the lectures (about the Polynesian wayfinders/navigators) on the CBC.

The lectures are an extended discussion about languages (and by extension their cultures) that are in danger of dying out, and why it's important for us to preserve them. Wade Davis has selected a variety of examples of cultures (usually aboriginal) that (1) have entirely different perspectives on the world than the Western cultures and (2) are threatened or still
Aug 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I picked this little book up not expecting much, and was blown away by it. A times I couldn't put it down, at times I had to take a break from it because it was devastating. I never had a huge interest in history, but this is one of those books that awakens a need to learn more about something. I can say as well that as a non-believer it made me have a greater amount of empathy for religious culture.

I would say this book is really about how humanity has found meaning, understanding, and purpose
Richard Reese
Mar 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Long, long ago, Teutonic storytellers told tales by the fire. Many of them mention a deity who was a wisdom seeker, singer, poet, and warrior. Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who daily flew out over the world, observed the events, and returned to report the news. The names of his birds meant “thought” and “memory.” Odin cherished these ravens. He knew that the loss of thought would be terrible, but that the loss of memory would be far worse. Thought is clever and useful, but memory is ...more
Josh Pendergrass
An incredible survey of the diversity of the human species and a reminder that much of what we take for granted about human beings and society is actually a limited view from the blinders that our own culture places on us. Some amazing portraits of different traditional peoples, from the first inhabitants of Polynesia, master navigators who traversed vast expanses of ocean by reading the stars, clouds, and waves, to the shamans of an Amazon tribe who spend the first twenty years of their life in ...more
Maria Martinico
Nov 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What does it mean to be human and alive? Davis has some pretty solid answers.
Jan 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The plague of the Aborigine populations in Australia is so shattering that it made me cry...

One of the central question entrenched throughout the book is why people in Western societies can’t seem to have the same appreciation for nature as the indigenous populations he shows us. Why are many Canadians so egoistic towards the natural world, as opposed to the indigenous societies living in harmony with it, that Canadian firms would even go as far as only see profit in a beautiful land in northern
Thomas Armstrong
Jun 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a good book to read alongside The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond. Both books affirm the value of indigenous cultures as repositories of wisdom and at the same time bewail their rapid disappearance in our time as a result of Western ''civilization'' (I use that term guardedly). This was a simpler book than Diamond's, coming as it did from a series of radio lectures made by an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, filmmaker, and photographer with extensive field experience in many remote ...more
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book captured my imagination in a way that lectures never have. As I read I frequently forced myself to only read a few pages in a sitting in order to allow time for the words to sink in, processing every morsel of information that Davis presented. I am not an ethno-botanist and a book like this would not ordinarily appeal to me, however, Davis presented his information in intriguing, bite sized pieces that allowed even a layman to follow along and appreciate his work.
Jul 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Deeply-felt, intimate, adventuring and evenhanded. A wellspring of resonant facts and lyrical minutae in a beautifully structured greater context.
Jeffrey E
Nov 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Wow, wow, wow. This book leaves a lot for you to think about. It did the unthinkable: making me want preserve both the environment and humanity.
Pat Rolston
Jun 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Wade davis is a masterful story teller who focuses on incredibly interesting and highly relevant subjects. His book, "One River," about Richard Evans Schultes and his epic exploration as well as scientific documentation of the Amazon and it's flora and fauna is one of the best books I have ever read. The Wayfinders is another wonderfully authored work by Wade Davis and explores the ethnography of various civilizations and indigenous people throughout time. He focuses on the critical lessons they ...more
Adam Clost
Aug 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
Davis presents his research, observations and experiences through engaging storytelling, but I was amazed to read about the way in which some of these historic (or not so historic) cultures managed to survive and thrive. An eye-opening book about the multitudes of different ways we could live and experience the world if we would be open to them.
Nov 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 50book-2019
...all these people teach us that there are other options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interacting with the earth. p 2

You might think of the social web of life as an "ethnosphere," a term perhaps best defined as the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imaginations since then dawn of consciousness. p2

A language, of course, is not merely a set of grammatical rules of a vocabulary. It is a flash of
May 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Beautiful and tragic.
Raili Randmaa
Sep 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book shows you how different indigenous people “translated” the nature and the world around them according to their own understanding. But that is not the main point. As the author has said himself as well, his goal was not to document the exotic other, but rather to identify stories that had deep metaphorical resonance, something universal to tell us about the nature of being alive. And that is exactly what the book does. It teaches you that there are other options, other possibilities, ...more
Mary Beth
Mar 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Goes hand in hand with my thoughts on creativity - Creative School by Ken Robinson and following a presentation by Lauren Groff on where does creativity come from . . .
This a vivid snapshot how peoples across the globe and from many times live, solve problems, etc. Curiously that ancient wisdom does percolate into modern times for those who can be still and notice.
Brian Henderson
Mar 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An insightful, informative and often moving indictment of the nearly unimaginable cruelty of colonialism and it’s extractive industry heirs and plea for real action to save what Davis calls the “ethnosphere”(half of the languages spoken today are likely to become extinct in our lifetimes and all the wisdom and alternant ways of interacting with the world they display will vanish) — which of necessity entails action on behalf of the biosphere since, as Davis shows, in the world views of ...more
Jun 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The Wayfinders existed first as a series of lectures and the lecture format clearly informs the book. The prose -- which is graceful, evocative, and slightly formal -- has the cadence of spoken language. The downside of the lecture format, however, is that the depth of each segment is limited. Davis's scope is broad and I found myself repeatedly wishing he would delve deeper into the topics he discusses. This is not a criticism. Rather, it is a tribute to Davis's ability to provoke interest in ...more
Oct 16, 2013 rated it liked it
The Wayfinders is an important book as it brings to the reader, through a series of connected published lectures, a compelling argument for the value, and the absolute necessity, of both coming to understand and the preservation of ancient cultures. The arguments are well-documented, and each of the lectures gain value from the fact that Davis is not merely writing and recording various cultures, but the fact that he has lived them as well. His experiences with the cultures gives an added ...more
Daniel M.
May 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book is the written-out version of the Canadian Broadcast Company’s Massey Lectures, a series of invited lectures, in this case by Wade Davis, the famed Candadian explorer, ethnologist, and ethnobotanist. Fragments of the book have been seen before (most of Chapter 1 is recycled from his earlier writings). But no matter, the topic is profound: Why DO the diversities of different cultures matter?

In the end, Davis warns us about the loss of cultural and linguistic diversity, mostly by giving
Mar 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Everyone
I finished this on the bus in to work this morning, and only now have been able to grab a few minutes to write this review. This was a fascinating read that has, along with _The God Issue_ of New Scientist (published on 19 March 2012), confirmed some of what I already thought I knew about the role of religion in our lives, and has challenged some of my other assumptions, especially beliefs that up until now I tended to label as "superstition". I'll be reading both this book and the New Scientist ...more
Nov 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
I read this because it appeared to be the Long Now's top-voted recommendation across ALL BOOKS (and I expected somewhat more). Still enjoyed the beautiful stories. We think we can aggregate across time and place so well with technology, and it's reassuring to see examples of the triumph of human specialization. Older magic.
Alexander Lawson
Jul 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating and alarming book about the value and disappearance of cultures in the modern world. I particularly liked the description of Polynesian navigation and pre-Colombian communities in the Amazon; in both cases western observers were incredulous of their sophistication and achievements.
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Edmund Wade Davis has been described as "a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life's diversity."

An ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, he holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent more than three years in the Amazon
“If diversity is a source of wonder, its opposite - the ubiquitous condensation to some blandly amorphous and singulary generic modern culture that takes for granted an impoverished environment - is a source of dismay. There is, indeed, a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Quelling this flame, and re-inventing the poetry of diversity is perhaps the most importent challenge of our times.” 34 likes
“Culture is not trivial. It is not a decoration or artifice, the songs we sing or even the prayers we chant. It is a blanket of comfort that gives meaning to lives. It is a body of knowledge that allows the individual to make sense out of the infinite sensations of consciousness, to find meaning and order in a universe that ultimately has neither. Culture is a body of laws and traditions, a moral and ethical code that insulates a people from the barbaric heart that lies just beneath the surface of all human societies and indeed all human beings. Culture alone allows us to reach, as Abraham Lincoln said, for the better angels of our nature.” 12 likes
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