2009 Winner - Wade Davis
Shamans and secret societies
|Photo: Wade Davis|
Shortly before he embarked on his first journey to the Amazon as a restless 20-year-old
Harvard University student in 1974, Wade Davis wrote in his journal, “Risk discomfort
and uncertainty for understanding.” Those words proved to be prophetic. Throughout
his career as an anthropologist and ethno-botanist, Davis has often risked uncertainty — and
sometimes even his life — in his quest to learn about the world’s indigenous
cultures and their traditional uses of medicinal and hallucinogenic plants.
|Wade Davis (ABOVE) has studied and photographed indigenous peoples around the world, including this Yagua shaman (TOP) in Peru. (Photo: Ryan Hill)|
Knowing little about the South American rain forest and even less about plants, Davis set
out to study coca (the source of cocaine) in some of the most remote reaches of the Andes.
Over three years, he lived with 15 indigenous groups in eight Latin American countries and
gathered 6,000 botanical collections. But his most notoriously dangerous venture was to infiltrate
the secret societies of Haiti — he may be the only white man to have done so — to
uncover the formula for potions used in creating zombies. Within 24 hours of landing in Haiti,
Davis watched people handle burning embers the size of apples in their mouths during a voodoo
“Haiti, more than anything else, taught me that different cultural beliefs manifest
themselves in unique and remarkable ways,” says Davis, who detailed his surreal Haitian
sojourn in The Serpent and the Rainbow.
A Vancouver native, Davis grew up in the Montréal suburb of Pointe-Claire and obtained
a Ph.D. in ethno-botany from Harvard. He has travelled and lived with aboriginal peoples
from the Canadian High Arctic to the jungles of Borneo. For his extensive ethnographic fieldwork
and his contribution to our knowledge of indigenous cultures — many on the brink of
disappearing — Davis will be awarded the Gold Medal from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
Davis sees himself as a storyteller. He has published more than a dozen books, is an accomplished
photographer and has hosted and written numerous documentary films, many in his role as an
explorer-in-residence at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. This fall, Davis will deliver
the 2009 Massey Lectures in five locations across Canada. He will also speak at the Society’s 80th anniversary
dinner in Ottawa on November 5.
His mission, he says, is to help “change the way the world views and values culture” by
telling the stories of living and dynamic societies. It’s a topic that fires his passion,
as he laments the loss of half the planet’s 7,000 languages in the blink of a generation. “Culture
is not trivial,” says Davis. “It is the blanket of moral and ethical values that
allows us to be civilized. If you want to know what happens when culture is lost, just look
around the world.”
— Monique Roy-Sole