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Explorer On Initiative To Document Cultures On The Edge

The ultimate tragedy is not that archaic societies are disappearing but rather that vibrant, dynamic, living cultures and languages are being forced out of existence. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written literature composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets and saints. In short, the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience. Every view of the world that fades away, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life and reduces the human repertoire of adaptive responses to the common problems that confront us all. Knowledge is lost, not only of the natural world but of realms of the spirit, intuitions about the meaning of the cosmos, insights into the very nature of existence.

Our goal at the National Geographic Cultures Initiative is to focus global attention on the plight of the ethnosphere. To do so, we will be launching a series of journeys that will take our readers and viewers to places where the cultural beliefs, practices, and adaptations are so inherently wondrous that one cannot help but come away dazzled by the full range of the human imagination.

I hope that the National Geographic Cultures Initiative is more scientifically astute in its execution, and that Wade Davis's introduction to it is just dressed up in this kind of language for public appeal. The attitude he describes is reminiscent of late 19th century white attitudes toward Native Americans. Though official policy remained extermination or assimilation, that era saw an upwelling of nostalgia for the fading Native peoples. Early anthropologists went out to document dying cultures, ways of life inevitably giving way to modernity but whose passing should be lamented. Yet today we see a revival of Native culture among many tribes, a desire to fight for and affirm their identity rather than being pitied. Davis's description takes on the earlier nostalgic mantle, evoking a mystical sense of cultural diversity. He gives no hint of what type of socio-cultural-political struggles are involved in the demise of the cultures he's interested in (a complete dodge of the question of blame), leaving the impression that they're simply fading away for mysterious reasons. With no sense of causality or struggle, Davis can't offer any possibility of change, of adaptation to modernity and fighting cultural loss. The best he can do is document these cultures before they disappear, so that we in the educated West can appreciate what elders have failed to hand down to their children.


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