Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis’s new book The Wayfinders (Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World), is a very interesting and important read.  In it, he discusses the vastly underestimated knowledge possessed by those cultures that are rapidly disappearing from our world.  For instance, he describes the ancient Polynesians and their talents as wayfinders, traversing vast distances at sea from one island chain to another.  Without the aid of modern navigational and storm tracking technology, they relied on their hard-earned knowledge of the patterns of the sea and sky to guide and prepare their journeys.  The latter includes simple observations of cloud patterns to predict oncoming storms and precipitation.  But as these societies erode in large part by first-world modernization and globalization, so too does the knowledge and experience these peoples have in abundance.  Much of any society’s cultural expertise exists in their language as it’s passed from generation to generation, and as languages disappear so also goes what they contain.  Davis’s book is a kind of warning and reminder of what we all lose when such human knowledge goes away forever.

 It made me think of the archaeological concept of stratigraphy or that cross-section of history that’s revealed when you dig down through layers of time.  Archaeologists unearth the manifestations of societies and piece together their culture.   In doing so, they create understanding of what we’ve lost or what we’ve forgotten.  We bury the truisms we learn from generation to generation, re-learning them over and over.   But what of our current technological global network and scientific achievements?  Are they not impressive?  Of course they are.  What is lacking on our part is a fundamental respect for what has gone before us.  Technology is rapidly transforming how we communicate in the modern age but what’s the point if we have nothing new to say?  That’s why I think it’s important to not under appreciate the experience and knowledge achieved throughout world history, and to avoid the presumption that anything modern is by default, superior.

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