Renowned author Wade Davis has attracted hundreds of students to his first course, Introduction to Anthropology
Donning the proverbial tweed jacket of academia doesn’t mean Wade Davis will be packing away the bullwhip and fedora. The anthropologist, who has been called a “real-life Indiana Jones,” has joined UBC as a professor of Anthropology to inspire the next generation of scholars while continuing his life’s work of exploring new cultures.
The Vancouver-born cultural storyteller received degrees in anthropology, biology and ethnobotany from Harvard University. Named an Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic, he has spent the last 40 years travelling the globe to document the lives of indigenous peoples through books, photographs and film.
He is passionate about the erosion of culture and language, and has delivered lectures lamenting the fact that 50 per cent of the world’s 7,000 languages are no longer taught to children.
“What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of your ancestors?” he asks. “This tragic fate is the plight of someone somewhere on earth roughly every two weeks. Within a generation or two, we will be witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy.”
Mobilizing a new generation
Davis’ first class has him teaching Introduction to Anthropology (Anthropology 100) to 500 eager undergraduate students this fall. He says he asked to teach a first-year course so he could inspire young minds.
“When I studied anthropology in university I did really well on paper, I got good grades,” he says. “But I honestly graduated not understanding anything about anthropology. I could tell you about kinship analysis, but I couldn’t tell you why I had learned about it.
“What I’m hoping to do is get young people to embrace the central revelation of anthropology, which is the idea that other peoples of the world are not failed attempts to be us. Each culture is a unique answer to the question, what does it mean to be human and alive?”
After having travelled to and studied cultures across the corners of the globe, from Tibet to the Amazon, Davis has an understanding of our universal commonalities. He says the secret to arriving at the doorstep of an indigenous community and asking to be welcomed is simple.
“What allows you to break the barrier between cultures is never bravado – it’s quite the opposite,” he says. “It’s what would make me welcome in your home on Christmas Eve. Good manners, self-deprecating humour, a willingness to eat what’s put in front of you and sleep where you’re asked to sleep. That’s about it.”
Video: Wade Davis on why anthropology matters
No signs of slowing down
In his new role as a professor and research associate with the Museum of Anthropology, Davis will also focus on research and outreach.
“This new role isn’t really me slowing down,” he says. “In fact things are ramping up. I have more projects in the works than ever before. And part of what I’m hoping to do is use some of those contacts to facilitate the careers of the young people around me.”
Having just turned 60, Davis says he thought now would be the time to start giving back to the profession and to return to his childhood home.
“This is where I was born, this is where my children were born,” he says of British Columbia. “But it’s also a place where the themes and issues that concern me are played out every day. Not only with the First Nations, but also this incredible experiment of a truly multicultural country. Canada is a tremendously exciting place for me.”