“…[R]emember the central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.”

A friend of mine introduced me to Wade Davis’ writing with the excellent recommendation that Davis’ book, One River, was the reason he decided on an academic pursuit of anthropology in the first place. For anyone considering anthropology as an educational/career path, or anyone who simply wants to know what it’s all about, this book is a great place to start.

As with most Massey Lectures publications, The Wayfinders is incredibly well presented, taking some of the most interesting and important information from the discipline of anthropology and putting it forth in a format that is both readable and comprehensive. The first chapter is an overview of the history of human culture, from the agricultural revolution right through to the present day. In subsequent chapters, Davis introduces the cultures, accomplishments and belief systems of Polynesia, the Amazon, the First Nations of British Columbia (Canada), and the Sahara, among others.

One of the attractions of anthropology is the way in which examining cultures that exist at an extreme remove from one’s own often becomes a way of looking at your own through the lens of that culture. It’s easy, particularly in the pervasiveness of western society, to feel as if our own way of life is somehow “normal” and others exist on some spectrum of strangeness stretching away from our own.

Though these overviews serve as fascinating windows into the cultural beliefs and practices underpinning a handful of cultures around the world, the book has a larger message. Taken in context, the overall message is that no matter how different a culture is from our own or from any other in the world, each and every one will have points that you can relate to – and something to teach you.

Davis is a gifted storyteller, one who has the rare ability to take nearly any topic and find a way to draw the reader into it, as with the finest novel. His obvious passion for the subject matter is apparent, as is his lifelong pursuit of cultural knowledge. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about anthropology, but also to anyone who finds themselves wondering, from time to time, what it would be like to live without the trappings of modern life. The Wayfinders will leave you in awe of the accomplishments the human species is capable of, even without any “modern” gadgets and expertise.

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