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  • You know, one of the intense pleasures of travel

  • and one of the delights of ethnographic research

  • is the opportunity to live amongst those

  • who have not forgotten the old ways,

  • who still feel their past in the wind,

  • touch it in stones polished by rain,

  • taste it in the bitter leaves of plants.

  • Just to know that Jaguar shamans still journey beyond the Milky Way,

  • or the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning,

  • or that in the Himalaya,

  • the Buddhists still pursue the breath of the Dharma,

  • is to really remember the central revelation of anthropology,

  • and that is the idea that the world in which we live

  • does not exist in some absolute sense,

  • but is just one model of reality,

  • the consequence of one particular set of adaptive choices

  • that our lineage made, albeit successfully, many generations ago.

  • And of course, we all share the same adaptive imperatives.

  • We're all born. We all bring our children into the world.

  • We go through initiation rites.

  • We have to deal with the inexorable separation of death,

  • so it shouldn't surprise us that we all sing, we all dance,

  • we all have art.

  • But what's interesting is the unique cadence of the song,

  • the rhythm of the dance in every culture.

  • And whether it is the Penan in the forests of Borneo,

  • or the Voodoo acolytes in Haiti,

  • or the warriors in the Kaisut desert of Northern Kenya,

  • the Curandero in the mountains of the Andes,

  • or a caravanserai in the middle of the Sahara --

  • this is incidentally the fellow that I traveled into the desert with

  • a month ago --

  • or indeed a yak herder in the slopes of Qomolangma,

  • Everest, the goddess mother of the world.

  • All of these peoples teach us that there are other ways of being,

  • other ways of thinking,

  • other ways of orienting yourself in the Earth.

  • And this is an idea, if you think about it,

  • can only fill you with hope.

  • Now, together the myriad cultures of the world

  • make up a web of spiritual life and cultural life

  • that envelops the planet,

  • and is as important to the well-being of the planet

  • as indeed is the biological web of life that you know as a biosphere.

  • And you might think of this cultural web of life

  • as being an ethnosphere,

  • and you might define the ethnosphere

  • as being the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths,

  • ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being

  • by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness.

  • The ethnosphere is humanity's great legacy.

  • It's the symbol of all that we are

  • and all that we can be as an astonishingly inquisitive species.

  • And just as the biosphere has been severely eroded,

  • so too is the ethnosphere

  • -- and, if anything, at a far greater rate.

  • No biologists, for example, would dare suggest

  • that 50 percent of all species or more have been or are

  • on the brink of extinction because it simply is not true,

  • and yet that -- the most apocalyptic scenario

  • in the realm of biological diversity --

  • scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario

  • in the realm of cultural diversity.

  • And the great indicator of that, of course, is language loss.

  • When each of you in this room were born,

  • there were 6,000 languages spoken on the planet.

  • Now, a language is not just a body of vocabulary

  • or a set of grammatical rules.

  • A language is a flash of the human spirit.

  • It's a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture

  • comes into the material world.

  • Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind,

  • a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.

  • And of those 6,000 languages, as we sit here today in Monterey,

  • fully half are no longer being whispered into the ears of children.

  • They're no longer being taught to babies,

  • which means, effectively, unless something changes,

  • they're already dead.

  • What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence,

  • to be the last of your people to speak your language,

  • to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors

  • or anticipate the promise of the children?

  • And yet, that dreadful fate is indeed the plight of somebody

  • somewhere on Earth roughly every two weeks,

  • because every two weeks, some elder dies

  • and carries with him into the grave the last syllables

  • of an ancient tongue.

  • And I know there's some of you who say, "Well, wouldn't it be better,

  • wouldn't the world be a better place

  • if we all just spoke one language?" And I say, "Great,

  • let's make that language Yoruba. Let's make it Cantonese.

  • Let's make it Kogi."

  • And you'll suddenly discover what it would be like

  • to be unable to speak your own language.

  • And so, what I'd like to do with you today

  • is sort of take you on a journey through the ethnosphere,

  • a brief journey through the ethnosphere,

  • to try to begin to give you a sense of what in fact is being lost.

  • Now, there are many of us who sort of forget

  • that when I say "different ways of being,"

  • I really do mean different ways of being.

  • Take, for example, this child of a Barasana in the Northwest Amazon,

  • the people of the anaconda

  • who believe that mythologically they came up the milk river

  • from the east in the belly of sacred snakes.

  • Now, this is a people who cognitively

  • do not distinguish the color blue from the color green

  • because the canopy of the heavens

  • is equated to the canopy of the forest

  • upon which the people depend.

  • They have a curious language and marriage rule

  • which is called "linguistic exogamy:"

  • you must marry someone who speaks a different language.

  • And this is all rooted in the mythological past,

  • yet the curious thing is in these long houses,

  • where there are six or seven languages spoken

  • because of intermarriage,

  • you never hear anyone practicing a language.

  • They simply listen and then begin to speak.

  • Or, one of the most fascinating tribes I ever lived with,

  • the Waorani of northeastern Ecuador,

  • an astonishing people first contacted peacefully in 1958.

  • In 1957, five missionaries attempted contact

  • and made a critical mistake.

  • They dropped from the air

  • 8 x 10 glossy photographs of themselves

  • in what we would say to be friendly gestures,

  • forgetting that these people of the rainforest

  • had never seen anything two-dimensional in their lives.

  • They picked up these photographs from the forest floor,

  • tried to look behind the face to find the form or the figure,

  • found nothing, and concluded that these were calling cards

  • from the devil, so they speared the five missionaries to death.

  • But the Waorani didn't just spear outsiders.

  • They speared each other.

  • 54 percent of their mortality was due to them spearing each other.

  • We traced genealogies back eight generations,

  • and we found two instances of natural death

  • and when we pressured the people a little bit about it,

  • they admitted that one of the fellows had gotten so old

  • that he died getting old, so we speared him anyway. (Laughter)

  • But at the same time they had a perspicacious knowledge

  • of the forest that was astonishing.

  • Their hunters could smell animal urine at 40 paces

  • and tell you what species left it behind.

  • In the early '80s, I had a really astonishing assignment

  • when I was asked by my professor at Harvard

  • if I was interested in going down to Haiti,

  • infiltrating the secret societies

  • which were the foundation of Duvalier's strength

  • and Tonton Macoutes,

  • and securing the poison used to make zombies.

  • In order to make sense out of sensation, of course,

  • I had to understand something about this remarkable faith

  • of Vodoun. And Voodoo is not a black magic cult.

  • On the contrary, it's a complex metaphysical worldview.

  • It's interesting.

  • If I asked you to name the great religions of the world,

  • what would you say?

  • Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, whatever.

  • There's always one continent left out,

  • the assumption being that sub-Saharan Africa

  • had no religious beliefs. Well, of course, they did

  • and Voodoo is simply the distillation

  • of these very profound religious ideas

  • that came over during the tragic Diaspora of the slavery era.

  • But, what makes Voodoo so interesting

  • is that it's this living relationship

  • between the living and the dead.

  • So, the living give birth to the spirits.

  • The spirits can be invoked from beneath the Great Water,

  • responding to the rhythm of the dance

  • to momentarily displace the soul of the living,

  • so that for that brief shining moment, the acolyte becomes the god.

  • That's why the Voodooists like to say

  • that "You white people go to church and speak about God.

  • We dance in the temple and become God."

  • And because you are possessed, you are taken by the spirit --

  • how can you be harmed?

  • So you see these astonishing demonstrations:

  • Voodoo acolytes in a state of trance

  • handling burning embers with impunity,

  • a rather astonishing demonstration of the ability of the mind

  • to affect the body that bears it

  • when catalyzed in the state of extreme excitation.

  • Now, of all the peoples that I've ever been with,

  • the most extraordinary are the Kogi

  • of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia.

  • Descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization

  • which once carpeted the Caribbean coastal plain of Colombia,

  • in the wake of the conquest,

  • these people retreated into an isolated volcanic massif

  • that soars above the Caribbean coastal plain.

  • In a bloodstained continent,

  • these people alone were never conquered by the Spanish.

  • To this day, they remain ruled by a ritual priesthood

  • but the training for the priesthood is rather extraordinary.

  • The young acolytes are taken away from their families

  • at the age of three and four,

  • sequestered in a shadowy world of darkness

  • in stone huts at the base of glaciers for 18 years:

  • two nine-year periods

  • deliberately chosen to mimic the nine months of gestation

  • they spend in their natural mother's womb;

  • now they are metaphorically in the womb of the great mother.

  • And for this entire time,

  • they are inculturated into the values of their society,

  • values that maintain the proposition that their prayers

  • and their prayers alone maintain the cosmic --

  • or we might say the ecological -- balance.

  • And at the end of this amazing initiation,

  • one day they're suddenly taken out

  • and for the first time in their lives, at the age of 18,

  • they see a sunrise. And in that crystal moment of awareness

  • of first light as the Sun begins to bathe the slopes

  • of the stunningly beautiful landscape,

  • suddenly everything they have learned in the abstract

  • is affirmed in stunning glory. And the priest steps back

  • and says, "You see? It's really as I've told you.

  • It is that beautiful. It is yours to protect."

  • They call themselves the "elder brothers"

  • and they say we, who are the younger brothers,

  • are the ones responsible for destroying the world.

  • Now, this level of intuition becomes very important.

  • Whenever we think of indigenous people and landscape,

  • we either invoke Rousseau

  • and the old canard of the "noble savage,"

  • which is an idea racist in its simplicity,

  • or alternatively, we invoke Thoreau

  • and say these people are closer to the Earth than we are.

  • Well, indigenous people are neither sentimental

  • nor weakened by nostalgia.

  • There's not a lot of room for either

  • in the malarial swamps of the Asmat

  • or in the chilling winds of Tibet, but they have, nevertheless,

  • through time and ritual, forged a traditional mystique of the Earth

  • that is based not on the idea of being self-consciously close to it,

  • but on a far subtler intuition:

  • the idea that the Earth itself can only exist

  • because it is breathed into being by human consciousness.

  • Now, what does that mean?

  • It means that a young kid from the Andes

  • who's raised to believe that that mountain is an Apu spirit