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 in 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 travelled 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.