Wade Davis has an imposing mind. During our interview the internationally-renowned National Geographic ethnobiologist and explorer seamlessly offers reels of complex and exotic mythology, before philosophising on the limits of human potential and fondly recounting how pleasant it is to swim five times a day.
As I look upon scribblings from our conversation, it occurs to me that I am one of many people to have frantically attempted to capture his wisdom. In this I join an illustrious list composed of Harvard students, as well as legendary filmmaker Wes Craven who with ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow,’ was inspired by Davis’s “zombification’’ in Haiti. There are also the writers of the 1990’s TV cult series The X-Files who based mass entertainment productions on Davis’s research.
Naturally, I am more than a little interested in how he developed such intellectual stature, but attempts to direct any questions with a personal slant are politely steered away to his work. He is determined to tell me a story. And just as well, for I hear a carefully elaborated, magnificent and Colombian story.
The story of the Peoples of the Anaconda is one that Wade Davis wanted to tell the world, which is why he spent a month in the Colombian Amazonia back in 2009 filming a community of the group for a National Geographic documentary. Davis’s respect for these “exceedingly pleasant” indigenous people dotted around the remote Vaupés department in the South East of the country in seven communities shines through as he beams about their enlightening philosophy and peaceful social organization being a model of ecological living. Their “land management plan inspired by myth” is one that Davis wants everyone concerned with the future of our planet to hear.
Questioning the origins of the People of the Anaconda’s delightfully quixotic name is enough to start unravelling a richness of mythology that would probably astonish the likes of Tolkien. The tale that shamans still recount across the expanse of many a maloca – thatched wooden long houses that act as community focal points – is of ancestors making a great journey to the remote set of Amazonian tributaries that form their current land in canoes lodged in the bel- lies of giant anacondas.
This land is small, spanning a matter of kilometres, yet packed with mystique. It centres on the rivers that are said to be formed of the blood and breast milk of a founding god, Romi Kumu. Their known world is bound by two nearby waterfalls, one of which is considered a ‘water door’ which links the land with the sky, and the other ‘a door of suffering’ that pours downwards into the world of the dead.
The Peoples of the Anaconda’s spiritual connection with their natural environment is the focus of much of the admiration that has brought Davis to the river Pira Paraná twice in his career, first as an eager Ph.D student in 1975. In Davis’s highly-specialized field this small community in South-East Colombia offers a rare gem of a surviving indigenous philosophy barely touched by modern influences. “Subtle” and “dazzling” is the filmmaker’s verdict on his subjects’ world-view, which has authoritatively been shared with living rooms across the world in the documentary, part of the explorer’s ‘Light at the Edge of the World’ series.
As well as showing how the group possess beliefs that aid the navigation of their known world, Davis uses the film to stress many interesting instances of mythical philosophy chiming with eminently sensible conservation policies. The eating of certain game and fish for instance, is banned by divine order while meat on a whole is considered “a gift from the spiritual world” requiring the permission before consumption of the ‘masters of the animals’ who the local shaman is able to consult in a trance.
While some other areas of the Amazon have born the scars of commerce, the jungle hemming the banks of the Pira Paraná remain in a “most pristine” condition as a result of the local lifestyle, explained Davis. Armed with a masterful knowledge of these complex customs, the resulting film is documentary making in its most classic form, demonstrating the intricacies of a remote way of life that very few Colombians, let alone foreigners, would ever be able to witness in person.
On top of this religious commitment to preserving their natural environment, Davis enthuses repeatedly about the social organization that has allowed the Peoples of the Anaconda to thrive. For starters, there is a social compulsion to marry a partner with a different language, a tradition that helps to encourage trade and peaceful relations amongst the various small groups that make up the community. There is also a strong community spirit with mythology helping to define roles and bring people together for ceremony. Davis notes wryly that the Barasana people, the grouping he has studied, were thriving more in 2006 as he filmed them, than during the 70s when contact with Christian missionaries had challenged their traditions.
Any anthropologist can study a group and claim they offer some heightened aspects of their civilization to aspire to, but the way in which Davis outlines the foundations for the “intellectual genius of these river peoples” is particularly convincing.
He has also gone out of his way to document and elaborate elements of their social and spiritual system that tend to baffle outsiders, such as the social use of trance. This is common to indigenous peoples across the Amazon in the ceremonial consumption of the psychedelic drink Ayahuasca, a practice which the first Europeans to discover the area frowned upon, but indigenous groups maintain helps to guide them via the consultations it induces with spirits and ancestors. The practice is a cornerstone of a near obsession with spiritual soul searching, or more positively framed by one elder as “white people see with their eyes but we see with our minds.”
Showing no signs that an extraordinary career of travel to some of the furthest-flung corners of the planet has tempered his enthusiasm, Davis was full of heartfelt praise for Colombia, including “thoughtful plans” by the government that grant the country “the opportunity to continue to be a major leader in Amazon conservation” by granting land rights to native groups like the Peoples of the Anaconda. Colombia can – in turn – be grateful to that somebody as knowledgeable as Davis has come to share one of its great and complex human stories.