How do you define the term “culture” when it applies to a people? It is so much more than a set of traditions or language. It also is the embodiment of a way of life by a group of people. In a time where change to the environment and societal perceptions at large affect us at a monumental rate, we stand to lose many of these other ways of life at an alarming pace.
In Light at the Edge of the World, host Wade Davis introduces us to four disparate cultures separated not only by physical distance, but philosophical differences as well, and how they are affected by these changes. Davis’ main warning is that once a culture is gone, it will never return. But in some instances, groups of indigenous people are rising to the challenge and embracing their beliefs and traditions even in the face of such long odds of survival.
The Light at the Edge of the World series explores these cultures in four parts: “Arctic: Hunters of the Northern Ice,” “Himalayas: The Science of the Mind,” “Peru: Sacred Geography,” and “Polynesia: The Wayfinders.” The series was the winner of the 2008 New York Festival Silver Award, Magazine Format; and the 2008 Telluride Mountain Film Festival “Spirit Place” Award. I think it deserved both and so much more. In a world where some people doubt the effects of global warning, how can we let these fascinating cultures simply fade into the past?
In the early 1950s, there were 6,000 languages spoken by the world’s people. Now more than half of those are not being taught to the next generation, which means that in a single generation, we’re losing the cultural legacy of more than half of the world’s people.
In “Arctic: Hunters of the Northern Ice,” Davis joins a band of Inuits as they hunt for polar bears in the frozen northeast between Canada and Greenland. Igloolik, Nunavut is the home, and serves as the start of a hunting trip on the shores of Baffin Bay, more than 100km into the ice. They must travel further and further from home to find the polar bears that used to be plentiful.
Even though the Inuit adapted to the rapid change in the area since missionaries appeared in the 1950s and now use snowmobiles instead of dogs, adaptation is rarely easy. But even with the societal change, it’s impossible to miss the effects of global warming when the ice they once counted on is not where it should be. They do the best they can and try to keep their traditions alive, but fewer and fewer of the younger generations want to learn the old ways, and eventually they may disappear forever.
My favorite episode of the series was definitely “Himalayas: The Science of the Mind.” I have always been fascinated by Buddhist philosophies and to explore not only their philosophy, but their way of life, even as displaced as they are from their monasteries in Tibet. Buddhism spread from India to China and its goal is simple: help reduce the suffering in the world. To do this, practitioners encourage people to stay on the path to enlightenment (Dharma) to rise beyond the suffering in the world.
Buddhism is also under investigation in the scientific world as a way to literally change the shape of the mind. Devout practitioners focus on compassion and kindness to spread true happiness to themselves and those around them. It is a philosophy but also a spiritual practice grounded in contemplation. They have measured the minds of practicing monks and have seen the difference between a mind schooled in meditation and serenity and a western mind and quite literally the brain patterns are totally different.
Davis himself explored the realm of meditation as well during his stay in Nepal, visiting with a number of Rinpoche (spiritual leaders). You can see that he was truly affected by simply being in the presence of these calm, spiritually aware people who have achieved enlightenment. In one part of the documentary, his tears seem quite genuine as he deals with trying to still his mind. I have read other accounts of people meeting with Rinpoche or the Dalai Lama who have felt overwhelmed in a similar way.
In “Peru: Sacred Geography” Davis travels to the Andes in South America where he introduces us to a culture influenced not only by the beliefs of their Incan ancestors, but by the Spanish culture and Catholic religion that infused their society when they were invaded in the 1500s. Their current culture is an interesting mix of the two. Even in the modern age, they still honor the spirits of the mountains around them (known as Apu), and hold religious ceremonies to not only celebrate the gods in hopes of encouraging good seasons of planting, happy marriages, and so on, but also to spread their cultural heritage with the other groups in the area from Bolivia and Ecuador as well.
The last segment, “Polynesia: The Wayfinders,” focused on a group in Hawaii trying to reengage with their Polynesian ability to understand the ocean. “Wayfinding” is an ancient skill used to understand the ocean and weather to navigate without a compass or sextant. Nainoa Thompson, a Hawaiian native, learned the skill from his grandfather Mau Piailug and built a double-hulled voyaging canoe, the Hokule’a. Nainoa and his crew have sailed as far as Easter Island (3,000km from Hawaii) using these ancient “Wayfinding” techniques and are teaching others how to do the same in an attempt to keep their culture from disappearing completely.
Davis has a way of letting the cultures themselves speak to the audience using amazing photography, maps, history, and first-hand accounts, but he also injects some of his own understanding of anthropology, archaeology, and ethnobotany, to help pull these various sources together in a meaningful way. I wish this series was required viewing in high schools across the country to try and make the next generation(s) understand what is at stake if we do nothing.
To quote Edmund Burke, “It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.” Perhaps it’s time for the good people of the world to step up before we lose more of the human resources to global changes.
Unfortunately, there were no extras on the DVD, just some previews for other Smithsonian television series: Stories from the Vaults, Women in Science, America’s War Stories, and Nick Baker’s Weird Creatures.
That said, I have to say this has to be one of the best anthropology-themed series I have seen to date. If you are interested in some of the world’s disappearing cultures, be sure to check out Light at the Edge of the World.
p.s. Pick this up at Amazon! Here is the DVD and here’s the book: