Wade is an anthropologist and ethnobotanist. As an explorer and researcher, Wade studies indigenous cultures and their use of plants for medicinal and spiritual purposes. His work has taken him from his home in British Columbia, Canada, to Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Haiti, Benin, Togo, and Greenland.

EARLY WORK

As a young man, Wade’s twin interests in anthropology and botany led him to exploration. He became familiar with the Iskut and other First Nations native to British Columbia.

At age 14, Wade traveled to South America, alone, to pursue his passion. He collected more than 6,000 plant samples learned different properties and effects of plants by studying how indigenous cultures used them.

Wade's research later took him to Haiti, the setting of his most well-known books, Passage of Darkness and The Serpent and the Rainbow. In Haiti, Wade studied the plant-based poisons and medicines used in Haitian Vodou practices.

Wade has degrees in anthropology, biology, and ethnobotany, all from Harvard University.

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

“Experiencing the dance of culture. . . . Seeing universal gestures of empathy and love.”

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK


“Writing. I am not a good writer! Anyone who talks about getting inspired to write is either a bad writer or a liar.”

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?


“The spirit of place. All culture springs of a spirit of place—culture is what we do, not just where we are.”

GEO-CONNECTION


In many ways, Wade is a “classic” National Geographic explorer. He travels all over the world, studying cultures and communities most Western audiences are not familiar with. However, unlike many early explorers, Wade has a fierce respect for the complexity of indigenous cultures.

Wade is particularly critical of the idea of indigenous cultures being “failed attempts at being modern.” Native societies are as complicated and sophisticated as our own, “modern” culture, he says.

“Consider the way we look at a mountain. To [Westerners], a mountain is a big pile of rock. To the Iskut, it’s a deity. It’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong—there is no right or wrong. It’s a series of cultural beliefs, and it changes the way we consider the mountain, and how we treat it.”

To dismiss certain cultural beliefs is “not just offensive, but contradictory and absolutely obscene,” Wade says. Ignoring the complexity of indigenous cultures is not only an insult to the native cultures, but also to Western audiences.

“When you dumb down a program, you get a dumb audience,” he says.

SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ANTHROPOLOGIST

“Hit the road! When I was 14, I traveled alone in South America, and it led me to my career. . . . A career is something that you build, choice by choice and experience by experience.”

GET INVOLVED

In addition to being an anthropologist and ethnobotanist, Wade is also a licensed river guide—his latest book is about the Sacred Headwaters, the source of British Columbia’s Skeena, Nass, and Stikine rivers. He is also a former park ranger. He encourages families to visit local nature reserves and parks, and to take advantage of the interpretive guides at state and national parks.

Anthropologist: Dr. Wade Davis
Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist and cultural anthropologist.
anthropologist
Noun

person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.

audience
Noun

observers or listeners of an event or production.

biology
Noun

study of living things.

botany
Noun

study of plants.

complex
Adjective

complicated.

contradictory
Adjective

inconsistent, or holding the opposite opinion.

critical
Adjective

very important.

culture
Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

deity
Noun

very holy or spiritual being.

dismiss
Verb

to reject.

empathy
Noun

ability to identify and respect the emotions and attitudes of others.

encourage
Verb

to inspire or support a person or idea.

ethnobotanist
Noun

person who studies how plants are used in different cultures for food, medicine, rituals, clothing, construction, etc.

fierce
Adjective

wild or savage.

First Nations
Noun

indigenous (Native American) peoples of Canada south of the Arctic.

Adjective

characteristic to or of a specific place.

indigenous culture
Noun

languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods of people who are native to a specific geographic area.

insult
Noun

cruel or offensive words or behavior.

Iskut
Noun

people and culture native to northwestern British Columbia, Canada.

license
Verb

to give someone or a group of people formal or official permission to do something.

medicine
Noun

substance used for treating illness or disease.

mountain
Noun

landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

national park
Noun

geographic area protected by the national government of a country.

nature
Noun

environment or ecosystem, usually without human development.

obscene
Adjective

very offensive or disgusting.

offensive
Adjective

irritating, unpleasant, or angering.

park
Noun

area of land set aside for recreational use.

park ranger
Noun

person who protects and informs the public about local, state, and national parks. Also called a forest ranger.

plant
Noun

organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.

poison
Noun

substance that harms health.

rock
Noun

natural substance composed of solid mineral matter.

Sacred Headwaters
Plural Noun

glacial basin in British Columbia, Canada, that is the source for the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine Rivers.

spiritual
Adjective

having to do with religion or faith.

vodou
adjective, noun

religion that developed in Haiti, combining elements of native Haitian, West African, and Roman Catholic spirituality.