Cultural anthropology, also known as social anthropology, is one of the major subdisciplines of anthropology. Cultural anthropology is the study of the learned behavior of groups of people in specific environments. National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, for example, is an ethnobotanist. He spent years in Latin America, collecting and studying plants, and their uses as food, medicine, and in religious ceremonies.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen
  • 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.


    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.


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


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


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


    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.


    “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.”


    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.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    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


    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.

    indigenous Adjective

    characteristic to or of a specific place.

    Encyclopedic Entry: indigenous
    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.