Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures


180 pages
Contains Photos
ISBN 1-55054-989-8
DDC 306'.08'0222






Reviewed by Pauline Carey

Pauline Carey is an actor, playwright, and fiction writer. She is the
author of Magic and What’s in a Name?


Professor Maybury-Lewis, the author’s anthropology tutor at Harvard,
told of indigenous people in 1950s Brazil holding log races whose aim
was not to win but to have both teams arrive together; the races were
rerun until this result was achieved. When asked what would happen if
the race never ended in a tie, Wade Davis replied, “The culture would

This early perception from the Quebec-born ethnobotanist and
anthropologist informs his fascinating collection of text and
photographs that celebrates the differences in the world’s Native
cultures and mourns the passing of many of them. To quote the Harvard
tutor, “Too often we meddle with lives we barely understand.”

In his attempt to help us understand, Davis takes us initially to parts
of the world where doctor and priest are still one, such as South
American forests (where he researched psycho-active plants, including
coca, and learned that Indians hear the plants sing) and Haiti (where he
searched for the medically intriguing formula of a powder that creates
zombies). Later chapters take on a more political tone as he tells of
nomad cultures in Malaysia and Africa where commercial greed has
destroyed ways of life and authorities have given young people an
education that only encourages them to leave their land.

Davis argues in clear and lively prose that seemingly curious customs
of indigenous societies underlie serious beliefs that can enrich the
world if given a chance. He raises faint hopes for the survival of such
alternative visions of living and dying in the chapters on Tibet, where
he suggests a post-Mao resurrection of the culture, and on Australia,
where there is growing respect for the wisdom and art of the Aborigines.
In the final chapter, Davis discusses Nunavut as a “remarkable
experiment” in Native self-government.

The handsome full-page colour photographs in this thought-provoking
book support the text and have stories of their own to tell. In a book
of such riches, could we not have had an index?


Davis, Wade., “Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 15, 2024,