Anthropologist: Dr. Wade Davis

Anthropologist: Dr. Wade Davis

Profile of Dr. Wade Davis, an anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.


4 - 12+


Biology, Ecology, Geography, Physical Geography

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.

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National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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