Wade Davis

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This article is about the ethnobotanist. For other uses, see Wade Davis (disambiguation).
Wade Davis
Davis at home in 2008
Born Wade Davis
(1953-12-14) December 14, 1953 (age 61)
West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Nationality Canadian
Citizenship Canada
Alma mater Harvard University
Occupation Anthropologist, Ethnobotanist, author
Known for The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Wayfinders, El Rio
Website www.daviswade.com

Wade Davis (born December 14, 1953) is a Canadian anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author, and photographer whose work has focused on worldwide indigenous cultures, especially in North and South America and particularly involving the traditional uses and beliefs associated with psychoactive plants. Davis came to prominence with his 1985 best-selling book The Serpent and the Rainbow about the zombies of Haiti. Davis is Professor of Anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia.

Davis has published popular articles in Outside, National Geographic, Fortune, and Condé Nast Traveler.

Davis is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. Named by the NGS as one of the Explorers for the Millennium, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” In recent years his work has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, Mongolia, and the high Arctic of Nunuvut and Greenland.


An ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among fifteen indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6000 botanical collections. In 1974, at the age of 20, he crossed the Darien Gap on foot in the company of the celebrated English author and amateur explorer, Sebastian Snow.[1] His work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies, an assignment that led to his writing Passage of Darkness (1988) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986), an international best seller and, loosely, the basis of a horror film.

His other books include Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rain Forest (1990), Shadows in the Sun (1993), Nomads of the Dawn (1995), The Clouded Leopard (1998), Rainforest (1998), Light at the Edge of the World (2001), The Lost Amazon (2004), Grand Canyon (2008), Book of Peoples of the World (ed. 2008) and One River (1996), which was nominated for the 1997 Governor General's Literary Award for Nonfiction. His books have been translated into fourteen languages, including Basque, Serbian, Japanese and Malay.

A native of British Columbia, Davis, a licensed river guide, has worked as park ranger, forestry engineer, and conducted ethnographic fieldwork among several indigenous societies of northern Canada. He has published 180 scientific and popular articles on subjects ranging from Haitian vodoun and Amazonian myth and religion to the global biodiversity crisis, the traditional use of psychotropic drugs, and the ethnobotany of South American Indians. Davis has written for National Geographic, Newsweek, Premiere, Outside, Omni, Harpers, Fortune, Men's Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Natural History, Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, and numerous other international publications. Davis is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP)

His photographs have appeared in some 20 books and more than 80 magazines, journals and newspapers, including National Geographic, Time, GEO, People, Men’s Journal, Outside, and National Geographic Adventure. They have been exhibited at the International Center of Photography (I.C.P.), the Marsha Ralls Gallery, Washington, D.C., the United Nations (Cultures on the Edge exhibition 2004), the Carpenter Center of Harvard University, and the Utama Center, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Select images are part of the permanent collection of the U.S. State Department, Africa and Latin America Bureaus.

Davis is the co-curator of The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes, first exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and currently touring Latin America.

A first collection of Davis’ photographs, Light at the Edge of the World, appeared in 2001 published by National Geographic Books, Bloomsbury and Douglas & McIntyre. A second collection is under contract for fall 2011 publication with Douglas & McIntyre.

Davis’ research has been the subject of more than 800 media reports and interviews in Europe, North and South America and the Far East, and has inspired numerous documentary films as well as three episodes of the television series, The X-Files.

A professional speaker for over twenty years, Davis has lectured at the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, California Academy of Sciences, Missouri Botanical Garden, Field Museum of Natural History, New York Botanical Garden, National Geographic Society, Royal Ontario Museum, the Explorer's Club, the Royal Geographical Society, the Oriental Institute, the Chattauqua Institute, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank as well as some 400 renowned educational institutions, including Harvard, M.I.T., Oxford, Yale, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, Duke, Vanderbilt, University of Pennsylvania, Tulane, Georgetown, and St. George's School.

He has spoken at the Aspen Institute, Bohemian Grove and on numerous occasions for the Young Presidents' Organization and at the TED Conference. His clients have included amongst others Microsoft, Shell, Hallmark, Fidelity Investments, Bank of Nova Scotia, Mackenzie Financial, Healthcare Association of Southern California, National Science Teachers Association, NDMA (Non-prescriptive Drug Manufacturers Association), International Baccalaureate, European Council of International Schools, Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists, Canadian Association of Exploration Geophysicists, American Trial Lawyer’s Association, American Judges Association, American Bankers Association, Centaur Technology, Canadian Association of Actuaries, Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, as well as several leading pharmaceutical companies including Warner-Lambert, Bayer, Miles, Bristol-Myers, and Abbott Laboratories.

An Honorary Research Associate of the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden, he is a Fellow of the Linnean Society, Fellow of the Explorer's Club, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Davis was a founding board member of the David Suzuki Foundation and he recently completed a six-year term on the board of the Banff Centre, Canada’s leading institution for the arts. He has served on the Board of Directors since 2009 for the Amazon Conservation Association, whose mission is to conserve the biological diversity of the Amazon.[2] In 2009 he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures, Canada’s most prestigious public intellectual forum.

Davis was the series creator, host and co-writer of Light at the Edge of the World, a four-hour ethnographic documentary series, shot in Rapa Nui, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Nunuvut, Greenland, Nepal and Peru, which is currently airing in 165 countries on the National Geographic Channel and in the USA on Smithsonian Networks.

Davis is a principal character in the MacGillivray Freeman IMAX film, Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, (http://www.grandcanyonadventurefilm.com) released in the spring of 2008. Currently playing in 55 theatres worldwide, the film has grossed more than $25 million. Other television credits include the award winning documentaries, Spirit of the Mask, Cry of the Forgotten People, Forests Forever, and Earthguide, a 13 part television series on the environment, which aired on the Discovery Channel in 1990.

Davis has recently completed a new four-hour series for the National Geographic, Ancient Voices/Modern World, which was shot in Australia, Mongolia, and Colombia. It is currently airing worldwide on the National Geographic Channel as the second season of Light at the Edge of the World.

Davis is a member of the International Advisory Board, Hunt Consolidated, PLNG, and is also currently engaged in a three-year campaign, Journey to Zero, an effort sponsored by Nissan and TBWA to support zero emission vehicles.

When not in the field, Davis and his wife Gail Percy divide their time between Washington, D.C., Vancouver and the Stikine Valley of northern British Columbia. They have two children.

In late 2013, Davis joined the University of British Columbia as research and teaching faculty.[3]

Criticisms of work in Haiti[edit]

In 1983, Davis first advanced his hypothesis that tetrodotoxin (TTX) poisoning could explain the existence of Haitian zombies.[4] This idea has been controversial and his popular 1985 follow up book (The Serpent and the Rainbow) elaborating upon this claim has been criticized for a number of scientific inaccuracies.[5] One of these is the suggestion that Haitian witchdoctors can keep “zombies” in a state of pharmacologically induced trance for many years.[6] As part of his Haitian investigations, Davis commissioned the exhumation of a recently buried child.[7][8] (Dead human tissue is supposed to be a part of the “zombie powder” used by witchdoctors to produce zombies.) This has been criticized in the professional literature as a breach of ethics.[9][10]

The strictly scientific criticism of Davis’ zombie project has focused on the claims about the chemical composition of the “zombie powder”. Several samples of the powder were analyzed for TTX levels by experts in 1986. They reported[11] that only “insignificant traces of tetrodotoxin [were found] in the samples of ‘zombie powder’ which were supplied for analysis by Davis” and that “it can be concluded that the widely circulated claim in the lay press to the effect that tetrodotoxin is the causal agent in the initial zombification process is without factual foundation”. Davis’ claims were subsequently defended by other scientists doing further analyses[12] and these findings were criticized in turn for poor methodology and technique by the original skeptics.[13] Aside from the question of whether or not “zombie powder” contains significant amounts of TTX, the underlying concept of “tetrodotoxin zombification” has also been questioned more directly on a physiological basis.[14] TTX, which blocks sodium channels on the neural membrane, produces numbness, slurred speech, and possibly paralysis or even respiratory failure and death in severe cases. As an isolated pharmacological agent, it is not known to produce the trance-like or “mental slave” state typical of zombies in Haitian mythology, or Davis’ descriptions, although one might consider the effects of "set and setting"[clarification needed] in combination with the drug.[clarification needed][citation needed]

Others have argued[who?] that Davis did not suggest that the purported TTX-containing powder maintained the "mental slaves," only that it produced the initial death that, with the subsequent separate pharmacologic resurrection,[clarification needed][citation needed] convinced the victim and those who knew them that they had become zombies.[citation needed] Purported zombie cases such as Clairvius Narcisse were, according to Davis, kept biddable by regular doses of the poisonous 'zombi cucumber', Datura stramonium which produces amnesia, delirium and suggestibility.[15][page needed]

Otherwise, the effects of fugu TTX poisonings in Japan agree with the reports of zombification.[dubious ][citation needed]

Awards and accolades[edit]

Davis is the recipient of numerous awards including the Gold Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (2009), the 2002 Lowell Thomas Medal (The Explorers Club) and the 2002 Lannan Foundation $125,000 prize for literary non-fiction. He has been granted Honorary Degrees (Doctorate of Sciences) from University of Victoria (2003), University of Guelph (2008), Colorado College (2010) and University of Northern British Columbia (Doctorate of Laws 2010). In 2004 he was made an Honorary Member of The Explorers Club, one of twenty. In 2009 he was selected to be the speaker for the Massey Lectures, for his publication, The Wayfinders.[16] In 2011 he received The Explorers Medal, the highest award of The Explorers Club. He was awarded the David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration, considered the most prestigious prize for botanical exploration, in 2012.[17]


As author

  • Davis, Wade (1985). The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-50247-6.  (1997 edition retitled: The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic.)
  • Davis, Wade (1988). Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie. Robert F. Thompson, Richard E. Schultes. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-1776-7. 
  • Davis, Wade and Thom Henley (1990), Penan Voice for the Borneo Rain Forest, Western Canada Wilderness.
  • Davis, Wade (1991), The Art of Shamanic Healing, Cross Cultural Shamanism Network.
  • Davis, Wade (1996). One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-80886-2. [22]
  • Davis, Wade (1998). Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire. ISBN 1-55963-354-9.  (Published in Canada as The Clouded Leopard: A Book of Travels, Douglas & McIntyre, 1998.)
  • Davis, Wade (2001). Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. National Geographic. ISBN 0-7922-6474-6. 
  • Davis, Wade (2009). The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Toronto: Anansi Press. ISBN 0-88784-766-8. 
  • Davis, Wade (2009). Grand Canyon: River at Risk. San Rafael, CA: Earth Aware Editions. ISBN 1-60109-013-7. 
  • Davis, Wade (2011). Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-37540-889-4. 
  • Davis, Wade (2012). River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. ISBN 1-61091-361-2. 
  • Davis, Wade (2015). Los guardianes de la sabiduría ancestral. Su importancia en el mundo moderno. Medellín, Colombia: Sílaba Editores. ISBN 978-958-8794-65-5. 

Photography books

  • Davis, Wade, Ian MacKenzie, and Shane Kennedy (1995), Nomads of the Dawn: The Penan of the Borneo Rain Forest.
  • Osborne, Graham (Photographs) and Wade Davis (Text) (1998), Rainforest: Ancient Realm of the Pacific Northwest White River Junction, Vermont, Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
  • Davis, Wade (2004), The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes, Chronicle Books (Intro by Andrew Weil).

As editor

  • Davis, Wade and K. David Harrison (2008) Book of Peoples of the World: A Guide to Cultures, National Geographic, (2nd edition).

Light at the Edge of the World: Science of the Mind, directed by Andrew Gregg, produced by Wade Davis and Andrew Gregg for National Geographic

2008 Host/co-writer/co-producer Peyote to LSD: A Psychedelic Odyssey, 2 hour special for the History Channel based on the books One River and The Lost Amazon, produced in collaboration with Gryphon Productions and filmed shot on location in New Mexico, Oaxaca, and lowland Ecuador. DVD available A&E Television Network 2008 Principal character: Grand Canyon: River at Risk, 3D IMAX, MacGillivray Freeman Films, released worldwide Spring 2008.

2002 “The Explorer” Life and Times. 1 hr biographical documentary produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) DVD by Monarch Films, October, 2008

1993 Narrator/co-writer "Cry of the Forgotten Land" 1 hour documentary on the Moi people of West Papua, New Guinea.

1992 Host and co-writer. "The Spirit of the Mask" 1 hour documentary produced by Gryphon Productions

1991 Host and co-writer " Earthguide" 13 part documentary on environmental issues, Cinetel Productions for the Discovery Channel.

Provided introduction, foreword or afterword

  • Callañaupa, Nilda (2007), Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands, Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco.
  • Ranier, Chris (2004), Ancient Marks: The Sacred Art of Tattooing and Body Marking, Media 27, Inc.
  • Price, Travis (2006), Archaeology of Tomorrow, Earth Aware.
  • Semeniuk, Robert (2007), Among the Inuit, Raincoast Books.
  • Grand Canyon: A River at Risk (2008), Earth Aware Editions.
  • Canadian Geographic Atlas of Canada (2014), Harper Collins.


Wade Davis on Bookbits radio.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Snow, Sebastian The Rucksack Man, London: Sphere Books. 1977. pp. 199-244.
  2. ^ "Amazon Conservation Association". 
  3. ^ http://news.ubc.ca/2013/12/18/wade-davis-acclaimed-anthropologist-and-author-joins-the-university-of-british-columbia/
  4. ^ Davis, Wade (1983), The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 9: 85-104.
  5. ^ Hines, Terrence (2008), “Zombies and Tetrodotoxin”, Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 32, Issue 3 (May/June), pp 60-62.
  6. ^ Booth, W. (1988), “Voodoo Science”, Science, 240: 274-277.
  7. ^ Davis, Wade (1985), The Serpent and the Rainbow, New York: Simon & Schuster, pp 92-95
  8. ^ Davis, Wade (1988), Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, University of North Carolina Press, pp 115-116.
  9. ^ Booth, Op. cit.
  10. ^ Anderson, W.H. (1988), “Tetrodotoxin and the Zombie Phenomenon”, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 23: 121-126.
  11. ^ Kao, C.Y. and T. Yasumoto (1986), “Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian Zombie”, Toxicon, 24: 747-749.
  12. ^ Benedek, C. and L. Rivier (1989), “Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification”, Toxicon, 27: 473-480
  13. ^ Kao, C.Y. and T. Yasumoto (1990), “Tetrodotoxin in 'Zombie Powder'”, Toxicon, 28: 129-132.
  14. ^ Hines, Op. cit., pg 62.
  15. ^ Davis, Wade (1985), The Serpent and the Rainbow, New York: Simon & Schuster.[page needed]
  16. ^ CBC Massey Lecture Series 2009 http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey/massey2009.html
  17. ^ National Tropical Botanical Garden, Fairchild Award http://ntbg.org/gardens/kampong-news.php?show=news&id=962
  18. ^ Alison Flood (12 November 2012). "Into the Silence author Wade Davis wins Samuel Johnson award". The Guardian. Retrieved November 13, 2012. 
  19. ^ http://www.boardmantasker.com/site/shortlist2012.htm
  20. ^ http://www.straight.com/article-799496/vancouver/six-bc-writers-shortlisted-2012-governor-generals-awards
  21. ^ http://www.banffcentre.ca/mountainfestival/competitions/book/#3
  22. ^ Bass, Joby (2000). "Review of One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest by Wade Davis". Yearbook. Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers 26: 157–159. 

External links[edit]