Wade Davis (anthropologist)

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Wade Davis

Davis at home in 2008
Edmund Wade Davis

(1953-12-14) December 14, 1953 (age 69)
CitizenshipCanada, Colombia, and United States
EducationHarvard University
Occupation(s)Cultural Anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author, educator, lecturer
Known forThe Serpent and the Rainbow, The Wayfinders, El Rio
SpouseGail Percy

Edmund Wade Davis CM (born December 14, 1953) is a Canadian cultural anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author, and photographer. Davis came to prominence with his 1985 best-selling book The Serpent and the Rainbow about the zombies of Haiti. He is professor of anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia.

Early life, family, and education[edit]

Davis was born in West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.[1]

He holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University.[1][2]

In 1974, at age 20, he crossed the Darién Gap on foot in the company of the English author and amateur explorer, Sebastian Snow.[3]


Davis is an ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, he also is a licensed river guide and has worked as park ranger and a forestry engineer.

Anthropology and ethnobotany[edit]

Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent more than three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among fifteen indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6,000 botanical collections.[2] He also conducted ethnographic fieldwork among several indigenous societies of northern Canada. 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 bestseller. The book was used loosely as the basis of a Wes Craven horror film, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

Other books by Davis include Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rain Forest (1990), Shadows in the Sun (1998), 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.

He has published 1800[citation needed] popular articles on subjects ranging from Haitian vodoun, Amazonian myth and religion, the traditional use of psychotropic drugs, the ethnobotany of South American Indians, as well as, how COVID-19 has signaled the end of the American era.[4] 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, Rolling Stone, and numerous other international publications.

Davis is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP).[citation needed]

Davis served as Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic Society from 2000 to 2013. [5]

Davis' 2012 book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest won the Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson prize) for non-fiction. His account weaves together the three Everest expeditions in 1922, 1923 and 1924, set in the shadow of the Great War, by finding "a unifying thread in the person of George Mallory, the scatter-brained Adonis and Bloomsbury favourite whose fate would enthral the nation," wrote John Keay in Literary Review.[6]


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.[citation needed] They have been exhibited at the International Center of Photography (ICP), 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).[citation needed] Some of his images are part of the permanent collection of the U.S. State Department, Africa and Latin America Bureaus.[citation needed] 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's photographs, Light at the Edge of the World, appeared in 2001 published by National Geographic Books, Bloomsbury, and Douglas & McIntyre. A second collection was under contract for 2013 publication with Douglas & McIntyre as well.[2]

Filmmaking and other media involvement[edit]

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, Nunavut, Greenland, Nepal, and Peru, which aired in 165 countries on the National Geographic Channel and in the USA on Smithsonian Networks.

He is featured in the MacGillivray Freeman IMAX film Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, released in the spring of 2008. 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 that aired on the Discovery Channel in 1990. His four-hour series with National Geographic, Ancient Voices / Modern World, was shot in Australia, Mongolia, and Colombia. It has been broadcast worldwide on the National Geographic Channel as part of the second season of Light at the Edge of the World.

In 2022 Davis curated an exhibition at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California that highlighted the history of expeditions to the peak of Mount Everest. The exhibition "Ascent to Glory," included photographs, films and artifacts from five expeditions from the period 1921 to 1953. The Bowers Museum presented the exhibition in partnership with London's Royal Geographical Society. [7]

Advisory work[edit]

An honorary research associate of the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden, he is a Fellow of the Linnean Society, a Fellow of the Explorer's Club, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Davis was a founding board member of the David Suzuki Foundation and completed a six-year term on the board of the Banff Centre, a Canadian 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.[8] In 2009, he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures, Canada's most prestigious public intellectual forum.

He is a member of the International Advisory Board, Hunt Consolidated, PLNG, and has also been engaged in Journey to Zero, a three-year campaign sponsored by Nissan and TBWA to support zero emission vehicles.[9]

Criticisms of work in Haiti[edit]

In 1983, Davis first advanced his hypothesis that tetrodotoxin (TTX) poisoning could explain the existence of Haitian zombies.[10] This idea has been controversial and his 1985 follow-up book (The Serpent and the Rainbow) elaborating upon this claim has been criticized as containing a number of scientific inaccuracies.[11] One of these is the suggestion that Haitian witchdoctors can keep "zombies" in a state of pharmacologically induced trance for many years.[12] As part of his Haitian investigations, Davis commissioned the exhumation of a recently buried child.[13][14] (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.[12][15]

The strictly scientific criticism of Davis's 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 [16] 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's claims were subsequently defended by other scientists doing further analyses,[17] and these findings were criticized in turn for poor methodology and technique by the original skeptics.[18]

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.[11] 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 the zombies of Haitian mythology, or of Davis's descriptions. This criticism can be countered by pointing to the datura mentioned in Davis's research. In and of itself, datura can produce these trance-like symptoms, and if a part of regular meals, could cause (or contribute to) the maintained stupor. Datura ingestions may present with prolonged toxic effects lasting hours to days.[19]

Biochemist Jessika Jake has noted that bromism also may be at play here. In his account of his release, Clairvius Narcisse reported that the master's wife fed salt to the enslaved and set them free. Administering NaCl helps the body excrete bromide, and thus is a known treatment for bromism. Symptoms of bromism include stupor, slurred speech, abnormal gait, and other symptoms described in zombie folklore (such as "behavior [that] can become violent, especially at night", skin rashes, and enlarged pupils).[20] Further investigation into the bromide source, which may be as simple as the use of bromide salts when preparing food for the enslaved, should be addressed.

Personal life[edit]

Davis is married. He and his wife, Gail Percy, have lived in several places, sometimes with concurrent residences in Washington, D.C., Vancouver, the Stikine Valley of northern British Columbia, and Bowen Island near Vancouver.[1] They have two adult daughters,[1] Tara and Raina.[2] On April 13, 2018, Davis was granted Colombian nationality and citizenship by President Juan Manuel Santos.[21]

Awards and accolades[edit]


As author[edit]

  • 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[a] Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, 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.[35]
  • 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 978-0-88784-766-0.
  • Davis, Wade (2009). Grand Canyon: River at Risk. San Rafael, CA: Earth Aware Editions. ISBN 978-1-60109-013-3.
  • Davis, Wade (2011). Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-37540-889-2.
  • Davis, Wade (2012). River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. ISBN 978-1-61091-361-4.
  • 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.
  • Davis, Wade, The Unraveling of America, Rolling Stone, August 6, 2020 - (how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era)
  • Davis, Wade (2020). Magdalena: River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia. New York, NY: Knopf. ISBN 978-0375410994.

Photography books[edit]

  • 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[edit]

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


  • Earthguide (1991). Cinetel Productions for the Discovery Channel. 13-part documentary on environmental issues. Davis was host and co-writer.
  • "The Spirit of the Mask" (1992). Produced by Gryphon Productions. 1992. Davis was host and co-writer. 1 hour documentary.
  • "Cry of the Forgotten Land" (1993). 1 hour documentary on the Moi people of West Papua, New Guinea. Davis was narrator/co-writer
  • "The Explorer" Life and Times (2002). Produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) DVD by Monarch Films. 1 hour biographical documentary.
  • "Grand Canyon: River at Risk" (2008). 3D IMAX, MacGillivray Freeman Films. Davis was principal character.
  • Peyote to LSD: A Psychedelic Odyssey (2008). Produced in collaboration with Gryphon Productions. Filmed on location in New Mexico, Oaxaca, and lowland Ecuador. Two-hour special for the History Channel-based Davis's books One River (1996) and The Lost Amazon (2004). DVD available, A&E Television Network. Davis was host/co-writer/co-producer.
  • Light at the Edge of the World: Science of the Mind (2007). Directed by Andrew Gregg, produced by Davis and Andrew Gregg for National Geographic.
  • The Path of the Anaconda (2019). Directed by Alessandro Ángulo Brandestini, the documentary follows Davis as he travels to Colombia with anthropologist Martín von Hildebrand following the footsteps of Richard Evans Schultes.


Wade Davis on Bookbits radio.
  • Davis's research into "Haitian Zombies" was explored in an episode of Science Channel's Dark Matters: Twisted But True.
  • Davis's research into "Haitian Zombies" was mentioned in an episode of CUNY TV's Science Goes to the Movies.[36]
  • Davis's research into "Haitian Zombies" was referenced in the X-Files episode "Fresh Bones," season 2, episode 15.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ although he has degrees including his a Ph.D. from the university, Davis was never a staff member at Harvard


  1. ^ a b c d "Wade Davis, acclaimed anthropologist and author, joins the University of British Columbia". ubc.ca (Press release). University of British Columbia. December 18, 2013. Retrieved July 24, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d "Wade Davis, Anthropologist/Ethnobotanist: Explorers Council, Explorer-in-Residence, 2000-2013". NationalGeographic.com. National Geographic Society. Retrieved July 24, 2017.
  3. ^ Snow, Sebastian (1977), The Rucksack Man, London: Sphere Books, pp. 199–244
  4. ^ "The Unraveling of America". Rolling Stone. 6 August 2020.
  5. ^ "WADE DAVIS". 19 October 2022.
  6. ^ Keay, John (24 September 2014). "The White Leviathan". Literary Review.
  7. ^ "Exhibition showcases Mount Qomolangma's illustrious history". 28 May 2022.
  8. ^ "Building the Ark: Annual Report 2009" (PDF). Amazon Conservation Association. 2009. p. 24.
  9. ^ Abramowitz, Ben. "Nissan & Zero Emissions". cargocollective.com. Retrieved July 24, 2017.
  10. ^ Davis, Wade (1983). "The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie". Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 9 (1): 85–104. doi:10.1016/0378-8741(83)90029-6. PMID 6668953.
  11. ^ a b Hines, Terrence (May–June 2008). "Zombies and Tetrodotoxin". Skeptical Inquirer. 32 (3): 60–62.
  12. ^ a b Booth, W. (April 15, 1988). "Voodoo Science". Science. 240 (4850): 274–277. Bibcode:1988Sci...240..274B. doi:10.1126/science.3353722. PMID 3353722.
  13. ^ Davis, Wade (1985). The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 92–95.
  14. ^ Davis, Wade (1988). Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie. University of North Carolina Press. pp. 115–116.
  15. ^ Anderson, W.H. (1988). "Tetrodotoxin and the Zombie Phenomenon". Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 23 (1): 121–126. doi:10.1016/0378-8741(88)90122-5. PMID 3419200.
  16. ^ Kao, C.Y.; Yasumoto, T. (1986). "Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian Zombie". Toxicon. 24 (8): 747–749. doi:10.1016/0041-0101(86)90098-x. PMID 3775790.
  17. ^ Benedek, C.; Rivier, L. (1989). "Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification". Toxicon. 27 (4): 473–480. doi:10.1016/0041-0101(89)90210-9. PMID 2728032.
  18. ^ Kao, C.Y.; Yasumoto, T. (1990). "Tetrodotoxin in 'Zombie Powder'". Toxicon. 28 (2): 129–132. doi:10.1016/0041-0101(90)90330-a. PMID 2339427.
  19. ^ Caffrey, Charles R; Lank, Patrick M (2017-12-20). "When good times go bad: managing 'legal high' complications in the emergency department". Open Access Emergency Medicine. 10: 9–23. doi:10.2147/OAEM.S120120. ISSN 1179-1500. PMC 5741979. PMID 29302196.
  20. ^ Rand.org Monograph Reports, Chapter 10 Bromism.
  21. ^ "Otorgan la nacionalidad colombiana a Wade Davis, el antropólogo del Amazonas". 12 April 2018.
  22. ^ "The Explorers Club -".
  23. ^ Roy-Sole, Monique. "Gold Medal 2009 Winner - Wade Davis". The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  24. ^ "CBC Massey Lecture Series". CBC.ca. 2009. Archived from the original on October 13, 2009. Retrieved July 24, 2017.
  25. ^ "Colorado College | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER-IN-RESIDENCE TO SPEAK AT CC'S 129th COMMENCEMENT CEREMONY". www.coloradocollege.edu. Retrieved 2020-08-15.
  26. ^ "Fairchild Award". NTBG.org. National Tropical Botanical Garden. Archived from the original on 2012-05-25.
  27. ^ "Annual Report 2012" (PDF). National Tropical Botanical Garden. 2012. p. 9. Retrieved July 24, 2017.
  28. ^ Flood, Alison (November 12, 2012). "Into the Silence author Wade Davis wins Samuel Johnson award". The Guardian. Retrieved November 13, 2012.
  29. ^ "Shortlist 2012". boardmantasker.com. Archived from the original on September 16, 2012. Retrieved July 24, 2017.
  30. ^ Thomson, Stephen (October 2, 2012). "Six B.C. writers shortlisted for 2012 Governor General's awards". straight.com. Vancouver Free Press. Archived from the original on November 1, 2012. Retrieved July 24, 2017.
  31. ^ "2012 Banff Mountain Book Competition – Finalists". banffcentre.ca. The Banff Center. Archived from the original on August 17, 2013. Retrieved July 24, 2017.
  32. ^ "Order of Canada Appointments". Governor General of Canada. Retrieved December 31, 2015.
  33. ^ "Wade Davis - Distinguished Explorer 2017". Roy Chapman Andrews Society.
  34. ^ "Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration 2017 Recipients - Pat and Baiba Morrow, and Wade Davis". rcgs.org. Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
  35. ^ 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. JSTOR 25765894.
  36. ^ Shechet Epstein, Sonia (April 7, 2016). "Science Goes to the Movies: Zombies". Scienceandfilm.org. Museum of the Moving Image. Retrieved July 24, 2017.

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