This article was researched and written by a student at the University of Vermont participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's (EoE) Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about timely scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic.
The ethnosphere is the sum total of the world's cultures. It incorporates, among other cultural facets, ". . . all thoughts, dreams, ideas, beliefs, myths, intuitions, and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness". Ethnosphere refers to both the accumulation of living cultures and the ancient lineages from which they evolved. (1)
The ethnosphere concept differs from such other concepts that describe people collectively as “humanity” and “civilization”, because it frames the world’s cultures as a dynamic system that parallels the earth’s other “spheres”, including the atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere and lithosphere. This framework emphasizes the diversity, complexity, interrelatedness, vulnerability, and importance of the world’s cultures. Similar to cultural ecology (2) the ethnosphere concept holds that cultures arise as adaptations to the environmental conditions that exist in other global spheres.
History of Concept
Ethnobotanist and anthropologist Wade Davis coined ethnosphere in his book Light at the Edge of the World (2002) (3) after living for many years among indigenous cultures in Haiti, the Amazon, Borneo, and British Columbia. Davis uses the ethnosphere concept to highlight the diversity of human cultures, and to raise awareness about how cultures are changing and how their reservoirs of knowledge are disappearing. Since Davis' first introduction of the ethnosphere concept, he has referred to the ethnosphere in public talks, articles, and other writings. The term has not yet been adopted widely by other authors, except in articles written about Wade Davis and in a study by William Holden on the impacts of metal mining on indigenous peoples in the Philippines. (4)
Diversity of the Ethnosphere
The ethnosphere consists of diverse cultural groups that are as disparate as the nomadic Penan of Borneo's rainforests, the Dolpo people of the Himalayas, and the bushmen of the Kalahari in southern Africa. Linguistic diversity is an indicator of this cultural diversity; nearly 7,000 languages are spoken worldwide (5). Each language is more than just a set of grammatical rules; Davis considers it a unique expression of the human spirit- a storehouse and conveyor of a culture's beliefs, wisdom, ecological knowledge, rituals, and norms. In essence, each culture is an answer to the question ‘what does it mean to be human’. Our collective heritage has found thousands of ways to answer this question.
Importance of the Ethnosphere
Fundamental to the ethnosphere concept is the idea that cultures are survival strategies, born out of people's need to overcome personal, social, and worldly challenges. These survival strategies manifest in the way cultural groups interact with their natural environment, obtain food, communicate, organize, and ritualize. The ethnosphere concept depicts, therefore, cultures as repositories of specialized answers to the problems of life, particularly environmental constraints. Davis suggests that with the fragmentation of indigenous cultures, these unique interpretations and sources of knowledge are being lost. To Davis this loss represents a loss of our future potential to solve the problems of an imperiled planet.
Threats to the Ethnosphere
Wade Davis contends that just as the biosphere is being degraded, so is the ethnosphere, but at a faster rate. It is estimated that half of the planet's languages are not being taught to children (5), leading Davis to predict that within one or two generations, the world's cultural diversity will drop by half. While economic globalization, urbanization, and media are often viewed as the drivers of cultural homogenization, William Holden, assistant professor at the University of Calgary, and Wade Davis say that government and corporate power structures pose the greatest threat to ethnic diversity. They contend that political and economic decisions made by outside forces often undermine the autonomy and resilience of indigenous cultures. Examples include the residential school system that the Canadian federal government imposed on the Inuit, exploitative mining operations in the Philippines, and the British outlawing of traditional Hawaiian open-sea voyaging (6). Given full autonomy, however, it is unclear whether or not some cultural groups would choose to retain their language and other defining cultural elements.
Limitations of the Ethnosphere Concept
Because the ethnosphere concept has not been widely adopted or debated by other anthropologists, its use is currently limited to Wade Davis’ interpretation of the term. Davis’ use of the concept is somewhat problematic, because he does not define loaded terms such as “culture” and “indigenous”. If the ethnosphere comprises all cultures, does it include modern fusions such as Moroccans in Paris, and Indian expatriates in Fiji? If the ethnosphere concept is intended to celebrate cultural diversity, does it encompass all permutations of culture, or is there a hidden bias towards indigenous cultures? Furthermore, one may argue that as a non-static system, the ethnosphere should be allowed to evolve as cultures interact and adapt to changing circumstances.
In light of these complications, it is important to understand Wade Davis’ background and the context in which he uses the ethnosphere concept. Most of his ethnographic research has been done in relatively undeveloped areas of the world, among people who enact cultural practices that have been passed down hundreds of generations and that are deeply rooted in the natural landscape. Davis observes that these manifestations of culture are disappearing due to hegemonic external forces, rather than through internal forces of self-determination. This fact, in addition to Davis’ conviction that many indigenous cultures are storehouses of ecological knowledge, is the impetus behind Davis’ use of the ethnosphere concept.
Anthrosphere: The anthrosphere is that part of the environment that is made or modified by humans for use in human activities. This includes such things touched or affected intentionally by humans as dams, roads, buildings, and agricultural land.
Links to More About Ethnosphere
The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. The CBC Massey Lectures 2009, featuring Wade Davis.
Wade Davis, Anthopologist/Ethnobotanist, Explorer-in-Residence. National Geographic website
- Davis, W. Spring 2002. The naked geography of hope. Whole Earth: 57-61.
- Ortner, S. 1984. Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1): 126-166.
- Davis, W. 2007. Light at the edge of the world: a journey through the realm of vanishing cultures. Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver, Canada.
- Holden, W. 2005. Indigenous peoples and non-ferrous metals mining in the Philippines. Pacific Review 18 (3): 417-438.
- Glass, J. Mar/Apr 2004. Tales of the ethnosphere. Utne 122: 62-66.
Davis, W. 2009. The Wayfinders: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world. Anansi, Toronto, Canada: 35-78.