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‘X’ never, ever marks the spot

Wade Davis, the inspiration for Indiana Jones and the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow, tells us why he “committed academic suicide.”

Devon Green November 27th, 2013

Professor Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, the creation of George Lucas, is a swashbuckling anthropologist who put the “adventure” in archaeologist for generations of moviegoers.

In the blockbuster Indiana Jones films, Jones is a bookish and tenacious anthropologist reluctantly pulled away from his quiet academic life to rescue powerful artifacts from the wrong (read: Nazi) hands. They boil with action and adventure, a reluctant hero and a happy ending.

But we all know that Dr. Jones is the product of great storywriting, right?

Enter Wade Davis, anthropologist, author, explorer, passionate advocate and real-life Indiana Jones. Title: “Explorer-in- Residence” with the National Geographic Society. That’s just the start of it.

Davis emerged on the scene, and to hear him say it, “committed academic suicide” by writing the proverbial book on Haitian Vodou, The Serpent and the Rainbow, in graduate school at Harvard. He was studying ethnobotany, the relationship between cultures and plants. It was about zombies, and it set the record straight for the general public about a lot of things, including a rare glimpse inside the world of Vodoun — the complex religion and culture belonging to those who came to the New World from Africa to the Caribbean — popularly known as “Voodoo.”

The book helped dispel racist notions about African culture and tribal religions. It also became a bestseller — and caught him a lot of flack.

“You have to remember that there are always going to be people who are invested in who you are now.

They don’t want you to change because they will have to adapt with you,” he said during a recent telephone interview.

“When I talk to young people, there are two things that I always want to stress: the importance of being the architect of your own life and the importance of saying yes. People always want to describe life as linear, as in: ‘You have to reach point A and B to end up at D,’ and it isn’t like that.”

Davis would know a thing or two about it — he has studied anything and everything that interests him, has published several best-selling books, has traveled more and farther than he ever imagined and has become an overall expert. He’ll talk about all of that in a free presentation Dec. 2 at Heritage Hall school.

Also, he has most recently been granted a tenured professorship at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. This final accomplishment is something of a special feather in his cap because he was told in graduate school this would never happen — he wasn’t a dedicated enough academic, and he has written that pesky best-selling book.

He has toured and lectured extensively on travel and conservation, and all of his stories have what he calls a “punch-line” (or a moral). His trick, he said, is once he “dazzles the audience with these fabulous places to draw them in,” he hits them with how the preservation of this vanishing culture has far-reaching implications.

After all, that’s what the study of anthropology is about. He is wildly successful — with the help of National Geographic and his commitment to think outside the academic box.

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