CULTURAL anthropologist Wade Davis has investigated zombies in Haiti, lived with tribes in the Amazon and Andes, and explored vanishing indigenous cultures from Borneo to east Africa. He has been the inspiration for three episodes of the television series The X Files.
The Canadian-born adventurer, writer, photographer and filmmaker is like a true-life Indiana Jones. He is National Geographic's "Explorer-in-Residence", a title he shares with several others including primatologist Jane Goodall and the man who found the Titanic, Robert Ballard.
Davis admitted that much of the world "has already been walked", but he said there was still a place for explorers.
When he took the title, there were murmurs that he should find a lost tribe. "But that's an absurd thing," he said. "Even if I did find one, it would be morally remiss to attempt to make contact in a cavalier way.
"It's vulgar and highly dangerous to the people in question. The explorations I embark upon are a quest to address the loss of language and cultures."
Davis, who is touring Australia for a series of talks, recently spent a month in the Northern Territory. He said there were 670 indigenous languages and dialects here at the time of British settlement and now there were only about 20.
He said that every two weeks, somewhere in the world, an elder died and carried to the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. "Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind," he said.
He said many people thought the loss of languages and cultures was natural. "But it's just not true. In every case these are dynamic and living peoples being driven out by identifiable forces - whether they are egregious industrial decisions, disease being inadvertently or deliberately spread through their territories, Maoist/Marxist ideology dominating the Tibetans, or whether it's modernity, spreading the Western paradigm around the world."
Davis, 58, said that when he was born 30,000 to 40,000 people lived in the Sarawak rainforest. "They had an incredible knowledge of that rainforest but that way of life has literally been crushed in one generation as Borneo was exposed to the greatest rate of tropical deforestation in the world."
And finally, those zombies? "The zombie, by folklore definition, is the living dead," Davis said. "There had been a series of reports that there was a poison that was said to bring on a state of apparent death so profound that it could fool a physician.
"A poison like that had potential in medicine for other applications and I was asked by my professor at Harvard to go down and have a look. From that I wrote my first book The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986) and that's how I became a writer."
Davis, who delivered the Thomas Oration in Sydney last week, is travelling in Australia with The Nature Conservancy. He will speak at Melbourne Zoo on Friday from 5pm to 7pm. Limited seats are available. Phone The Nature Conservancy, 8346 8600.