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On the Edge, Timbuktu

The expedition starts in Mali's medieval city of Timbuktu and travels up into the great Sahara.
Erik Dunham, NPR Online /
The expedition starts in Mali's medieval city of Timbuktu and travels up into the great Sahara.

Should ancient human cultural practices gain the same kinds of protections that plants and animals are accorded in remote forest and jungles? Conservationists acknowledge they've made great strides in protecting the natural world — many school children now know terms like "biosphere," and understand the concept of interconnected environments, life forms and species survival.

Now, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis is leading an effort to win such recognition for the "ethnosphere" — what he calls the vast reservoir of knowledge, experience and perspective created over thousands of years by countless cultures around the globe.

For Radio Expeditions, NPR's Alex Chadwick follows Davis — a renowned ethnobotanist who studies the use of local plants by indigenous peoples — to Timbuktu to study the desert culture surrounding the ancient city. The expedition starts in Timbuktu, travels up through the old desert community of Araouane and on to the salt mines of Taoudenni in the middle of the Sahara.

Travelers have been coming for centuries to Timbuktu, now part of the West African country of Mali. It's a resting point for those emerging from the desert, or heading into it. Wade Davis and his partner, photographer Chris Rainier, use it as a point for their departure into the desert, where they will search for fragments of the "ethnosphere."

"I define the ethnosphere really as the sum total of all ideas, beliefs, institutions and myths brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness," says Davis. "It really is humanity's legacy. And just as a biosphere is being impacted by human activities, so, too, is the cultural web of life."

Davis grew up in the woods in British Columbia, and then headed to Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in ethnobotany. He spent several years studying plant life in the Amazon and Andes. His work took him to Haiti; he became known for a book about voodoo, and a movie based on the book, The Serpent and the Rainbow. His career has been dedicated to studying tribal practices that are vanishing from the modern world.

Chris Rainier is co-director of the ethnosphere project. He's well-traveled in parts of the world so remote that few even try to reach. But increasingly, even in the most desolate places, he finds himself shooting around logo T-shirts and boom boxes.

His pictures are crucial to the ethnosphere project, which will use technology and powerful images to raise consciousness about places where technology hasn't changed much since the Iron Age.

Working with the National Geographic Society, Davis and Rainier are seeking outside support for the project, so that over the next five years, the term "ethnosphere" becomes as commonly known as "biosphere."

Mali is the starting point. Camel caravans carrying salt operate in the desert there as they have for a thousand years. Situated at the southern edge of the Sahara in Mali is the legendary city of Timbuktu. A millennium ago, caravans with gold, slaves and spices left Timbuktu to cross the desert to reach the Mediterranean. They would return with goods from Europe, and with salt from Sahara mines — and with scholars and books.

The salt mined in the Sahara and carried on the backs of camels for trade in Timbuktu helped turn the city into a medieval intellectual center. The traders need accountants, and they turned to Islamic scribes, who were known as trustworthy.

But as ships displaced caravans and mechanized mining elsewhere made salt plentiful, Timbuktu became destitute. Malian historians are now trying to preserve the city's ancient libraries, which are filled with hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, covering subjects such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, Islamic sciences and treaties. This is just one example of a vanishing cultural legacy that Davis and Rainier have come to document.

"What will be lost ultimately?" Davis reflects. "Will the world stop? No. Will people in Philadelphia be poorer for it? Perhaps not. But when you take the salt caravan as one example, and all the intuitions of the spiritual world of (Timbuktu), all the notions of adaptation to the diverse habitats of the world, all the hopes and prayers of all the possibilities of all the people that have ever evolved on the face of this brilliant Earth, add those all together, and clearly we would be weaker if that was all reduced to a single modality of thought."

Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and National Geographic. Radio Expeditions wishes to thank TransAfrica for providing guides, translators, transportation and gear for the team's nine-day camp in the Sahara.

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Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.