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One River by Wade Davis

One River by Wade Davis

The book One River by Wade Davis is an example of brilliant non-fiction literature. It tells about the life of people in distant lands. It is an exploration of Amazon River and people who live there. This book discovers history, politic, science, botany, and culture of Indians. The author says that the idea of this book “emerged in a moment of great sadness” (Davis,1), connected with the death of Timothy Plowman, the protégé of Richard Evans Schultes, who gained trust and confidence of Indian people (Davis, 2007) while travelling in the forest of Amazon River. The book consists of two parts; the first is devoted to Davis’s one-year-long journey, together with Tim Plowman, to the Northern Amazon of Columbia. The aim of it was to find wild coca in the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta while travelling. Wade Davis describes some rituals of shamans and examines the unique culture of Indian tribes. He explores these people in their natural surroundings, their myths and legends, and their language. He pays special attention to the problem of destroying of their existence by Spanish invaders, who totally ruined their life. Spaniards brought their own religion and laws of life, they made Indians of this part of the world change their life in accordance with Spanish religion and life structure. If the natives refused, they killed them. Wade Davis describes his life with an Indian tribe named Kogi, who retreated in the unique aria in the beginning of Spanish colonization and saved their own religion and a way of life, their own language and a structure of beliefs.

The second story in the book One River was about the journey of his mentor Richard Evans Schultes at the beginning of 1936. This famous explorer wanted to find a so called peyote, which appeared to be a special kind of hallucination mushrooms. They were used by the Indian tribes in life, as food and for the purposes of shaman performances. During this expedition, Schultes and his companion faced a problem of language. It was very hard to translate the name of this mushroom into English, but Indians called it “flesh of Gods.” The author describes one more peculiarity of life of the native population of America; he stresses the problem of a dying language.

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Social Structure

In the first part of his book, Davis described social structure of Indians who live in the modern society and those who live in the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Kogi tribe. The author says about his experience of life with Juan Rojas, a representative of a former Indian tribe living in a modern society. This man “was rich beyond his wildest imaginings, though he didn’t know it” (Davis, 2007). His life in the farm was isolated, he suspected that there was a big city not far from his farm, but he did not even think about it. Juan Rojas and his sister lived according to the laws of life of European people, but it was not natural for them. In reality, these people still belonged to a totally different existence. Davis says that “Juan’s imagination breathed life and mystery into every rock and tree” (Davis, 2007). Civilization and destroying of natural sphere of live of these people brought a lot of harm not only for them, but for the whole world. These people lived free in their forests for centuries before European invaders came to their lands. They have lost connection with their past, but they still have the spirit of previous outlook of the world. Davis says that their priceless experience should be explored, and it is not right to forget about it. There is a danger to lose it at all. The author brings up a very important question; it is the question of choice of mankind. People need to decide whether they want to live in one and the same world, or they prefer to know all the peculiarities of it.

Kogi tribe is the descendants of Tairona civilization, they have been living in the land of modern Colombia “for five hundred years before the arrival of Europeans” (Davis, 2007). They have been living separately from the rest part of Columbia for many years and had to preserve their own structure of existence, and Davis lived together with this tribe for a year. This tribe has a strict structure of priesthood, the laws of upbringing the kids, and a unique view on nature around them. The author discovered their conception of attitude to nature. Kogi think that “water is the Great Mother’s blood,” every plant “is the manifestation of the divine” (Davis, 2007). However, the most exclusive issue about their measures of distance is that Kogi never say that there are some miles from one mountain to another, they measure this distance in coca chews.  

The author pays much attention to the problem of language. He says that language is the part of a social structure of people, it is the source of expression of their inner world, their talking with the outside world, and at the same time, it reflects the vision of life and their attitude to life around them. Many languages are dying right now, because people who speak them have nobody to teach anymore.

Therefore, most of native people in America have lost their natural structure of life. Being born in the modern society, they go on living according to the laws of European society, which is unnatural for them. Many important issues of their life were lost, as well as their native language and culture. The author thinks that it is not right. Davis vividly describes the life of Indians in the European society, which he saw during his trip from Juan Rojas’s farm to meet Tim Plowman. He tells about people whom he sees in a small port in Rio Magdalena. Davis sees “three barefoot boys slept beneath cardboard” (Davis, 2007), he stresses that, although these people use all the welfare of civilization, they are not happy, losing connection with the roots of their ancestors.

Religion and Worldview

In his book, Davis describes the special ritual, which belonged to the ancient life of Indians, when one of the boys in the tribe has an honor to become a woman for one day, he wears the clothes of his sister and guides other men in the run along the special path, first in the top of a mountain, and then towards the bottom of it. The meaning of this action is clear, says the author. When you come to the top, you are an individual, but while going through a hard trial, any person begins to understand what place he or she has in the whole world. Davis stresses that he could go through this trial only because he ate a lot of coca leaves.

Indian tribes, living in harmony with nature, could hear and understand it much better than people of the modern world. While looking for species of different kinds of coca herb, Davis and Plowman found some special rituals connected with religion of Indians. As for Kogi, it was mentioned above that they worshiped the nature, and each plant and stone were living creatures for them. They could listen to the forest and indicate the steps of each animal.

If they wanted to ask God about something, they needed to ask Shamans to help them to speak to Him. To achieve God, shamans had to use special hallucinations. The ceremony itself was a special performance. Davis says that western people begin to use hallucinations for different purposes. It is evident that there is a difference between using these special mushrooms, but the true culture of this performance can die in some time, which will not be good for mankind.

The author describes how Kogi Indians chose little children who were to become shamans. They took these children from their families and made them live in a dark place without seeing the light of the sun during 18 months. This period is equal to two times of a woman's pregnancy. After this time, these children were shown the sunrise, and they had to realize what they should worship in their life in future. The symbols of nature appeared in all the actions and the ways of life of Indians, and their wisdom, which they accumulated during a lot of years of their life in the forests of America, should become the part of mankind’s knowledge about nature.

There is one more issue Davis speaks about in his book. He describes the expedition of Schultes, his mentor and teacher. Schultes did not know the language of Mazatec, and it was hard for him and his companion to speak to Indians, who used these mushrooms in their life. The whole description is about the difficulties that these two botanists faced while their journey. The author discovers the problem of destroying the world of Indians through many points of view as well as languages, culture, and religion. He says a lot about their abilities to hear the nature, to find the smell of trees in the air. Most of them can orient in the forest easily and survive in a hard situation. This is the whole world, which is not known to many people living their lives in Europe and the USA. Davis speaks about different attitudes to the nature of mountains. While an Indian sees and feels that any mountain has its own soul and life, any modern person in the USA sees a lot of stones, which can be used for his or her better life. Indians lived in harmony with nature, and they had their own ideas about it. When Spaniards came to South America, they ruined this world and tried to make native people live according to their laws and their imagination of the world.


The main aim of both expeditions which the author describes in his book is to find out the natural species of coca herbs as well as to discover the hallucination mushrooms. Economics of Indian tribes is closely connected with these issues.

Davis writes about his experience of using coca in food by Indians, who have never thought that anyone obtaining this plant could become very rich or “would end up in Miami Jail, locked away for life” (Davis, ). The tremendous problem in planting this herb lies in prevailing of poor people in Latin America from the one side, and great wealth of people who import cocaine in different countries from the other side. The story is repeated again. In the time of Schultes expedition, the tribe of Waorani, with whom Davis lived for some time, told him an absolutely horrifying story about a so-called rubber baron Juli`o Cesar Arana.

In the modern world, the wealthiest people who live in Latin America produce cocaine and marijuana as well as other drugs, which are exported to the countries of the western world. Davis says a lot about the culture of using coca in everyday life of Indians of the Kogi tribe, but this herb has never been the most important issue for selling. Speaking about economics of those Indians who live in the modern world, it should be said that most of them are poor people. Some of them have farms, as Juan Rojas, and are considered rich in their life. In comparison with Juan, the author describes young boys who sell seashells to Tim Plowman to earn something for life. There is a big difference between social positions of people; some of them are super wealthy, but the others are very poor.

Davis says that the city of Santa Marta “has always been a smuggler’s place… a third of Colombia’s drug traffic” (Davis, 2007). The author thinks that economics of this region stands on this business.

Those Indians who live the life of their ancestors use everything that forest and mountains can give them. They live from hunting and fishing, some of them from tourism, showing their life for those people who are interested in it.

Popular Culture

 Indians who live far from civilization maintain the culture of their ancestors. Each tribe has its own way of life. Davis describes some very unique pictures of life of the Kogi tribe. Speaking about the use of coca in their life, he says that when two people meet, they do not shake hands, but exchange with coca leaves. Kogi people see their “social ideal to abstain from sex, eating and sleeping while staying up all night, chewing hayo and chanting the names of the ancestors” (Davis, 2007). The author, having a considerable experience of living among Indians, stresses that people should think about discovering and exploring of culture of each tribe. It is a part of culture of the world. Unfortunately, some Indian tribes stop their existence, and all the peculiarities of their way of life, as well as special issues of their worldview and religion have been lost with the death of the last representative of these tribes.

It should be mentioned that while speaking about culture, economics, religion, and habits of Indians, Davis says about a special nature of rainforest near Amazon River. He brings up the problem of destruction of Amazon forest, reduction of zone of living for Indians, and as a result, dying of their languages, their attitude to nature, their exclusive way of life. In one of his interviews for the TV channel National Geographic, he said that Indians see a living being in each piece of nature, they know that each plant has a soul, and it is impossible to use it for nothing. At the same time, a modern American boy looks at any flower and any plant as at the dead issue which can be used for fun. It is a big difference between the modern American society and the ancient Indian way of life. He said: “And so, what I'd like to do with you today is sort of take you on a journey through the ethnosphere, a brief journey through the ethnosphere, to try to begin to give you a sense of what in fact is being lost. Now, there are many of us who sort of forget that when I say ‘different ways of being,’ I really do mean different ways of being” (Davis 2014).

Conflict and Violence

It is a well-known fact that Indian tribes fought with each other for the best places in life. During the period of Spanish seizure of the lands of modern Latin America, the most powerful states of Indians were ruined completely. The wonderful culture and wise civilizations were broken, and all knowledge they had accumulated during many centuries was lost. Davis devoted a lot of attention to description of the consequences of this action. He tells about sufferings of Indians, their attempts to save everything they still had in possession. He stresses that those who wanted to live by their own laws were lucky to escape to the high mountains, like the Kogi tribe has done. Having discovered the life of this particular tribe, he finds a lot of information, which appears to be very important for the modern world. He speaks bitterly about the extermination of native people of America. 

As Davis concentrates on the discovering of Tairona, the ancient land of great civilization, to which Kogi belonged as well, he says about the black time of fights between Indians and Spaniards. “The subsequent struggle was as violent and brutal as any recorded in the Americans” (Davis, 2007, p. 34). Spanish invaders destroyed every village, burned every field, many people were killed.

One more issue stressed by Davis was closely connected with economics. A big difference between the wealth of those who are engaged in drug business and the poverty of others creates grounds for the appearance of gangster bands. Poverty pushes people to violence. The author says about “clumsy and corrupt paramilitary force under the command of a young Manuel Noriega” (Davis, 2007). The members of such communities earn for living with robberies and murders. It makes the society of modern Latin America highly dangerous, especially in small villages. It is also the reason for destroying the life of Indians, who must survive in the hard conditions of life.

In the end of this book, Davis told about the big tragedy which happened to the world of ancient civilization of Latin America, and what is more important, about people who still live there and whose part must not be forgotten and lost by the coming generations.

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All conclusions which were made in the book One River by Wade Davis find evidence in the modern life of Latin America. It is evident that people who were the descendants of great civilizations of the past should take into account the experience, views on life, religion, and attitude to nature of native Indians. It is evident that it is impossible to correct all mistakes which were made by Spaniards, maybe even crime that they have done by destroying the sates of Aztec, Inca, and other Indian tribes of America, but it is still possible to try to save everything that exists not far from big cities. The expeditions made by Davis, Plowman, and Schultes demonstrate that attentive attitude, exploration, and examination of life of those Indians who saved their heritage can give a better understanding of modern society. Though the main aim of their expeditions was collecting herbs and looking for new species of them, they could see much more than only plants which do not exist in any other places of our planet.  It is well known that people who forget their past history will not have the future.

Davis speaks about his meeting with a politician who belongs to the Liberal Party, and the latter tells the author that he was a rubber worker some time before. This man said very wise words, which confirm the main issue of this book. Being Indian by heritage, knowing that trees are the living beings, and murdering them for the sake of profit, he understands that he made real crime, killing the nature for fun. Each nation has something very unique, which can give good lessons to the coming generations. It is especially true about the Indian tribes of Latin America and Amazon River. His experience expresses the main idea of this book, which has been repeated many times. It is a real crime to destroy everything that native Indians had in the past and ignoring the importance of careful attitude to the nature of our planet. World exists in its variety, and if something disappears, it will be impossible to go forward and achieve new goals, it will be impossible to improve the life of mankind. Davis succeeded in conveying this thought to all who have read this book.

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