Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles You know, culture was born of the imagination, and the imagination -- the imagination as we know it -- came into being when our species descended from our progenitor, Homo erectus, and, infused with consciousness, began a journey that would carry it to every corner of the habitable world. For a time, we shared the stage with our distant cousins, Neanderthal, who clearly had some spark of awareness, but -- whether it was the increase in the size of the brain, or the development of language, or some other evolutionary catalyst -- we quickly left Neanderthal gasping for survival. By the time the last Neanderthal disappeared in Europe, 27,000 years ago, our direct ancestors had already, and for 5,000 years, been crawling into the belly of the earth, where in the light of the flickers of tallow candles, they had brought into being the great art of the Upper Paleolithic. And I spent two months in the caves of southwest France with the poet Clayton Eshleman, who wrote a beautiful book called "Juniper Fuse." And you could look at this art and you could, of course, see the complex social organization of the people who brought it into being. But more importantly, it spoke of a deeper yearning, something far more sophisticated than hunting magic. And the way Clayton put it was this way. He said, "You know, clearly at some point, we were all of an animal nature, and at some point, we weren't." And he viewed proto-shamanism as a kind of original attempt, through ritual, to rekindle a connection that had been irrevocably lost. So, he saw this art not as hunting magic, but as postcards of nostalgia. And viewed in that light, it takes on a whole other resonance. And the most amazing thing about the Upper Paleolithic art is that as an aesthetic expression, it lasted for almost 20,000 years. If these were postcards of nostalgia, ours was a very long farewell indeed. And it was also the beginning of our discontent, because if you wanted to distill all of our experience since the Paleolithic, it would come down to two words: how and why. And these are the slivers of insight upon which cultures have been forged. Now, all people share the same raw, adaptive imperatives. We all have children. We all have to deal with the mystery of death, the world that waits beyond death, the elders who fall away into their elderly years. All of this is part of our common experience, and this shouldn't surprise us, because, after all, biologists have finally proven it to be true, something that philosophers have always dreamt to be true. And that is the fact that we are all brothers and sisters. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth. All of humanity, probably, is descended from a thousand people who left Africa roughly 70,000 years ago. But the corollary of that is that, if we all are brothers and sisters and share the same genetic material, all human populations share the same raw human genius, the same intellectual acuity. And so whether that genius is placed into -- technological wizardry has been the great achievement of the West -- or by contrast, into unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth, is simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation. There is no progression of affairs in human experience. There is no trajectory of progress. There's no pyramid that conveniently places Victorian England at the apex and descends down the flanks to the so-called primitives of the world. All peoples are simply cultural options, different visions of life itself. But what do I mean by different visions of life making for completely different possibilities for existence? Well, let's slip for a moment into the greatest culture sphere ever brought into being by the imagination, that of Polynesia. 10,000 square kilometers, tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels upon the southern sea. I recently sailed on the Hokulea, named after the sacred star of Hawaii, throughout the South Pacific to make a film about the navigators. These are men and women who, even today, can name 250 stars in the night sky. These are men and women who can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon, simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of their vessel, knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its unique refractive pattern that can be read with the same perspicacity with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint. These are sailors who in the darkness, in the hull of the vessel, can distinguish as many as 32 different sea swells moving through the canoe at any one point in time, distinguishing local wave disturbances from the great currents that pulsate across the ocean, that can be followed with the same ease that a terrestrial explorer would follow a river to the sea. Indeed, if you took all of the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to an understanding of the ocean, what you would get is Polynesia. And if we slip from the realm of the sea into the realm of the spirit of the imagination, you enter the realm of Tibetan Buddhism. And I recently made a film called "The Buddhist Science of the Mind." Why did we use that word, science? What is science but the empirical pursuit of the truth? What is Buddhism but 2,500 years of empirical observation as to the nature of mind? I travelled for a month in Nepal with our good friend, Matthieu Ricard, and you'll remember Matthieu famously said to all of us here once at TED, "Western science is a major response to minor needs." We spend all of our lifetime trying to live to be 100 without losing our teeth. The Buddhist spends all their lifetime trying to understand the nature of existence. Our billboards celebrate naked children in underwear. Their billboards are manuals, prayers to the well-being of all sentient creatures. And with the blessing of Trulshik Rinpoche, we began a pilgrimage to a curious destination, accompanied by a great doctor. And the destination was a single room in a nunnery, where a woman had gone into lifelong retreat 55 years before. And en route, we took darshan from Rinpoche, and he sat with us and told us about the Four Noble Truths, the essence of the Buddhist path. All life is suffering. That doesn't mean all life is negative. It means things happen. The cause of suffering is ignorance. By that, the Buddha did not mean stupidity; he meant clinging to the illusion that life is static and predictable. The third noble truth said that ignorance can be overcome. And the fourth and most important, of course, was the delineation of a contemplative practice that not only had the possibility of a transformation of the human heart, but had 2,500 years of empirical evidence that such a transformation was a certainty. And so, when this door opened onto the face of a woman who had not been out of that room in 55 years, you did not see a mad woman. You saw a woman who was more clear than a pool of water in a mountain stream. And of course, this is what the Tibetan monks told us. They said, at one point, you know, we don't really believe you went to the moon, but you did. You may not believe that we achieve enlightenment in one lifetime, but we do. And if we move from the realm of the spirit to the realm of the physical, to the sacred geography of Peru -- I've always been interested in the relationships of indigenous people that literally believe that the Earth is alive, responsive to all of their aspirations, all of their needs. And, of course, the human population has its own reciprocal obligations. I spent 30 years living amongst the people of Chinchero and I always heard about an event that I always wanted to participate in. Once each year, the fastest young boy in each hamlet is given the honor of becoming a woman. And for one day, he wears the clothing of his sister and he becomes a transvestite, a waylaka. And for that day, he leads all able-bodied men on a run, but it's not your ordinary run. You start off at 11,500 feet. You run down to the base of the sacred mountain, Antakillqa. You run up to 15,000 feet, descend 3,000 feet. Climb again over the course of 24 hours. And of course, the waylakama spin, the trajectory of the route, is marked by holy mounds of Earth, where coke is given to the Earth, libations of alcohol to the wind, the vortex of the feminine is brought to the mountaintop. And the metaphor is clear: you go into the mountain as an individual, but through exhaustion, through sacrifice, you emerge as a community that has once again reaffirmed its sense of place in the planet. And at 48, I was the only outsider ever to go through this, only one to finish it. I only managed to do it by chewing more coca leaves in one day than anyone in the 4,000-year history of the plant. But these localized rituals become pan-Andean, and these fantastic festivals, like that of the Qoyllur Rit'i, which occurs when the Pleiades reappear in the winter sky. It's kind of like an Andean Woodstock: 60,000 Indians on pilgrimage to the end of a dirt road that leads to the sacred valley, called the Sinakara, which is dominated by three tongues of the great glacier. The metaphor is so clear. You bring the crosses from your community, in this wonderful fusion of Christian and pre-Columbian ideas. You place the cross into the ice, in the shadow of Ausangate, the most sacred of all Apus, or sacred mountains of the Inca. And then you do the ritual dances that empower the crosses. Now, these ideas and these events allow us even to deconstruct iconic places that many of you have been to, like Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu was never a lost city. On the contrary, it was completely linked in to the 14,000 kilometers of royal roads the Inca made in less than a century. But more importantly, it was linked in to the Andean notions of sacred geography. The intiwatana, the hitching post to the sun, is actually an obelisk that constantly reflects the light that falls on the sacred Apu of Machu Picchu, which is Sugarloaf Mountain, called Huayna Picchu. If you come to the south of the intiwatana, you find an altar. Climb Huayna Picchu, find another altar. Take a direct north-south bearing, you find to your astonishment that it bisects the intiwatana stone, goes to the skyline, hits the heart of Salcantay, the second of the most important mountains of the Incan empire. And then beyond Salcantay, of course, when the southern cross reaches the southernmost point in the sky, directly in that same alignment, the Milky Way overhead. But what is enveloping Machu Picchu from below? The sacred river, the Urubamba, or the Vilcanota, which is itself the Earthly equivalent of the Milky Way, but it's also the trajectory that Viracocha walked at the dawn of time when he brought the universe into being. And where does the river rise? Right on the slopes of the Koariti. So, 500 years after Columbus, these ancient rhythms of landscape are played out in ritual. Now, when I was here at the first TED, I showed this photograph: two men of the Elder Brothers, the descendants, survivors of El Dorado.