An ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among fifteen indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6000 botanical collections. His work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies, an assignment that led to his writing Passage of Darkness (1988) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986), an international best seller.
His other books include Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rain Forest (1990), Shadows in the Sun (1993), Nomads of the Dawn (1995), The Clouded Leopard (1998), Rainforest (1998), Light at the Edge of the World (2001), The Lost Amazon (2004), Grand Canyon (2008), Book of Peoples of the World (ed. 2008) and One River (1996), which was nominated for the 1997 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction. His books have been translated into fourteen languages.
A native of British Columbia, Davis, a licensed river guide, has worked as park ranger, forestry engineer, and conducted ethnographic fieldwork among several indigenous societies of northern Canada. His photographs have appeared in some 20 books and more than 80 magazines, journals and newspapers, including National Geographic, Time, GEO, People, Men’s Journal, Outside, and National Geographic Adventure. Select images are part of the permanent collection of the U.S. State Department, Africa and Latin America Bureaus. Davis is the co-curator of The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes, first exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and currently touring Latin America.
A first collection of Davis’ photographs, Light at the Edge of the World, appeared in 2001 published by National Geographic Books, Bloomsbury and Douglas & McIntyre. A second collection is under contract for fall 2011 publication with Douglas & McIntyre.
A professional speaker for over twenty years, Davis has lectured at the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, California Academy of Sciences, Missouri Botanical Garden, Field Museum of Natural History, New York Botanical Garden, National Geographic Society, Royal Ontario Museum, the Explorer’s Club, the Royal Geographical Society, the Oriental Institute, the Chattaugua Institute, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank as well as some 400 renowned educational institutions, including Harvard, M.I.T., Oxford, Yale, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, Duke, Vanderbilt, University of Pennsylvania, Tulane, Georgetown, and St. George’s School. He has spoken at the Aspen Institute, Bohemian Grove and on numerous occasions for the Young Presidents’ Organization and at the TED Conference.
An Honorary Research Associate of the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden, he is a Fellow of the Linnean Society, Fellow of the Explorer’s Club, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Davis was a founding board member of the David Suzuki Foundation and he recently completed a six-year term on the board of the Banff Centre, Canada’s leading institution for the arts. He has served on the Board of Directors since 2009 for the Amazon Conservation Association, whose mission is to conserve the biological diversity of the Amazon. In 2009 he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures, Canada’s most prestigious public intellectual forum.
Davis was the series creator, host and co-writer of Light at the Edge of the World, a four-hour ethnographic documentary series, shot in Rapa Nui, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Nunuvut, Greenland, Nepal and Peru. Davis has recently completed a new four-hour series for the National Geographic, Ancient Voices/Modern World, which was shot in Australia, Mongolia, and Colombia. When not in the field, Davis and his wife Gail Percy divide their time between Washington, D.C., Vancouver and the Stikine Valley of northern British Columbia. They have two children.
In 2013, Davis joined the University of British Columbia as research and teaching faculty.