Photographs by National Geographic Explorer Chris Rainer. Music by Anoushka Shankar. Editor,  Ethan Boehme. And YouTube’s Enduring Voices.

Ancient Marks

National Geographic explorer/photographer Chris Rainer uses photography and advanced digital and web technology to honor anddocument threatened cultures.

Ancient Marks: The Sacred Origins of Tattoos and Body Marking, 2005 (11:00)
Photographs by Chris Rainier
Video Director / Editor, Ethan Boehme
Music composed and performed by Anoushka Shankar

This video explores the intrinsic connection between mankind’s culture and the old tradition of marking the human body dating back two thousand years, with tattoos and scarification as a form of initiation, beauty, and highly ritualized ornamentation. This tradition continues in today’s modern Culture. The Ancient Marks project, through photography and text, communicates man’s need to adorn the sacred geography of the human body.

If the skin of the average human body was laid flat as a map, a sheet of parchment, it would spread over twenty square feet. The human form, whether isolated in the forests of the Amazon, swept clean by the bitter winds of the Arctic, or soothed by sunset rains of Polynesia became through the brilliance of inspired artistry a map of culture and myth, a sacred geography of the soul, all expressed by the simplicity of forms painted, carved, incised, or etched upon the canvas of the body.

Photographs from the book, Ancient Marks by Chris Rainier

Sacred: Angkor Wat

National Geographic photographer Chris Rainier and filmmaker Ethan Boehme bring the sacred temples and Buddhist monks of Angkor Wat poetically to film, with music by Anoushka Shankar.

Angkor Wat is one of more than a dozen magnificent temples in the vast metropolis of Angkor, Cambodia, the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries. It was built for the king, Suryavarman II, in the early 12th century as his state temple and part of his capital city. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation — first Hindu, dedicated to the god Vishnu, then Buddhist. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors. Within Angkor Wat, carved bas-reliefs illustrate scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—epic poems that are also sacred Hindu texts.

YouTube's Enduring Voices

YouTube’s Enduring Voices Channel
The National Geographic Enduring Voices YouTube Channel uses technology to document and revitalize endangered cultures and their repositories of knowledge in areas of science, medicine, technology, and the natural world that are crucial to human kind.

Gibe & Pipe, Huli wigmen, in Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea. Traditional ceremonial paint colors: Mali-ambua-hare, Waterfall: Iba-Fugu. Photograph by Chris RainierChris Rainier
Papua New Guinea. The Enduring Voices team interviews Koo Yandabage and Sam Ako, both Ipili speakers, at Tari. Thomas Nokondi (far left) observes.




Many of the world’s nearly seven thousand languages are oral and have never been recorded or scientifically documented, and within this century, forty to fifty percent of them will no longer exist. As they vanish, we lose entire universes of the conceptual thought, practical knowledge and technologies that they contain.

The National Geographic Enduring Voices Project uses technology to document and revitalize endangered cultures and their repositories of knowledge in areas of science, medicine, technology, and the natural world that are crucial to humankind.

The National Geographic Enduring Voices YouTube Channel allows many of these tongues to have a presence in the internet for the very first time.  Through the work of National Geographic Explorer and photographer, Chris Rainier, and linguists Dr. K. David Harrison and Dr. Gregory Anderson from the Living Tongues Institute, a small and endangered language that may have previously never been heard outside of a remote village can now reach a global audience.  Using YouTube as a platform, scientists, visual artists and communities can now collaborate more effectively on promoting language revitalization.




The YouTube channel features videos such as Rudolf Raward reading the first book written in Matukar-Panau, a language spoken by about 500 people in the Matukar village in Papau New Guinea and songs by Aydyng Byrtan-ool, a talented young Tuvan singer and epic storyteller in Southern Siberia, hip-hop performed by Songe Nimasow in the Aka language of India, and videos demonstrating how the Foe language of Papua New Guinea uses body parts to count from 1 to 37.

The launch of the channel comes on the heels of an announcement by Harrison and Anderson of a “hidden” language of India known locally as Koro, that is new to science and had never been documented outside of its rural community.  Koro is one of half of the world’s languages likely to vanish in the next 100 years.


Left: Felix Andi, Yokoim communicty leader of Kundiman Village, consults with Greg Anderson (left) and David Harrison (center) to translate a
Yokoim song.  Right: Dr. Ganesh Murmu and Greg Anderson interview woman from Aka tribal group, Kichang Village, Arunachal Pradesh, India.
Photograph by Chris Rainier

In the midst of a language extinction crisis, we are also seeing a global grassroots movement for language revitalization. Speakers are leveraging new technologies, such as social networking and YouTube, to sustain small languages. As Harrison describes in his book The Last Speakers, we are all impoverished when a language dies, and all enriched by the human knowledge base found in the world’s smallest tongues.

Chris Rainier

Chris Rainier is considered one of the leading documentary photographers working today. His life’s mission is to film the remaining natural wilderness and indigenous cultures around the globe and to use images to create social change. Rainier co-directs the National Geographic Society’s Cultural Ethnosphere and All Roads Photography Programs. He is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, contributing photographer for National Geographic Adventure magazine; a correspondent on photography for NPR’s Day to Day radio show. Rainier heads National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project, which is documenting the world’s most endangered languages.

Rainier has traveled to seven continents, making extensive expeditions throughout Africa, Antarctica, and New Guinea. His photography has been seen in Time, Life, Smithsonian, the New York Times, Outside and publications of the National Geographic Society. Rainier has photographed global culture and conflict, famine, and war in such places as Somalia, Sarajevo/Bosnia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Iraq. He has won awards for his photography, including the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award given by the Explorers Club for adventure stories. Rainier’s photography has been shown and collected by museums around the world, including the Australian Museum in Sydney, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the International Center of Photography in New York, the George Eastman House International Museum in Rochester, New York, and the United Nations. His books include: Keepers Of The Spirit, Where Masks Still Dance: New Guinea, Ancient Marks. From 1980 to 1985, Rainier was photographic assistant to Ansel Adams – the noted landscape photographer.


Chris Rainier, Colorado, October 2010:
We live at a crucial crossroads in human history. On one hand we have state of the art levels of global communication and technology that reach into the most isolated parts of the planet, from the jungles of the Amazon to the cyber cafes of Timbuktu, Mali. We have put a man on the moon, and solved some of the most daunting medical challenges that have plagued the human species since the dawn of mankind. We have split the atom and have created the world’s smallest computer on the head of a pin. We can search Google from anywhere on the planet and read license plates from space.

Yet, sadly, we are destroying the planet at unprecedented levels. At present rates the glaciers of Greenland will all be melted within thirty years, the last untouched rain forests on the planet will be gone by 2050, and over half of the world’s population today live in city dwellings. What will happen to the last ancient peoples that live just beyond the chainsaws that destroy those sacred forests, or the nomads that drift across the shifting sands of the Sahara? They too, are disappearing at catastrophic rates. Most of the world’s nearly seven thousand languages are oral and within this century, forty to fifty percent of them will no longer exist.  With them will go a rich tapestry of knowledge, wisdom, and deep understanding of their world – our world – that is simply passed on from generation to generation in the ancient stories as told around the campfire of tradition. So within several generations a vast amount of the world’s knowledge could simply die away with the passing of that elder who traditionally was the wisdom keeper of the culture.

Facing this daunting fact, cultures around the planet are taking a stand and using modern technology: still and video cameras, computers and the internet in amazing and innovative ways to tell their ancient stories to the world for future generations. Modern technology is impacting ancient traditional cultures in very powerful and innovative ways – providing platforms and technology to empower, promote, archive, and revitalize struggling cultures. Connections to the Internet and technology allows communication between ancient and modern, East to West – indeed the South to the North and back. Traditional cultures to modernity, and the modern world to the ancient world. Let us all gather around the virtual fireplace of Ethernet – and share the stories of what it means to be human.



@ Google

Chris Rainier’s video and photographs were presented in Ancient Stories with Modern Technology, an exhibition at Google headquarters, NYC, October 28 – December 31, 2010, which focused on numerous stories of how technology is creating cross culture communication – and exploration. Please see examples of cultural revitalization at the National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project and on YouTube’s Enduring Voices channel.