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Walking the World, In the Footsteps of Our Restless Forebears

Almost four years ago veteran journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek set out from one of the oldest Homo sapiens fossil sites in the world—located in the parched Rift Valley of Ethiopia—to begin crossing the Earth on foot along the pathways of the original human migration out of Africa.

To date Salopek has walked more than 5,000 miles through empty Arabian deserts, bleeding Syrian refugee camps, and wolf-haunted mountains in the Caucasus. He is now inching toward China on the old Silk Roads lacing Central Asia. Join this epic, multiyear journey that mixes journalism, art, science, and history: a continuous walk through the turbulent events of our young century—and into timeless stories that question the meanings of being human.

Salopek’s first dispatch from the trail in Ethiopia, “Let’s Walk,” is posted below in full. In the future we will post excerpts from his current dispatches, linked to the complete stories on the Out of Eden Walk website, where you can explore the multifaceted project in its entirety.

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Paul Salopek and his Ethiopian guide, Ahmed Alema Hessan, leave the village of Bouri in the Afar region of northwestern Ethiopia. Photograph by John Stanmeyer - VII
Paul Salopek and his Ethiopian guide, Ahmed Alema Hessan, leave the village of Bouri in the Afar region of northwestern Ethiopia. (Photograph by John Stanmeyer – VII)

Let’s Walk

By Paul Salopek

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
A thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.
— Jalal ad-Din Mohammed Balkhi (Rumi)

On a clear day on flat ground—in a landscape, say, like the bone-yellow floor of the Great Rift Valley of northern Ethiopia that surrounds me now—it is possible to see 60 miles. This is a three-day walking radius. For the next seven years of my life, as I retrace, on foot, the pathways of the first anatomically modern humans who rambled out Africa, this distance will represent for me, as it was for our ancestors, my tangible universe, my limiting horizon.

I’ll be cheating a bit, of course: The communications kit I’m lugging on my back to share this journey will fling open digital infinitudes that our nomadic forebears could scarcely imagine. Yet the experience of pacing off the continents, one yard at a time through 2020, will still expose, I believe, an inescapable biological reality. We’re built to walk. We’ve been wired by natural selection to absorb meaning from our days at the loose-limbed gait of three miles an hour. And whether we count ourselves cursed or lucky to be standing on the Earth at this frenetic moment in our history—I, for one, would choose no other time to be alive—reasonable arguments abound to slow down. To pause in our tracks, the way a local Afar pastoralist named Idoli Mohamed does, arms folded akimbo atop hand-greased acacia sticks. To watch. To listen. To glance over our shoulders, seeking older compass bearings. Those first bands of Homo sapiens who blazed the trail to our becoming a planetary species—hunter-gatherers we know oddly little about and who may have numbered, researchers say, a paltry few thousand individuals—have valuable lessons to impart. They were, after all, consummate survivors. This is the premise of the Out of Eden walk.

Idoli Mohamed, an Afar herder who lives in the Herto Bouri area at the start of the walk. Photograph by Paul Salopek
Idoli Mohamed, an Afar herder who lives in the Herto Bouri area at the start of the walk. (Photograph by Paul Salopek)

The template for my long trek—the first global human dispersal out of Africa—is fairly well plotted by science.

Fossils and DNA markers found in modern populations suggest that people began trickling north of our archaeological “Eden” in Africa’s Rift Valley sometime between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. Pushed by population pressure or lured on by favorable climate shifts, some early wayfarers plodded west into Europe and probably wiped out the Neanderthals. Others turned right into Eurasia. That will be my route. (I don’t have sufficient knee longevity to add Europe to the schedule. As for Oceania, which humans reached by boat 50,000 years ago: I can barely dog paddle.) From the Middle East I’ll follow the ghostly tracks of ancient migrations through Central Asia to China, then angle northward into Arctic Siberia, from where I’ll take passage by ship to Alaska. (So fabulously rich was the American fauna encountered by the first Americans that one archaeologist, Ofer Bar Yosef, suggested I should rename this project Into Eden.) Finally, I’ll hike down the length of the Americas to Tierra del Fuego, the gale-whipped tip of South America where we at last ran out of continents, and where a callow 23-year-old named Charles Darwin began igniting this entire chain of rediscovery in the 1830s.

Retracing on foot the path our ancient ancestors traveled as they migrated across the world.
Retracing on foot the path our ancient ancestors traveled as they migrated across the world. (Map by National Geographic Maps)

A few weeks ago, before coming to Africa, I flew to Isla Navariño in Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

Cristina Calderon, 84, the last full-blooded Yaghan speaker. She lives in Tierra del Fuego, Chile, at the end of the walk. Photograph by Paul Salopek
Cristina Calderon, 84, the last full-blooded Yaghan speaker. She lives in Tierra del Fuego, Chile, at the end of the walk. (Photograph by Paul Salopek)

I wanted to preview the finish line of a project that will consume a seventh of my life. An old woman there, Cristina Calderón, 84, greeted me at her cabin door. She is the last full-blooded speaker of Yaghán—the culturally extinct indigenous group that Darwin gaped at as they fished naked on the icy beaches of the Beagle Channel. I expect and hope to meet Calderón once again, when I walk up to her shoreline porch years from now, in another hemisphere. But I also wanted to carry her words with me across the world. Her people had scanned one of humankind’s last virgin, 60-mile viewsheds about 7,000 years ago. I explained this in Spanish. She sat at her window, knotting her fingers, peering out at the inky chop, enunciating objects and animals in a dying a language that sounded more like lapping water than something human—words that are sinuous and supple and sheer. She was trying to remember.

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Explore more stories from the Out of Eden Walk at nationalgeographic.org/projects/out-of-eden-walk.