A Twenty-Four-Thousand-Mile Walk Across Human History
In January, 2013, under a desert sky the yellow of old newsprint, I set out, on foot, from Africa’s Rift Valley and began walking to Tierra del Fuego, the freezing tip of South America. Using the archeological record and recent advances in human genetics, my aim was to retrace, as closely as twenty-first-century borders and wars allowed, the pathways blazed by the first Homo sapiens, who left Africa to discover the world about sixty thousand years ago.
My global foot journey, a project I call the Out of Eden Walk, is an experiment in slow journalism. In six-and-a-half years, I’ve covered nearly eleven thousand miles between my starting point, at an Ethiopian fossil site called Herto Bouri, and my current location, in the jungle hills of northeastern India. Along the way, I have followed old Haj trails grooved into solid rock in Saudi Arabia, slept under canvas with Syrian refugees, been detained nearly a hundred times by police of various nations, and yo-yoed through a peaceful, alpine corner of Afghanistan that is rarely seen by most Afghans themselves. My onward routing—and it should be pointed out that I don’t know exactly where I’ll be walking next Tuesday, much less in a year—involves traversing China and Russia, hitching a ride on a cargo ship across the Bering Strait, to Alaska, and hiking down the Americas to the final continental horizon of our species: the Beagle Channel, in Argentina. Along the way, I’m pausing to record modern encounters along the ancestors’ trail. I try to use the mirror of history to understand current events. I get lost a lot.
I’ve been chronicling my journey for the National Geographic Society. Now, regular dispatches will also be published online by The New Yorker. (You can follow my progress as well on Twitter: @outofednewalk.) People who deem walking twenty-four thousand miles across the Earth aberrant behavior (“batshit insane,” in the estimation of GQ India) forget themselves. We’ve been footloose nomads for more than ninety per cent of our species’s existence. We’re nature’s ultimate walking machines. Scientists have given G.P.S. devices to the Hadza people of Tanzania—hunters and gatherers whose life style is similar to that of the ancient pioneers I’m following—and found that ordinary Hadza women and men walk, on average, about three and a half and seven miles a day, respectively. Even the lower figure almost adds up to a stroll between New York and Kansas City every single year. Pacing off continents is normal. Sitting down for a lifetime is the extreme activity. And then there’s the question of storytelling.
Before stepping off on this journey, I worked for years as a motorized foreign correspondent, covering wars from the Congo to Iraq. It often struck me, as I pinballed among assignments in planes, that much of what I produced seemed impaired, artificially truncated, arbitrarily constrained. Tug hard enough on any story and you will find it connected to another story, and then another, ad infinitum, across the palimpsest of the world. Moving through headlines at three miles an hour reveals this intimate warp and weft. It’s not just about the rewards of immersion to be gained by living for years at boot-level with the ordinary farmers, artists, soldiers, students, and unemployed factory hands who inhabit global events; walking exposes the integument that binds our narratives together. Absorbing this requires surrendering speed.
Finally, all bad news to the contrary, it’s an apt time to be walking the globe. A millennium ago, before the invention of nation-states and police, brigands would have knocked me off quickly. Fifty years ago, the Cold War fenced off entire subcontinents. Now our increasingly multipolar world has loosened up brand-new tangents of human yearning. More than a billion refugees and migrants are on the move today, both within countries and across borders, fleeing mass violence and poverty. This is the largest tide of rootlessness in human history. I’m not one of them. I’m a privileged white man walking without necessity, a passport tucked in my shirt pocket. But we all share at least the default human condition. Solvatur ambulando, Diogenes said: It is resolved by walking. He was the cynic who lived in a barrel and who, when asked where he came from, declared himself a citizen of the world.
Read More Stories from the “Out of Eden Walk” Series:
Preface: “A Preview of the Finish Line”
Before walking out of Africa, I flew to Tierra del Fuego—my journey’s distant finish line—to meet Cristina Calderón. At eighty-four, she was the last full-blooded Yaghán, a culturally extinct indigenous group, which Darwin encountered on his own formative voyage to South America. Calderón told me she was the last fluent speaker of her community’s dying language, which sounded to my ear like lapping water. I expected and hoped to meet Calderón once again, when I walked up to her shoreline, years later, at the conclusion of my journey. I also wanted to carry Calderón’s vanishing words with me across the world.
Africa: “The Glorious Boneyard”
Why are we so restless? Why is impatience signalled by the tapping of a toe, a gesture that telegraphs walking away? Why is movement the default solution of our species? What’s wrong with standing still? Why even ask such questions? Because we are restless. Because we always ask.
Middle East: “We’re Being Shot At”
“That was a bullet,” my walking partner, Bassam Almohor, says, after a round kicks up a puff of dust at his feet. It was, to be precise, a rubber bullet. Or, more exactly still, a rubber-coated bullet, a slug of steel dipped in hard plastic. His voice is aggrieved. Why? Because it is Wednesday, and, in this West Bank village, fighting between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Palestinians was supposed to be scheduled for Fridays.
Asia Minor: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Genocide”
Killers or victims, there are no chosen people. There are simply people. And the dead. And what you do with your pain tells the world who you are. A tale from a long journey through the ghost lands of the Armenian genocide.
Central Asia: “Goodbye to Uzbekistan”
To the query “What is a friend?,” Aristotle’s famous reply was “A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” It is an odd cliché to recall following a six-month trek through Uzbekistan, then an authoritarian police state, where I was detained more than thirty times by security forces.
South Asia: “Planting Feminism”
What is the most common injustice encountered on a walk across the world? It is not the suppression of minority cultures, nor the endless variety of intolerance rooted in religion or race. No, it is the exclusion of women from humanity’s ledger book of rewards and opportunities. Half of the seven billion people on our planet are denied access to political power, made to work harder, and compensated less than the other half. I saw this reality unfold daily, on the ground, in ways subtle and blatant, in every country I trekked across.
The Out of Eden Walk project has been supported since its launch, in 2013, by the National Geographic Society. To see all of the storytelling elements of the journey, please visit the National Geographic Society Out of Eden home page.