Walking human history

  • February 27, 2015 | Andrea Weiss

Paul Salopek is engaged in an extraordinary journalistic exercise: a seven-year, 48 000km walk to trace the human evolutionary path out of Africa down to the tip of South America.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Paul started his journey in Ethiopia in Africa's Rift Valley in January 2013, where the fossil record and DNA markers suggest that humans started heading out of Africa into Eurasia, some 50 000 to 70 000 years ago. Two years later, he has just entered Georgia.

He has called his walk Out of Eden and his journey is documented in regular missives published by National Geographic. At least once a year, a full-length feature is also published in the magazine.

Paul has called it an exercise in "slow journalism".

Map illustrating Paul Salopek's on-foot journey.
Artwork by National Geographic Magazine

All along the way, he has been writing the stories of the people he has met, providing a very contemporary record of the hardships humankind still faces – from the many Syrian refugees he has encountered along the way to persecuted minorities, like the Alevi, an Islamic sect, one of whose members kindly offered to take care of his mule when he found he could not take it across the border between Turkey and Georgia.

When he first set off in January 2013, Paul described his planned route thus: "Pushed by population pressure or lured on by favourable 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 ... 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."

You can follow Paul's walk through the Twitter handle #EdenWalk, while teachers are encouraged to get involved through a unique online learning community.

Paul Salopek wanders through the ancient Nabataean ruins of Madain Salih, carved into sandstone outcrops some 2 000 years ago. These structures were used as tombs for the wealthy during the Nabataean era. The kingdom stretched from its capital Petra in Jordan south to Madain Salih in the Hejaz region of present-day Saudi Arabia. Photo shows a tomb façade in the Al Khuraymat area of Madain Salih. Photo by John Stanmeyer/National Geographic

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