Photograph by Paul Salopek
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Atabek Abdulayev, student. Uzbekistan.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

A global walk maps human encounters across continents

On a decade-long foot journey from Africa to South America, a National Geographic Explorer logs 100-mile snapshots of our human family.

For the past 2,116 days, I have been walking across the world in the wake of the first human beings who dispersed out of Africa during the Stone Age.

My long foot journey, called the Out of Eden Walk, will eventually cover about 22,000 miles to the tip of South America, the last continental horizon reached by our wandering ancestors. The walk is a continuous experiment in slow journalism.

I collect stories about the ordinary people I meet along the trail. Sometimes I use deep history to help explain the current events I’m stepping through, from wars to technological innovations to climate change. And I also pause to record what I call “milestones,” narrative waypoints spaced exactly 100 hundred miles apart, measured as the crow flies, using a pocket GPS device. There, I buttonhole the first person I meet with the same three questions about identity: Who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?

My most recent milestone—number 59—was logged in a remote village in Rajasthan, India, where a young farmer, Sushila Bairuwa, gave me tin cups of well water, made room for me on a rope bed set under a tree, and squatted in the mud so that her head would be deferentially lower than her aged mother-in-law’s. When I asked her for one more picture, she said, “No”: a small display of assertiveness that delighted me.

Over the course of my 9,500-mile journey so far, other milestones have captured encounters with singing camel herders in Djibouti, Syrian refugees camped in Jordan, a Kurdish matriarch in Turkey, and even a policeman who took me into custody on a mountain road in Pakistan. All these odd meetings—rigid in distance, yet as random as any chance sidewalk exchange—have been poured into an interactive map designed by the digital mapping firm Esri, one of my project’s partners.

How do people respond to milestone interviews?

Most take the questions literally. They are coming from home, they say with shrug. They are going to their farm, or to school. I like these anodyne answers. Most life, like most news, is hyper-local. Occasionally, a little metaphysics slips in. A carpenter named Babu Lal Sharma, 60, told me 500 miles back in central India, “As I grow old, there’s only one way to go—to God.”

Too often, there are no answers at all: If the first person I meet at a milestone happens to be a woman, and if she recoils in shyness or fear, I record her silence as a marker of our world’s still gaping gender divides.

As for the Pakistani cop, he came from a tough frontier town called Chelas. To my question about where he was going, he replied curtly, “With you—into Chelas.”

When our ancestors strolled out of Africa and began exploring the Earth between 60,000 and 120,000 years ago, there weren’t too many other people to chat with. Scientists think the size of the pioneering bands of explorers from whom all non-Africans are descended might number in the low thousands. The original walkers’ own milestones doubtless were lonesome. Or populated by nonhuman relatives such as Neanderthals or Homo denisovans.

Eventually, I’ll record two- or three-hundred milestones in my decade-long journey.

I’m walking to these human waypoints all the time: toward unknown people I will bump into every 100 miles by sheer serendipity. Each interviewee will be different from me. They’ll likely speak a different language, carry a different cosmos inside their heads—and they'll have their own questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? These interactions will almost always be friendly. And in our newly tribalized times, that gives me heart to keep going.

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk here.