children stand in milky way lighting night sky in Ethiopia

I’ve walked 11,000 miles from Africa to Southeast Asia. This is what I've learned.

My 8-year journey has offered lessons in navigating a troubled world: Tread lightly upon the Earth. Share what you can. But most of all, remember.

Children of nomadic Afar herders in northern Ethiopia gather in Herto Bouri, the Milky Way lighting the night sky. From here our ancestors began their spread across the planet, and journalist Paul Salopek set out, in January 2013, on his 24,000-mile storytelling odyssey.

No one knows precisely why, after knocking about Africa for roughly 240,000 years, anatomically modern humans began walking in earnest out of the maternal continent and conquered the world. 

Our dominion was hardly fated. After all, as everyone knows, life is mostly accidental.

This question preoccupies me because for nearly nine years as part of a storytelling project, I’ve been trekking along our ancestors’ Stone Age trails of dispersal out of Africa. I’ve reached Southeast Asia. Eventually, the plan is to slog to the tip of South America, where Homo sapiens ran out of continental horizon. My aim has been simple: to foot-brake my life, to slow down my thinking, my work, my hours. Unfortunately, the world has had other ideas. Apocalyptic climate crises. Widespread extinctions. Forced human migrations. Populist revolts. A mortal coronavirus. For more than 3,000 mornings, I’ve been lacing up my boots to pace off a planet that seems to be accelerating, shuddering underfoot, toward historic reckonings. But until Myanmar, I’d never walked into a coup. (A storyteller on a global trek maps his walk through a city agonized by a military coup)

In Yangon, I woke one morning in a quarantine hotel and hurried to fill the bathtub with rusty drinking water. It was the first of February. A murderer in uniform had announced on TV that the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi had just been arrested. Soldiers and police roamed the streets. Soon enough, they would start shooting protesters—men, women, children—in the head. Poets would later be declared subversive, arrested, and killed. (The body of one, Khet Thi, was returned to his family with signs of torture.) That first morning of the putsch, however, my concerns were myopic. I searched the trash bin for yesterday’s leftover rice. What to do with the mini-fridge? Barricade the door? Or drop it on the heads of the Visigoths below? (I was on the ninth floor.) 

Hypotheses abound about why we scattered from Africa. 

Some researchers contend that a gigantic hunger pang slung us, like two-legged locusts, into the larger world: We’d eaten holes through our native savannas. Other experts say “green Arabia,” a lusher version of the Middle East, lured our long-legged forebears into new hunting grounds. Still others claim we took up beachcombing and strayed from our African comfort zone along shorelines newly exposed by dropping sea levels (the coastal migration theory).

My preferred hypothesis for the origins of human restlessness involves the voice of memory. It goes like this: 

For the longest time, archaic humans tottered at the cliff edge of extinction. Our presence was vanishingly rare in antique lands. Someone might invent, say, a new tool, yet that innovation became lost when her clan died out. Advances never got disseminated, passed along. And so it went for dreary millennia: discovery, loss, reinvention. Call it a long rut. Only when human populations grew large and stable enough to retain and build on breakthroughs did we at last unlock the planet’s door. We remembered each other’s memories. We won the battle against forgetting. We advanced.

I am nearing the middle of my absurd 24,000-mile walk eastward to sunrise. It is only natural, I suppose, to recall the thousands of faces I’ve encountered along my route. Who among them seemed best equipped to survive—if not master—the challenges of our uncertain age? Who could walk out of this century with their faculties intact?

As the crackdowns grew bloody, a strange amnesia settled over Yangon. It was the disappearing messages. 

Burmese friends—pro-democracy activists, artists, students, youths in hard hats manning the barricades—had switched to encrypted apps. Soldiers were nosing through civilian phones at checkpoints. You set a timer on your texts for security reasons (six hours, one hour, a minute) and watched your life in digital conversations fade forever. My mom said i don’t want to see both of my daughters in prison … they’re shooting people in Tamwe … Be safe … I am trying to apply for political refugee status in third country … I’m so sorry for my late reply. I had a bit of a breakdown …

Defiant screeds, pleas for help, bitter jokes, an endless cascade of rumors. These anxious records of fear, anger, and reassurance were gone each time I opened my eyes to another yellow dawn. I was walking through a revolution in a state of aphasia. It was the closest I’ve come, I imagine, to the days of our birth. (Leaving Myanmar—and agonizing over friends left behind in the coup)

Remember a stroll in New York with Tony Hiss.

Hiss, a writer and public intellectual, is a bookish man in glasses who deployed pessimism so humane, so erudite, that it often recurved back to solutions, to a bruised sort of optimism. He had recently published a book called In Motion, in which he expounded on a condition he has called deep travel, a feeling of “waking up while already awake,” which bewitches human beings in their natural state, that is to say, when they are on the move. 

What new trends should I keep an eye on, I asked Hiss, as I inch through an accelerating 21st century? It was 2011, the year of the Arab Spring. A tsunami had wiped out coastal Japan. Goaded by bigots, America’s first Black president had released his birth certificate to prove citizenship. 

“Anticipatory loss,” Hiss replied without hesitation. 

By this he meant the growing anxiety of a privileged minority who by accident of race, gender, or nationality had inherited an inordinate share of power on Earth—wealth, jobs, property, social status rooted in settled hierarchies—and who now sensed their advantages inexorably ebbing away. 

Hiss must have sensed my skepticism. He squinted up to the shimmering steel ziggurats of Manhattan. “Remember,” he grinned, removing and wiping his glasses matter-of-factly. “All this is temporary.”

Remember Kader Yarri’s feet.

Thick with calluses, flat as slabs of beef, they swung from Yarri’s high, girlish hips the way weights do on a pendulum: smoothly, tirelessly—I am tempted to say eternally—across the Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia. As if the desert surface consisted not of gravel and dust but of ball bearings. We covered about 150 miles of freakishly beautiful desert together, Yarri and I, walking with two cargo camels through panes of burning light toward the Gulf of Aden. Yarri’s rubber sandals seemed to clear the ground by a micron. They slid over the Earth like skates. It was a gait of superhuman efficiency: transcontinental, very old, designed for swallowing endless miles of geography in the pursuit of rain. 

Yarri was an Afar pastoralist. 

Early on, I mistook his silences for aloofness: To herders, all sedentary people without livestock are inferior beings. But it wasn’t that. It was his watchful steadiness. “What will the camels eat?” he asked me one day, worried about a poorly chosen camp. I shrugged. I picked up a stone, held it out. It was the only time in a month that I saw him laugh.

Yarri was the alert man. He swept his eyes across the horizons, back and forth, like Doppler radar. He said he was looking for clouds. Clouds meant moisture. Moisture meant grass. Lately, the climate had gone berserk in his paradise of white thorns. Rains vanished. Water holes were drying up. The grasses never came back. A resource war was simmering between his people and the Issa, ethnic Somalis moving up from their own threadbare plains. 

Movement is our oldest survival strategy. Pastoralists navigate through cataclysms with their feet. The Stone Age people I follow likely did the same. They remind us: Carry your home, like a prayer bead rubbed between thumb and index finger. Don’t lift your feet unnecessarily. Be ready to pivot.

Walking the 21st century divides humans into two taxa.

The winners move on their asses, sitting in machines. The rest travel atop their bones—they walk. All along the global trail you meet many of the latter category: the invisible ones. Refugees. Outcasts. The displaced. The jobless, homeless, and stateless. Forced migrants—the United Nations tallies no fewer than 80 million of them.

Remember their meals.

In the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh, I knocked at a dilapidated apartment occupied by Armenian refugees from Syria. “Spasek!” the women hollered through the closed door. “Wait!” They had spied me coming up the road. I heard them frantically preparing a meal of cucumber, salt, cheese, and stale flatbread. They kept restocking my plate, a sheet of newspaper. They refused to even sit down. Two suitcases held all their worldly goods.

At a truck stop reeking with drunkards in Djibouti, a table of shy Somali migrants invited me to glass after tulip-shaped glass of red tea. They were smugglers’ chattel en route to Arabia. White, male, with a bankable passport, I was surely the most privileged walker within a thousand miles. Yet these men, who had left comrades dead of thirst in the desert, spooned my sugar for me as if I were the starveling. 

The Syrians displaced from Homs, a city of several Roman empresses, survived by picking—and eating—tomatoes in Jordan. “There is no meat,” one apologized. “Here we only dream of chicken.” Homs had been smashed to atoms by Syrian president Bashar al Assad’s artillery. Some exiles wept telling their stories. One family laughed when the grandpa described eating wild grass to avoid starvation. They shared what they had: stewed tomatoes, raw tomatoes, pickled tomatoes. I awoke nights covered in their blankets. My walking partner, a gruff Bedouin named Hamoudi Alweijah al Bedul, distributed all our food. We walked away from these encounters stunned to silence for miles by the Syrians’ generosity. Let epicures keep their Maine lobster and Kobe beef. Never in my life have I ever felt richer, more nourished, than in those sandy tents. 

Remember Khiva.

I stumbled down the nomad steppe of Karakalpakstan to a city that shone like a confection of yellow sandstone under the sun. More than four centuries before Europe achieved enlightenment, the oasis of Khiva—like Bukhara and Samarqand—was a center of global culture in what today is Uzbekistan: an entrepôt of freewheeling ideas, science, art, technology, and languages. Greek philosophy imported from the Mediterranean helped ignite a glorious age of Islamic intellectual achievement. Asian innovations like pulp paper, forged steel, and early advanced mathematics rocked westward to Europe atop camel trains. The Silk Road blew open the mind of the Old World.

“To survive in this desert, you need farming,” explained Gavkhar Durdieva, an architect in Khiva. “To farm, you need to understand irrigation, and that requires engineering. We used math to feed ourselves.” 

With pride, Durdieva listed for me the Silk Road geniuses who a millennium ago invented the algorithm or calculated the radius of the Earth. Yet Khiva today was a sepulchral city. It was an artifact preserved under a bell jar. Busloads of German tourists sipped cappuccino under imposing stone ramparts that now defended nothing from nothing. 

Antique walls are a feature of the Silk Road. 

For two years, I hiked past old battlements, parapets, and bulwarks. While it’s true that such medieval defenses kept armed nomads and raiders at bay, the larger truth is that the rich, multiethnic trading kingdoms of Central Asia rotted from within. They succumbed to political and religious polarization, to the chaos of dynastic struggles, to sectarian fanaticism (the Shiite-Sunni schism), intolerance, anti-rational purges, and, ultimately, stagnation. By the 1200s, Genghis Khan had walked right over them. 

Walls were monuments to policy failure. Be careful what you lock in.

Remember Saroj Devi Yadav.

She wore a bright fuchsia scarf, and her left foot was bandaged against a thorn puncture. She lived on a farm in Rajasthan, India, about 10 miles east of Jaipur. Her fields of wheat shimmered under the sky, and there were buffalo wallows of black mud. I’d been crossing such landscapes for weeks. As farms go, it was as ordinary as Yadav was extraordinary.

“We run things here. It is a necessity,” said Yadav, the stern matriarch of her all-woman smallholding. “All the men are away working in the city.”

I asked about harvests. (Not good.) About fickle weather. (The monsoons now gave out too soon.) Yadav was among the 600 million people—nearly half the Indian population—enduring the worst water crisis in the world. I saw stabs at sustainability at the ant level. Villagers hoed tens of thousands of small check dams to try to capture each drop of rainwater. Some were adopting older, less profitable but drought-adapted crops such as millet. But these efforts overlooked worse bottlenecks. (India’s daunting challenge: There’s water everywhere, and nowhere)

When lost in a wilderness, goes the adage, follow rivers. Water flows to civilization. I always had taken this advice. And civilization looked like this:

Saroj Devi Yadav, forced into marriage at 13, tilled the fields with her granddaughters. Such women make up the bulk of the agricultural workforce across much of India. But like other women, she didn’t own the actual soil. Her absent husband did. India still lies squarely under the feet of men.

I broke my walk in Yangon. 

The military was shooting hundreds of citizens. A prolonged civil war was ramping up. The trail ahead was too dangerous. Violating the protocol of my journey, such as it is, I left Myanmar and flew to China. 

In Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history Chernobyl Prayer, a child recalls a grandmother taking leave of her poisoned, radioactive farm, emptying her millet in the garden “for God’s birds,” and then scattering hen’s eggs for the abandoned cat and dog. “Then she bowed to the house. She bowed to the barn. She went round and bowed to every apple tree … My grandfather, when we were going away, took his hat off.” 

I felt like bowing to Yangon. Believe me when I tell you that in this life, or the next, I will pay for abandoning my Burmese friends under such circumstances.

I visited a tree-shaded neighborhood to say goodbye to some. They were pro-democracy activists in hiding. The interior of the house resembled a college dorm. Bicycles packed the foyer. A guitar was propped in a corner. My friends stood around a coffee table, earnestly learning to use a bamboo bow and arrow against the troops of the junta. How old are such scenes? The earliest known arrowpoint dates back 61,000 years. It was found at Sibudu Cave, in South Africa. The archaic Homo sapiens I’m following doubtless invented it. 

“Everybody’s going to have to take some heat in this thing,” said a tattooed video producer in the safe house. “Nobody will come out unscathed.”

This seemed a benediction for the collective journey ahead. What advice could I possibly offer? To always walk toward rain? To share what little you have? To never trust a wall? We wished each other luck. The arrows lay stacked on the table next to an iPad.

I told myself: Remember this.

Learn more. See related educational resources about this topic—click here to access the National Geographic Society Resource Library for educators, students and lifelong learners.

This is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Paul Salopek’s 10th story about the Out of Eden Walk. John Stanmeyer has photographed 18 stories in the magazine.

This story appears in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Correction: We incorrectly stated which foot Saroj Devi Yadov's injury was on. It was her left foot.

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