A back shot of a man wearing a bookbag and hat looking into a grass pathway

Out of Eden Walk: The first steps

In early 2013, National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek began an epic walk, following the path of the first human migration out of Africa about 60,000 years ago. Host Marco Werman speaks with Salopek, who’s now two-thirds of the way along his global journey. Today, he talks about his first steps at the beginning of the walk in the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia.

The World

Eleven years ago — almost to the day — a National Geographic Explorer, Paul Salopek, began to walk across the globe. 

His trek started in Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, and it will eventually take him all the way to the southern tip of South America. 

Salopek started by traversing the route of the first human migration, about 60,000 years ago, in Africa. 

“I’d gone there prepared to kind of walk in a sunlit desert, and it was a rainy day in a small village near the site of one of the earliest modern Homo sapiens skeletons ever found there, like 150-160,000 years old,” Salopek recalled.

The World caught up with Salopek to learn more about the starting point of his journey in Herto Buri, Ethiopia in 2013. 

Marco Werman: I know you weren’t walking by yourself the whole time. Tell us about some of the people you traveled with.
Paul Salopek: Yeah. So, this project, I remind my readers, is not just “Paul’s journey.” In fact, I’m just one participant in this long, over-the-horizon traverse that involves walking with local people and local storytellers. So, I’m almost never alone. And that’s by design. So, at the very beginning, I was walking with several gentlemen who were camel pastoralists pushing around camels, goats and cattle across this very dry, desiccated kind of skeletal landscape. And these guys were great. I mean, they were tremendous singers. As you may know, pastoralists often communicate with the animals that they’re taking charge of, so they had love songs they were singing to their camels.
Ahmed Alema Hessan, your guide, is also a clan leader and a former camel driver. Tell us about Ahmed.
Well, he’s a really fascinating global character. And this is only in the age that Marco, you and I live in, in our lifespan, that there would be somebody you’d find like this. But here’s a guy who had, I think, an elementary school education who grew up as a pastoral nomad in the [Great] Rift Valley of Africa and who was deeply identified with his ethnic group, the Afar. But at the same time, he had been working with world-class paleoanthropologists. Like the best people around the world, including Ethiopian paleoanthropologists from the capital, Addis Ababa, who had come out to look for human fossils. And he was very adept at identifying human fossils. So, he was this guy who straddled two worlds: the ancient and the new. And on his little phone, and back then, think about it, in 2013, these were flip phones. These weren’t smartphones out in this corner of the world. His contacts were the most brilliant minds from the University of California, Berkeley, to the local police commander, you know, who you had to check in with to kind of keep us from getting in trouble across the way.
And while we’re on the subject, Paul, I know you said this is not a “Paul walk,” but where are you from? And why did you want to do this? 
So, my background is that I was born in the US but raised in Mexico. I’ve been kind of multicultural from 5 years old, growing up in a society that wasn’t my birth culture. I’m kind of a guy who’s a little bit culturally amorphous. I think it’s given me the skill set to be able to do the job that I was doing for many years leading up to this big walk, which was being a foreign correspondent. That kind of journalism, for me, had kind of plateaued. I did as much as I possibly could. I’m proud of the work. I learned a lot, but I wanted to slow myself down and get off the airplanes, right, and get off the rental cars and actually kind of move from story to story on foot and actually inhabit the stories long enough to have a little bit deeper comprehension of them; whether it was the climate crisis, cultural endurance or what have you. Slowing down seems to be key to what I call “slow journalism.”
Two men walking across a desert with camels
Ethiopia, 2013. National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek walks in the Afar Desert. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Photograph by John Stanmeyer, National Geographic.John Stanmeyer/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
So, Ethiopia, where you began this trek, has gone through some serious upheaval since you were there — a war in the Tigray region that drew in neighboring countries. Does having walked across Ethiopia provide you with a longer, maybe a more nuanced, view than most outsiders would have had of the land and its people?
What walking does is it plants you in a panorama that is natural and human. You have to move, navigate your way through it and problem solve your way through it using the same resources as the people who are around you. It puts you even more on a better level playing field with them. You’re not driving up in a fancy car and rolling down the window and asking for directions, you’re walking to them. And they have a chance to see you approach, and they get ready for you, and I get ready for them, and there’s a real meaningful human encounter at three miles an hour.
Yeah, that’s a big difference.
But also slowing yourself down, you see how incredibly complicated societies are. There are more than 70 ethnic groups in Ethiopia, right? There are three big ones, but there are 60-some-odd others. Walking allowed me to immerse myself in a corner of Ethiopia that I would never get to know, that had its own problems with human aggression and conflict. In this case, between the Afar and another pastoral group called the Issa over resources, right? So, I would never have really been able to be exposed to that kind of deeper, far older story without kind of walking through it.
A man walking in front of the sun with two camels
Ethiopia, 2013. National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek follows local guides into the Afar Desert on a 24,000-mile walk to retrace the human diaspora. Join the journey at outofedenwalk.org. Photograph by John Stanmeyer, National Geographic.John Stanmeyer/National Geographic, Out of Eden Walk
A bunch of years ago, I visited a place in Addis Ababa, a place that I know you’ve been to. The National Museum where the bones of the world’s earliest known hominid are kept, Lucy. She’s been discovered in the northern part of the Great Rift Valley. For the Ethiopians you met while walking, what does it mean that there in their country is this fundamental connection to the beginning of humankind?
Oh, a huge amount of pride. The Ethiopians will tell you, “We’re the cradle of it all,” right? And the answer is yes, they are. There is one kind of site where fossils have been preserved that are extremely old, and they go even older than Lucy. Lucy’s like 1.8 million [years old] or so. They found Ardipithecus, which is 4 million years old in that country. But what I have to remind my readers is there’s no kind of distinct “cradle,” in quotes. I mean, the true fact is that they’re ancient fossils up in northwestern Africa, they’re discovering some very old ones in southern Africa, and they’re probably several different notes of the origins of our kind.

Parts of this interview have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Writer and National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek has embarked on a 24,000-mile storytelling trek across the world called the “Out of Eden Walk.” The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Salopek and the project since 2013. Explore the project here. Follow the journey on X at @PaulSalopek, @outofedenwalk and also at @InsideNatGeo.

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