Out of Eden – walking into the Anthropocene

“It’s not just a walk into the past; it’s a walk into the future. It’s … a walk into the Anthropocene.” Paul Salopek

The simplest ideas are often the best. Two-time Pulitzer winner Paul Salopek has come up with a truly astounding idea of breathtaking simplicity. In January 2013, he embarks on a seven-year expedition to walk the Anthropocene, following the path our ancestors took out of Africa.

“It is a walk from nomadism to settled agriculture and all its attendant glories and ills–high art, urbanization, science, climate change, institutional violence, the works,” he told me when I spoke to him earlier this year while he was still at the planning stages of this epic adventure.

Now, all systems are go for the Out of Eden project.

Paul Salopek. Photo: Lynda Lynch
Paul Salopek. Photo: Lynda Lynch

Year one will be a 5,000-kilometre trek out of Africa. He will start in Afar region of Ethiopia in the Great Rift Valley, the cradle of humanity, then journey north with Afar nomads following the human fossil record into the Middle East, finishing in either Jerusalem or Oman. The second year will take him through central Asia with the thorny issue of navigating Iran. His final destination, some 34,000 kilometres later, is  Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, the farthest settlement from our original African home.

Recently, Salopek told an audience at Harvard, “It is a journey our ancestors made. It’s a journey that many scientists tell us was a formative one for our species, because as we moved along across the surface of the planet, we innovated our way…we became a troubleshooting species. We adapted to different environments…and in the process we became truly human.”

The seven-year itch. In 2013, Paul Salopek will embark on a journey on foot from the cradle of humanity, the African Rift Valley to Tierra del Fuego.
The seven-year itch. In 2013, Paul Salopek will embark on a seven-year journey on foot from the cradle of humanity, the African Rift Valley to Tierra del Fuego. (Image: Earth at Night (NASA), adapted by Owen Gaffney.)

According to Salopek, our hunter-gathering forefathers walked on average 16 kilometres a day, our foremothers, 10. “That is what we are designed to do. We are walking machines. That is what I am returning to.” He argues that it is at this pace we were designed to take in the world. For a journalist and storyteller, this is important.

“The other pillar for why I am doing this trip is much more literary. It is about poetry. I am calling it “slow journalism.”  As a foreign correspondent, Salopek began to wonder what lay between the stories he jetted in to cover. He’d spent decades writing on wars and conflict, science and the environment, resource use and disputes, and climate. As with all journalism, each story was self contained with little effort or space to examine the complex interconnections with the wider world.

He became curious about the stories beneath the plane, or through the windscreen of his car. Eventually, Salopek asked, could these be the more important stories?

“As our world globalises, we are becoming more knitted together…our economies, our lives, our cultures, our languages, are approaching each other. So this walk is about the poetry of connections.”

“I want to go slowly through stories, to imbue them with meaning.” He hopes five kilometres per hour is the right pace.

“I’ll be writing environmental stories…I’ll be talking about economic stories…stories about human displacement, refugee movements…and stories about some of the causes of this displacement…Stories about my business, the media. Who gets to tell stories in the age of the web, which has democratized information?”

Salopek is keen to emphasise this is no history lesson. “It’s not just a walk into the past; it’s a walk into the future. It’s … a walk into the Anthropocene. A walk into our becoming.”

In an email Salopek sent to me today he explained;

“This isn’t just a walk about the past–the world as we first discovered it in the Pleistocene. It is a walk through what we’ve made of that world, a walk into the Anthropocene. I’m hoping to highlight that contrast as I move, noting the changes at ground level. But hopefully, by using the hi-tech tools of communication available today, the satphone, a small laptop, I can connect thinkers who see these changes from orbit, as it were–the big picture–with the lives of ordinary people grappling with the new uncertainties and challenges of surviving in a human-made world–whether beleaguered farmers, swelling ranks of urbanites, or innovators at the local level.”

His journey coincides with a remarkable period in human history. One third of all people (2.3 billion) are now connected through the internet and mobile devices. By the time his adventure ends, the connectivity will be largely complete. We will have become a truly globally connected species.

Out of Africa - environmental factors in human dispersal. (UK's EFCHED project)
Our ancestors’ migration our of Africa linked to climate changes and other environmental factors, developed by Owen Gaffney for the UK’s Environmental Factors in the Chronology of Human Evolution and Dispersal project.

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