Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopnek is on a 21,000-mile walking journey from Ethiopia through the Middle East, Asia and beyond to retrace the paths of human migration out of the plains of Africa. Along this journey (dubbed the ‘Out of Eden Walk’), he’s studying the human and environmental factors that have shaped humanity's path along these migration routes. He took a moment to speak with Lonely Planet about it.
Salopnek is continuing his journey through the Pamirs and Hindu Kush and onward to South Asia. From a spot in Kyrgyzstan preparing the final chapters of his first book on the project, he discussed the role of technology in human migration and the way that gear has shaped his own journey.
Lonely Planet: Your 'Out of Eden' project revolves around this idea of a mass human migration. Do we have an idea of what caused humans to spread out across the world from Africa?
Paul Salopnek: Whether it's 200,000 years or 300,000 years, we've been around for a little while as humans. Most of that time we were in Africa. Suddenly about 100,000 to 120,000 years ago, we left. The first homo sapiens fossils - anatomically modern - start being found outside of the mother continent. The mystery is why.
Are there leading theories?
One is that we're pushed by environmental change – 70,000 years ago there was this volcanic eruption in Southeast Asia a thousand times bigger than Krakatoa that created a kind of nuclear winter. The hypothesis goes that it basically wiped out most of us – 99% of us. A few hundred families moved to the shorelines and began harvesting seafood off the shores. It forced us to be more creative and invent new tools like thrown projectiles, which started to emerge around this time. This allowed us to move into new environments more efficiently.
The other reason is that as population began to grow, there were finally enough of us in the world to pass along technology. Earlier, we had to keep literally reinventing the wheel – some woman or man would come up with this great idea like the wheel, but then die in the next drought. Then 2000 years later some other person would invent it. Finally there were just enough people that we could transmit information and build on existing knowledge. That was the key that gave us the world.
In that way, tech is central to getting these early humans out on the road.
We were able to spread from the classic savannahs because we evolved the capacity to transmit complex information verbally. The sewing needle allowed us to move into arctic environments because we could suddenly stitch ourselves a second layer of skin that belonged to another animal we'd hunted, for example.
When you went about following this migration, you must have had a similar relationship to your gear?
I'm not a tech guy. I started backpacking when I was 12 or 13 and I was using my mom's cooking utensils. I never really graduated from that. The big exception is a tent – I bought my first tent in Aktau, Kazakhstan to walk across the steppes of Western Kazakhstan in the spring, because I'd been warned it's would be infested with black widow spiders. Everybody, including wolf hunter guys, were saying, “Paul, just don't sleep out. It won't kill you, but you'll really be in pain if you get bitten by these things.”
So when did your gear needs start to change?
When we were in the Caucasus, we were completely unprepared, wearing plastic bags under our shoes. That was our technology, our answer to the snow. One guy wrapped himself in plastic garbage that he found beside the highway with rope, and he looked like a derelict. It was a piece of that clear construction plastic they put on wet concrete, and it had peeled off some the house of some choban [shepherd, from the Kyrgyz] house and we wrapped him like a burrito, and found a piece of nylon cord to tie around his waist. I have a great picture of it, actually it was very funny. But that was a November crossing of some pretty high mountains, 3000m, and we were miserable. Big surprise – if you're completely woefully equipped, of course you're going to suffer.
What about the journalism aspect of this kind of trip? What kind of gear do those needs introduce?
I'm carrying two satellite phones: the BGAN (which is data transmission) and the Immarsat handset (which is more for keeping in touch and emergencies). That's just kind of like a big cell phone. Then for power I carry these floppy textile-like high-tec power cells called PowerFilm. You can get panels 20W or 30W – I'm carrying two 30W panels. They're about a meter by a meter and a half, and you just tie them over the donkey each side. It doesn't matter where the donkey is walking, the sun is hitting one side or the other. You can charge a Macbook Air (which I carry), your sat phone, all your equipment in like 4 or 5 hours. Even more, there's a great company called Voltaic that produces solar batteries that are specifically designed for trickle feeds and they hold terrific charges, so I charge up one Voltaic and it's about the size of an iPad, a centimeter thick, and that thing triples the life of my laptop.
What about the walking? How does one make it physically through a journey like this?
There’s the other piece of technology here – animals. I think that's a real crucial part of my experience. I've walked thousands of kilometres alone without them on this journey, but I've walked thousands with them. And if you give me a choice, it'll be with them all the time. Not just because it takes the load off your back, makes the journey much more pleasant, and makes me much more productive as a reporter; but they're fun to walk with. They teach you to look at the landscape in new ways. To look out for them, you're looking for pasture or water not just for yourself but for something that weighs 500 kilos. And it teaches you to be a better walker – to kind of read where water might be and to head there for camping. They make you more awake.
In the past, animals changed everything. There are really great books about how the multiplication of human bicep power to horse power radically changed the world. You could suddenly cultivate six times more surface area in one day, and that would give you a food surplus that allowed you to then devote part of your day to thinking of things like art.
Relying on locals must have introduced new types of solutions as well, I’d imagine.
I was in the war in Afghanistan, but I’d never really walked across the steppes of Central Asia Steppes were kind of a literary abstraction. So I met Sergei, an engineer from Beeline.
He was able to do some advance work in Aktau for you, examining horses for hire?
I asked him if he could do it. He says ,“Ok, I know nothing about horses at all. What do I do?” I worked it out with him to look at possible cargo horses while sending me photos. I said, “OK, when you're showing them, ask the choban to open their lips. Then take your phone and take a picture of the teeth for me so I can see how old they are.”
So this is what you do to prepare to walk around the world. You have a guy who's a complete stranger to you but who, bless his sweet heart, takes time during a business trip to a provincial city to take iPhone pictures of horses’ teeth and sending them as jpg attachment. It's one of the great delights of this journey – we were just laughing on the phone at how crazy a world we live in.
Follow Paul and the Out of Eden project as he continues his journey through the Pamirs and Hindu Kush and onward to South Asia.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.