God and Evolution Cross Paths in the Wilds of Central Asia

Mecca and a multimillion-year-old shark's tooth feature at mile 3,500 of a global walk.
Near Manata, Kazakhstan, 44°4'29" N, 53°10'10" E

One guide, Talgat Omarov, laid out his camping tarp as a kilim, a prayer rug, and bowed and bowed to Mecca. He hid behind the horse while I photographed the scene—obeying a prohibition of some Islamic scholars against the artificial representation of sentient beings.

The second guide, Daulet Begendikov, hunted fossils. He picked up and threw away a 30-million-year-old shark tooth of exquisite beauty.

Flies buzzed.

We stood at the ragged edge of the vast Ustyurt Plateau. A fiber-optic cable burrowed across the steppe nearby, through the cemetery of a 14th-century Silk Road caravanserai.


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Photograph by Paul Salopek

These Barren Plains Hold a Mystery No One Can Crack

Were giant stone balls in western Kazakhstan created by underground lightning?
Mangystau, Kazakhstan, 44°3'15" N, 52°29'17" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

They look like a giant’s discarded playthings: enormous rock spheres, some the size of beach balls, others bigger than cars, strewn atop the desolate plains of western Kazakhstan.

They lie clustered by the dozen—by the hundreds, by the thousands. They are ruddy red, yellow-ochre, tan, black-gray. They feel iron-hard under the fingertips. Many appear to be almost unnaturally perfect: flawlessly round, as if produced by machines.

These strange formations, called ...

Photographs by Paul Salopek

Reclaiming Humanity’s Oldest Tech—One Flint Blade at a Time

An archaeologist in Kazakhstan re-creates exquisite Stone Age tools.
The Ustyurt Plateau, Kazakhstan, 44°28'34" N, 53°30'36" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

Homo sapiens is the ultimate tool-making animal.

The planet has been reshaped by our technology: by the fiber optic cable, by nuclear fission, by the agricultural combine, by the hyperlink, by the plastic bottle, by the predator drone, by the smart phone.

Yet we forget: For about 96 percent of our species’ 200,000-year-long history, only one material provided most of our needs: malleable stone. We rose to primacy above ...

Video frame by Paul Salopek

Watch: An Ancient Prairie Comes Back to Life

For travelers and horse, the past comes alive on a reborn landscape.
Mangystau region, western Kazakhstan, 43°55'46" N, 51°16'17" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

For nearly ten years, drought has strangled the immense steppes of Mangystau, a semiarid region the size of Wisconsin in western Kazakhstan. The cycle of winter snows and spring rains that sustain a local pastoral economy of sheep, horse, and camel herders shriveled away. In some places more than half their stock died off. The already lonesome plains became even emptier: The land is ...

Composite photograph by Paul Salopek

50-Year-Old City, 8,000-Year-Old Campsite

On his epic storytelling walk around the world, journalist Paul Salopek logs his 35th Milestone.
Aktau, Kazakhstan, 43°39'44" N, 51°8'32" E

It was the first Saturday of the month, the day the old Soviet empire set aside for neighbors to clean their parks, their roadsides. Some people were out in their dusty gardens. The town was raw and new, founded in 1958, born yesterday to prospect for oil, for uranium. Beyond its last blocky house lay the steppe of Central Asia. Eight-thousand-year-old campsites speckled with shell beads tinier than sunflower seeds lay slumbering within sight of the town’s glass towers. I was late. I walked fast. Outside the town, at the edge of a sea of grass, a cargo pony was waiting.


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Photograph by Paul Salopek

Headless, Wild, and Wayward: Life Along the Old Silk Roads

For a global walker in western Kazakhstan, the desert is rife with chance encounters.
Near Zhyngyldy, Kazakhstan, 44°3'17" N, 51°39'28" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

We strike out north along the Caspian, a landlocked sea that pools atop a big crack between Asia and Europe, its verdigris waves breaking on shores 200 feet below sea level. We pass fishermen masked in white balaclavas against the biting wind. We step over car-squashed snakes. We wade through drifts of tiny clamshells that shine like bands of foam in the sun. We pivot eastward across lumpy ...

Video frame by Paul Salopek

An Ancient Form of Mystic Healing Makes a Comeback

Tales of miracles and hope for the desperate bloom on the steppes of Central Asia.
Olanak, Kazakhstan, 44°14'34" N, 51°33'26" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

Amir Khan is a certified sage.

Eleven diplomas—issued by various regional and national associations of faith healing—hang in Khan’s brightly lit office. This office is located in a large walled compound on the grassy outskirts of Aktau, a remote city in western Kazakhstan. Also inside this impressive facility: Khan’s blocky mansion, a dusty yard, and a detached complex of examination rooms, a big kitchen, and a shower block. A ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Horse Wrangling Began Here, But It’s Hard to Find One Today

In Kazakhstan, horses are part of the culture—and the cuisine. But what if you need one to carry your stuff?
Aktau, Kazakhstan, 43°38'28" N, 51°11'55" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

Horses were first domesticated in Kazakhstan. Most archaeologists and all proud Kazakhs will tell you this.

In the northern steppes of this sprawling Central Asian country, scientists have unearthed 5,500-year-old horse teeth grooved by the telltale wear patterns of metal bits. Geneticists who track the gene flows of ancient horse DNA confirm that horse wrangling likely originated here: Up to 90 percent of the bones unearthed near ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

To Walk This Wilderness, Carry a Shovel

Caching water on the steppes of Kazakhstan is like an act of worship or a duty of penance.
Ustyurt Plateau, western Kazakhstan, 44°37'13" N, 53°34'43" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

What is the most important tool required to walk 350 miles across the vast, barren, sky-crushed steppes of western Kazakhstan?

A shovel. A shovel allows you to dig. And to dig is to live.

You must sink the shovel’s blade into the salt-crusted soil. You must hack and chop through the wiry roots of the sparse and brittle grass to reach:

Water.

Water is the rarest of all elements in the

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Where the Streets Have No Name—Literally

A once ‘closed’ port city now offers a gateway to Central Asia.
Aktau, Kazakhstan, 43°36'9" N, 51°12'57" E

Paul Salopek is walking the global trail of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. His continuous 21,000-mile foot journey, called the “Out of Eden Walk,” is recorded in dispatches.

The ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan, kissed the chalky shore of Kazakhstan.

Twenty-eight Turks and Kazakhstanis ricocheted down the rusty gangway to the dock. They were hard men with soft truckers’ guts—traders on the modern Silk Road. Their camels were old Renaults and Volvos and Mercedes that hauled tons of frozen chickens, toilet porcelain, oil field equipment and green tomatoes. There had been a bacchanal in the ship’s mess room ...