National Geographic

First Contact

Near Gona, Ethiopia, 11°11'54'' N, 40°31'12'' E

We are walking in the direction of Warenzo.

The world changes when you are thirsty. It shrinks. It loses depth. The horizon draws close. (In northern Ethiopia, the Earth butts against the sky, hard and pale as the surface of a skull.) The desert tightens around you like a noose. This is the thirsty brain compressing the distances of the Rift, sucking in the miles through the eyes, magnifying them, probing them for any hint of water. Little else matters.

Ahmed Alema Hessan and I have trudged more than 20 miles through the crushing heat. We have separated from the cargo camels to visit an archaeological site folded into a rumpled badland: Gona, the location of the oldest stone tools in the world. Our water bottles are empty. We are thirsty, uncomfortable, anxious. We speak little. (What can be said? Why dry the tongue?) The sun’s rays corkscrew into our heads. An Afar proverb: It is best, when you are lost or thirsty, to keep walking under the sun, because eventually someone will see you. To be tempted into shade, to drop under one of ten thousand thorn bushes, is deadly: No one will find you. So we stagger into the blinding afternoon—until we hear the faint bleating of goats. Then we smile. We can begin to relax. Goats mean people.

Our hosts: an Afar family camped on a hill. Two strong, smiling young women. Eight children in thin rags that once may have been clothing. And an old woman—she doesn’t know her age—who hunches like a gnome in the shade of a reed mat. Her name is Hasna. She has been sitting there, weaving with spidery fingers, since the beginning of time. She invites us to join her, to rest our bones, to remove our shoes. She pours us water—chalky and warm, so salty, so alkaline it oozes down the throat like oil, but precious nonetheless—from a battered jerry can. She offers us a fistful of yellow berries from a wild tree. She is our mother.

When our ancestors wandered out of Africa about 60,000 years ago, they encountered other species of hominids. The world was crowded then with strange cousins: Homo neanderthalensis, Homo denisovans, Homo floresiensis, and perhaps other varieties of people who weren’t quite people.

How did they live? How did they love? The answers to these questions are unknowable.

When we met them, perhaps like this, on some remote hilltop, did we share water, or even interbreed peacefully, as some geneticists suggest? (Outside of Africa, modern human populations seem to contain as much as 2 percent of Neanderthal DNA.) Or did we rape and kill, launching our species’ long and terrible history of genocides? (In a cave occupied by modern humans, Fernando Rozzi, of Paris’s Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, has found a Neanderthal jawbone mutilated by the cutmarks of butchery, perhaps cannibalism.) Scientists still debate this puzzle. All that is certain is that we alone survived to claim the Earth. We won the planet. But at a cost: We are without close family. We are the lonely ape.

Hasna’s gentle voice lulls me to sleep.

When I awake, Alema is hunkered in low conversation with the men of the nomad camp. They have returned from tending their flocks. We shake hands. We thank them. We leave packets of crackers for grinning Hasna, and walk on. We are hurrying to meet the camels, walking toward Warenzo. That night, while sipping our gift of salty water about a red fire that saws back and forth in the wind, Alema says the men of Hasna’s camp had threatened him. He was not of their clan. He nearly hit them on the head with his walking stick.


There are 37 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. chefbrucewest
    February 11, 2013

    I so look forward to your reports/stories.
    Perhaps your answer to what happened to our past cousins is encapsulated in the exchange between Ahmed and the men of Hasna’s camp.
    I think your search for answers is already quite productive.

  2. Paolo
    February 11, 2013

    desert tests our resistance… but we are strong, and we must continue… step by step

  3. Lois Farrington
    February 12, 2013

    I hope your journey helps us to realize our common humanity, and maybe someday (not in my lifetime) wars will cease.

  4. Danielle Beauchamp
    February 12, 2013

    Reading this just before heading out for a walk beside the Potomac in 60 degree weather. Gives perspective. Especially on Mardi Gras!

  5. Bandkanon
    February 12, 2013

    We are a violent species. Unfortunately, I tend to think when we met our cousins we used our larger brains for cunning and killing…and some raping thrown in for good measure.

  6. Antonio
    February 14, 2013

    “We won the planet.” Such rich irony. Tastes of the same warm colored water. “Oily” Oh, my!

  7. Vivienne Bennett
    February 15, 2013

    Hi Paul– this is Linda’s friend, Vivienne. I and some colleagues are following your remarkable journey, but want to let you know that the email notification system is not working. We have each signed up for email notification more than once and still are not receiving any. I thought you’d want to know.
    Bon courage avec ton voyage, VB

  8. Judie Anderson
    February 19, 2013

    Paul, you probably not remember me from the Ed. art dept., but I have long been an admirer or your work. What you are doing now is absolutely phenomenal, and I feel as if I am making the journey with you. Godspeed, my colleague.

    • Paul Salopek
      February 23, 2013

      Thanks, Judie. Glad to have you along.

  9. McKayla Dawn
    February 21, 2013

    cool story bro. O.o

  10. Emily
    February 21, 2013

    Agreed. Email notifications are not working. Wish they were… Good luck on your journey!

  11. Kyndal
    February 21, 2013

    Awesome, I have been hooked

  12. Floyd Oakes
    February 22, 2013

    This seems a bit polemic, “Or did we rape and kill, launching our species’ long and terrible history of genocides? “

  13. Greg Bennett
    February 22, 2013

    Just discovered your project today (2/22) and read your post of 2/11. I’m moved by the poetry of of your words and am looking forward to reading the rest and following your progress. Good luck and travel safely.

  14. Lisa
    February 22, 2013

    Hi Paul. My genotype is 7.4% hominid (both Neanderthal and denisovan). Chimpanzees also engage in ‘ warfare’ yes? But after reading talk of the Devil I think humans might be the only animal in which the ‘leaders’ kill off the followers too. Competition for resources? Enjoy your walk about I like your stories

  15. Barbara Standley
    February 28, 2013

    Perhaps your story illustrates the human capacity for empathy and compassion! You and Alema were strangers given water, food, shade,and sleep! Alema may have been verbally threatened, but neither of you was harmed. In fact, you were helped! That, is the true strength of H. sapiens. May your journey continue to encounter kindness.

  16. JFS
    February 28, 2013

    This intensifies the thoughts I had while reading the most recent issues of Nat Geo, specifically, the ones where explorers go on about something they did wrong, that got them hurt or killed. First: the people that you meet are not icons, any more than you are. They are people. Secondly: what excuse does a paid explorer have for not preparing adequately for a trek, or a job? Using up their very precious water, and turning it into a parable is inexcusable–someone went thirsty for you, or do you not understand that?

    Ignoring common wisdom (like packing enough water) or local wisdom (as with the story, in print, that mocked both the local tribesman and the local doctor, as far as treating a mystery bite or sting), is negative on so many levels.

    Maybe next time, you can write a story on what it takes to recover the few swallows of thick, alkaline water in that jerry can, whether it’s digging 40 foot deep holes (with no protection against collapse of the holes), sucking water from wet dirt, or “merely” carrying it for miles on your head.

    Again and again, these are not stories of unexpected emergencies. They are stories of extremely bad planning, at a very elementary level. You’re supposed to be seasoned explorers, not dilettantes.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 6, 2013

      JFS: You raise superb points that deserve attention. To travel thoughtfully is to move always with the needs of others in mind: People aren’t scenery. But you’d also probably agree that human exchanges can’t be tallied in mere physical terms (thirst, hunger, pain, work). What value, then, are we to ascribe not just to a mouthful of salty water—but to the smile that accompanies it? Or to the raw curiosity, even wonderment, that flows both ways during such an exchange. These aren’t trivial questions. Anthropologists like to say there is no such thing as a “true gift”: We always give in order to get something back, even if that reward is simply to feel good about ourselves, to mobilize our capacity for compassion. To cut oneself off from all these complex equations of give-and-take—to walk across the world so well trained, so “girded” for survival as to never require assistance from others—might seem responsible, but it also strikes me as somewhat inhuman. Balance, I suppose, is key. For me, that fulcrum point wobbles on a case-by-case basis, which is to say: constantly. Hasna’s water supply was drawn and carried by donkeys. I try to be kind to these poor beasts.

  17. william Abetkoff
    February 28, 2013

    -Wonderful,,,I am With You There In Spirit-……………

  18. Joss Hamilton
    February 28, 2013

    As part of the NGM DNA search, my grandson was found to have a trace of Eskimo – Paul has a long way to go!

  19. Donna Char
    February 28, 2013

    your writing gives me a visual image, your journey adds grace to my day. May you always be in gratitude for the gifts presented by others. You are a gift in my life.

  20. David
    February 28, 2013

    Hey Paul – Seems like you have a very adventurous family. I recently drove your sister and my mom to SFO as they were leaving for Africa for two weeks to teach water and sanitation fundamentals to some Seeds of Hope staff. She was telling me about this amazing adventure her brother was going on and then I just got this NatGeo email with your name in it and I had to check it out. What an amazing experience. Will be following your exploits from here on out. Be safe, have fun and learn…

    • Paul Salopek
      March 6, 2013

      Thank you, David. Circles within circles.

  21. Caitlyn Johnston
    February 28, 2013

    Wow – this is gorgeously written!! Well done! I can’t believe it’s only half a page!! Where’s the rest of the book? 🙂

  22. Frank
    February 28, 2013

    The rest of us can only dream of doing what your doing Paul. Stay safe. Looking forward to more about your trip.

  23. Devendra Tibrewal
    February 28, 2013

    I wish your journey inspires universal brotherhood . You are doing a great job for the humanity.Best of luck.

    March 1, 2013


    March 1, 2013


  26. Eva Maria Huschka
    March 1, 2013

    I am so looking forward to your reports.They not only make this journey come alive by the beautiful language but they open the right perspective for human life on this planet. Congratulation to you for a dream come true.We have not fully outgrown this notion “you are not of my clan” yet. Let’s work on it.
    P>S> my e-mail notification does not work.

  27. George P. Farris
    March 1, 2013

    Paul: I salute you and your team for making this commitment. In the past two-decades advances in the inter-related disciplines which compose Paleo-studies has exploded. In myriad ways the contributions you are making will increase public awareness and further spark the creativity and thought of practitioners in the related Paleo-sciences. You are making a sacrifice which will open minds concerning our origins and our commonality as a “species,” and the “genera” from which we spring. Paul, I have no doubt your achievements will insure the “Salopek Expedition” a lasting place in history. Regardless, in your willingness to dedicate the next seven years of your life in this dangerous journey it’s my impression that you have to be one really crazy dude! Still, I salute you and your endeavors, while conveying my best wishes for your success, and my prayers for your safety, and that of your team. Know that from afar there is an old soldier who admires your mission and envies your stamina to execute such an extraordinary expedition. Charge-on, George

  28. Mary Swersey
    March 1, 2013

    I am proud of my Neanderthal DNA and I love reading your posts. Living in AZ and having worked in Jordan, I have been very, very dry on several occasions and know the feeling and the fear well. May you go in peace and safety. I find peace
    generates peace and desert people are the most generous people I have ever met.

  29. jorge meneses aguilar
    March 5, 2013

    i hope someday all the war around the world cease cause humanity in not agressive. all the violence its created by some economical interest

  30. Loretta Bowden
    March 6, 2013

    Love following you. My emails do not follow the posts properly.

  31. sanjay talukdar
    March 7, 2013

    A highly laudable effort to understand early human migration. The story will definately help enriching our understanding of mankind.

  32. Molly Obryant
    March 27, 2013

    I hope you have fun walking! Keep doing the good work.

  33. Eliza
    March 27, 2013

    Looks really dry there where do you get water?

  34. Mrs. LeFurgey’s 6th Hour Class
    March 28, 2013

    Good luck on this epic journey. We are honored to be a part of the beginning of this adventure. We have questions that do not seem to end about how this journey will turn out. We see big possibilities. #GoodLuck

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