National Geographic

The Glorious Boneyard: A Report From Our Starting Line

Herto Bouri, Ethiopia, 10°15'32" N, 40°33'24" E

Why are we so restless?

Why is impatience signaled by the tapping of a toe: a gesture that telegraphs walking away— hoofing it, laying tracks, leaving, shoving off lickety-split? Why is movement the default solution of our species? What’s wrong with standing still? Why even ask such questions? Because we are restless. Because we always ask.

Berhane Asfaw, the distinguished Ethiopian paleoanthropologist, was walking in the desert of his sepia-toned country, in the Rift Valley of Africa, near the steamy banks of the Awash River. He was surveying the site of one his team’s most famous discoveries: the fossil remains of Herto man, considered by some scientists to be the oldest fully recognizable human being ever found. A thick-wristed ancestor. A maker of moderately improved stone axes. A tireless eater of hippo meat. About 160,000 years old.

“These people didn’t move around much,” Asfaw reminded me. “It was greener here back then, kind of swampy, with open woodland. They had plenty of resources, plenty of food.”

Asfaw and his two colleagues, Tim White and Giday WoldeGabriel, had invited me to this anthropologically famous spot to begin walking across the world. I was setting out that very afternoon, in fact, on a long foot journey—seven years—whose object is to recreate, step by step, the transcontinental voyage of the first modern humans who dispersed successfully out of Africa. Ancient diasporas. Human migration. Exploration. Wanderlust. Exile. These were my themes. But Herto man had predated all such woolly notions by scores of millennia. Asfaw’s point: We were African homebodies for a long while, indeed, before hitting the global trail.

Even so, faint traces of our species’ trademark antsiness glimmered at dusty Herto Bouri.

The Herto specimens—identical to us in every respect but for some minor skeletal details—were found with their skulls severed from their bodies. They had been scalped. Moreover, one cranium belonging to a child of six or seven had been polished smooth by prolonged handling. This was, to say the least, a mystery. A puzzle. Clearly, these primordial elders had been asking a few uneasy questions of their own.

“It might have been some ritual,” Asfaw said, dabbing his sweaty brow with a folded bandanna. “Maybe mortuary practices. Who knows?”

It was a boiling January afternoon in the African cradle. The sun was toxic. In the middle distance, more scientists were swimming in squiggling heat waves. They were walking across the desert in erratic circles.

All were members of the Middle Awash Project, an international group of archaeologists, geologists, and paleontologists that Asfaw helps lead. They shuffled across the barren landscape in silence, as if in a trance, their heads bowed like an austere order of mendicants, forever looking down. They planted droopy little plastic flags in the dust: blue for stone tools, yellow for bones. Some carried ice axes designed for scaling alpine peaks. Occasionally, they swung these alien implements at the scorching earth: tink . . . tink . . . tink. One man directed the walkers here and there with shouts, with bellowed instructions, like a caller at a barn dance. A dance of sleepwalkers. Of dreamers. Of the blind, rummaging about for something lost, some totem of importance that had been misplaced, forgotten, a thing of value.

Little changes on the banks of the Awash River.

THE AGELESS QUEST

The man booming commands across the moonscape of the Ethiopian desert—the choreographer of the Middle Awash Project—was Tim White.

White was most definitely restless.

A rangy, bespectacled professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California at Berkeley, he is a superstar in the ultracompetitive field of human origins research. Famously prickly, no sufferer of fools, his technical brilliance—his sheer bloody-mindedness—is acknowledged even by his bitterest rivals. He was involved in the excavation of the famous Laetoli fossil footprints in Tanzania in the 1970s. On the opposite end of the evolutionary timescale from relatively young bonanzas such as Herto man, he and his colleagues have pushed back the hominid lineage nearly 6 million years, to Ardipithecus, an ancient, four-foot-tall creature that apparently divided its time between the ground and the trees. White’s team spent 15 painstaking years analyzing a single fabulous “Ardi” skeleton before they felt prepared to publish their results. To say the man is intense is like declaring the temperature of a molten Rift Valley afternoon a wee bit toasty. He steered his Toyota Landcruiser in tight, irritated circles whenever the expedition’s convoy of vehicles, bogged behind in the desert, dared slow him down. He urged his fellow fossil hunters onward with into-the-breach exhortations like, “Go, hominid!”

He roared: “Okay, guys, report back—now!

Alemayu! Come Here! Go around this hill! Below the soldiers! Go! Fifteen minutes! Go!

We’re done! We’re finished here! That’s the verdict of Idi Amin Dada, president for life!”

The soldiers in question were 38 Ethiopian National Police toting Kalashnikov rifles. This year, they accompanied the Middle Awash Project’s team of sun-struck scientists (from Ethiopia, France, Chad, America) into the desert to protect them against the primordial warfare between local Issa and Afar nomads. That Tim White would deem an armed platoon a normal part of a day’s research goes a long way toward explaining why his crew emerged from the Rift this collecting season with a trove of more than 2,000 fossils—including the bones of five primate species (one a giant baboon), wild pigs, monitor lizards, hippo, antelopes, an extinct bovid called Pelorovis with a six-foot horn spread and, the grail of grails, hundreds of precious fragments from more than 30 hominid individuals. They found thousands upon thousands of stone tools, mostly ancient hand axes, shaped like petrified teardrops. They avidly trailed a yard-wide stratum of 300,000-year-old artifacts across the vast, tectonically rumpled landscape, the thinnest of pages from one of the blankest chapters of human evolution, from the first biological inklings of who we were eventually to become, Homo sapiens.

“There is no other place like this in the world,” White said of the boneyard of the Middle Awash, where hominids are scattered atop each other in at least 15 geological layers. “There are six million years of prehistory out here. It covers everything, back to our common ancestry with apes.”

White was sitting at his expedition’s tented camp, poring over a large color satellite map of his survey area. He’d already crisscrossed much of the surrounding desert on foot since he first came to Ethiopia in 1981. He peered at the bronze Rift walls, the pleated badlands, the Awash River’s thorny floodplains in a way virtually nobody else could, in four dimensions, through time. It was almost shamanic. He saw ghostly ecosystems jutting from the side of crumbly, anonymous scarps. He saw ancient volcanoes belching ash within pale, sugary horizons of tuff. He’d bend down to pick up a nondescript fossil, off-handedly mutter, “Proximal radius of a monkey,” and walk on, leaving troupes of spectral apes and flocks of archaic birds to bloom and chitter and fade in a long vanished woodland behind him.

The ferocity of White’s intellect, the mortal seriousness of his intent, his devotion to the question at hand—“The fact that these tools are Acheulean is the most boring thing about them. Who the hell cares? It’s what these tool assemblages tell us about what these people were doing and why, now that’s what’s interesting”—was a privilege to behold. It was like watching a virtuoso paint or a diva sing. In an age of junk information, awash in Googled laziness, his adulation of a bombproof fact gave you hope in the survival of the Enlightenment.

“That skeleton. Looked like it went through a blender. Afar kids were using pieces of it to throw at goats. We found a fragment of its distal humerus 150 meters away.”

This was a typical Tim White anecdote.

There seemed little doubt, as he popped a potato chip into his mouth one day in the miserly shade of an acacia, that in another 15 years he’d have those bones reassembled. Around him, meanwhile, the bone hunters sprawled on the ground, hats over faces, trying to doze through another suffocating lunch break. A few were making tuna-fish-and-peanut-butter sandwiches at a folding camp table. I never could figure out if they actually enjoyed eating such grotesqueries, or if it was some perverse exercise in esprit de corps, the way Shackleton’s men had shaved their heads in solidarity in the Antarctic.

“Your timing is good,” White told me at one point, wistfully, because he loved walking, because he was thinking of joining me awhile as I plodded out of Africa. “You’re going through the Middle Awash before it changes forever. Roads. Dams. Towns. I’ve never seen anything like it. This’ll all be gone in five years.”

But there are no golden ages, of course. Just golden memories.

When the Middle Awash Project finally struck its desert base camp—a nylon outpost of nomad scholars, replete with solar-heated shower bladders and a portable kitchen that turned out crepes–I remember spotting the great Tim White, whose work is ranked in the top one percent of his field by the academic database Essential Science Indicators, toiling alone out under the sun. He was lost in his work, concentrating with usual vehemence, breaking down the latrine barehanded, apparently a job he delegated to nobody. I liked him immensely.

THE REMEMBERED JOURNEY

Memory unlocked the doors of the world.

When anatomically modern Homo sapiens walked out of Africa to become masters of the planet between 60,000 and 90,000 years ago, they likely were pushed, so the current thinking goes, by the effects of apocalyptic famines.

Droughts had parched the African savannas of our species’ infancy. Starvation wiped out more than 90 percent of humankind. It was a near extinction event. A classic bottleneck. Survivors burst out of the continent when the climate shifted again and greened the Middle East, allowing people to migrate into a lush haven of savannas and lakes located in what are today the gravel wastes of central Arabia. From there, the continents fell to us like dominoes.

Another sort of weather may have contributed as well to our rapid dominance of the Earth—in this case, a change in the electrical storms inside our skulls. Something odd happened to our brains about this time. Neural lightning struck. We suddenly exhibited fully modern behaviors such innovative tool making, a compulsion to make art, and facility for advanced language and symbolic thinking. Until recently, convention held that this “Neolithic revolution” only happened once we left Africa. (Hence Lascaux Cave in France.) But growing evidence from Africa shows this not to be the case; 100,000-year-old artifacts that display abstract consciousness have been unearthed in South Africa.

Rick Potts at the Smithsonian Institute gave an explanation for humanity’s global dominances that seems obvious once it’s shared: There were simply enough of us alive at the same time. When we stepped out of Africa, we had rebuilt our populations to a point where collective experience, ideas, knowledge, at last could be transmitted to successive generations. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel over and over again, as we had when we kept dying out. We remembered each other’s memories. We could marshal the words to remember them by.

THE WAITING SEA

One day, the Great Rift Valley will drown.

Arabia is drifting away from Africa at the rate of 16 millimeters—or 5/8 of an inch—every year. Massive stress cracks gape in Ethiopia’s Rift, in the otherworldly volcanic badlands of the Danakil Depression. The Earth here bulges and buckles. Valleys erode, sag, deepen, their bottoms yanking apart like taffy, forming grabens, slips—gargantuan concavities that yawn thousands of miles southward to Mozambique. Within ten million years—or by lunchtime tomorrow; it all depends on the size of the next earthquake—saltwater will come frothing in a muddy wall down from the Red Sea. The sole plugs at the moment are the low coastal hills of Djibouti and Eritrea. This embryonic new inlet might be called the Eritrean Sea. Its birth will be messy. It would be something to see.

“The surface will be way up there,” Giday WoldeGabriel said. He pointed at the dust-white Ethiopian sky. “Five hundred feet up, maybe.”

We both looked up from the Rift’s slumping floor.

And I could imagine it: The dark, weedy hulls of ships passing in silhouette, slicing the waves high above us: oil tankers, barnacled dhows, fishermen’s skiffs—an armada of the future that would drag its attenuated shadows, like wavering blue planarians, across the barren tan hills of the western Rift. There would be a ferry between the brand new shoreline of Africa and the gigantic island of Somalia. Such millenarian visions came easily in the Middle Awash. Occasionally, the stacked weight of the years pressed on your chest, taking your breath away. Ardi and Herto man, the famous australopithecine called Lucy and many other undiscovered, nickname-able ancestors—all these roots, junctures and branches of our family tree will be underwater, submerged. An irreplaceable book of time, a priceless genealogy, will become a coral reef.

WoldeGabriel shrugged. Being the timekeeper of the Middle Awash Project had made him philosophical.

A friendly, athletic man from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, he was the team’s chief geologist: a connoisseur of the stacked volcanic tuffs that the bone prospectors employed to date their finds. He scrambled like a goat up and down steep slopes in the puckered badlands, digging out cupfuls of ash and depositing them into plastic baggies. His much younger French colleague, a geochemist named Anne Lebatard, struggled to keep up. WoldeGabriel never seemed to sweat.

I asked him why, geologically speaking, this improbably discrete patch of the Rift was the Klondike of the fossil hominid world. It turned out to be complicated. A combination of biochemistry (just the right minerals in soil to replace bone’s calcium) and tectonics (just enough uplift to expose fossiliferous layers). But WoldeGabriel circled back to the common ingredient in both life and death.

“Water covered these remains, preserving them when this desert was a swamp,” he said. “Water will take them away. Nature mines itself. It’s a very interconnected process, never ending.”

THE TRAIL AHEAD

The human conquest of the Earth was a zigzag affair.

It progressed over the course of at least 40,000 years in fits and starts, discursively, with advances and retreats, backflows and strides ahead, much like the blind dance of the paleontologists—like the trajectory of s single life. And how could it be anything different? We’re restless. We’ve always been grasping for something beyond our reach. The journey itself makes us human.

A surprising amount of wildlife still survived around the Middle Awash. Given the prevalence of firearms—the Afar and Issa nomads carry assault rifles—this struck me as little short of miraculous.

When I finally walked away from the work of the scientists, animals began to appear. Ostriches and jackals were common. Once, in the distance, I saw an oryx. But the most abundant creatures by far were gazelles. There were hundreds, possibly thousands of them. They sprang across the trail not 20 yards away, unafraid. I could never take this as a matter of course. It brought to mind the American poet William Stafford, who noted how “you can pass an antelope and not know / and look back, and then—even before you see— / there is something wrong about the grass.” Stafford’s was a poem about walking, perhaps even about picking up a bone, about the mysterious and lingering power of the past:

Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.

There will be that form in the grass.

There are 65 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Arati
    March 26, 2013

    These past ten days, waiting for this new dispatch has been near agony. But gosh, now there’s so much to chew on.
    “There were simply enough of us alive at the same time.”
    Thank you for doing what you do, and for writing like you write. No one else comes close. Good luck, Paul!

  2. Chloe
    March 27, 2013

    That video is really loud. But this is a really good story. Good luck!

  3. kelsey
    March 27, 2013

    i liked it alot and its very cool to expierience it

  4. kelsey
    March 27, 2013

    do camels spit for living?

  5. Hannah
    March 27, 2013

    My social studies class is writing about you and my class does this once a month. So far your journey is so interesting.

  6. Cassie
    March 27, 2013

    Hey ur aweso,

  7. Aubury
    March 27, 2013

    the videos,the sounds,and pictures are really good:p

  8. Jacob
    March 27, 2013

    Hey you are very amazing for doing this

  9. Cassie
    March 27, 2013

    You are awesome

  10. Elizabeth Moon
    March 27, 2013

    Fascinating and brilliantly written. The twin pulls of restlessness and “home” that shape our species–the reaching out, and the defense of a place, a culture, a self–are endlessly fascinating. Good fortune on your long journey

  11. David J.
    March 27, 2013

    Incisively observed, movingly detailed, churns the mind.

  12. waterbird
    March 27, 2013

    a privelage to be able to follow your posts.

  13. marge keller
    March 27, 2013

    I am so interested in your “walk” and look forward to reading more and more. Have fun as well as experiencing.

  14. Lois Millar
    March 27, 2013

    The poem is such a wonderful summary of this life journey we are all taking with you Paul. The shear poetry of your writing style is an added blessing. Thank you.

  15. Ian Petrie
    March 27, 2013

    This is going to be good. We have seen the speeded up version of man’s trek around the world on tv. But this will take time to experience it. A great project. I follow with great interest.

  16. Larry Perkins
    March 27, 2013

    I’m reading every word of every dispatch over and over. I’m a decidedly unpoetic scientist, but your poetry from this scientific and historical enterprise brings me almost to tears with every sentence. My sincerest thanks to you – and Nat Geo – for this experience. God Speed.
    Larry

  17. Barbara Rose
    March 27, 2013

    Thank you, Paul, for taking us with you on your physically, intellectually and spiritually challenging journey.

  18. zoolady
    March 27, 2013

    I’m HOOKED! Wish I were there….

  19. Anthony Pluck
    March 27, 2013

    To learn to know ourselves and our relationship with our universe is a noble thing. I will follow and you shall reveal our truth and our narrative. Please continue…

  20. Veronica
    March 27, 2013

    What a great read. It was like being there. Thank you

  21. gail orriss
    March 27, 2013

    What an adventure! Thankyou for sharing. Amazing writing skills.

  22. Cruz del Sur
    March 27, 2013

    PIEDRA en la piedra, el hombre, dónde estuvo?
    Aire en el aire, el hombre, dónde estuvo?
    Tiempo en el tiempo, el hombre, dónde estuvo? . Pablo Neruda.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      Mil gracias, Cruz. Mi tocayo—y uno de mis poetas favoritos.

  23. kathie leitch
    March 27, 2013

    Am printing this up and am going to keep all the info – what an adventure!

  24. Cruz del Sur
    March 27, 2013

    Stone on stone, human beings, where were they?
    Air on air, human beings, where were they?
    Time in time, human beings, where were they? Pablo Neruda (X)
    The Heights of Machu Picchu

  25. Tessa
    March 27, 2013

    Just gets better and better.Beyond the beyond.

  26. hattie
    March 27, 2013

    Having recently read the area of the Danili — living in ‘The Hellhole of Creation’, I am wondering if you will be near it? It is fascinating and sounds like Death Valley- on-steroids. I am loving your posts. The weirder it is, the more I love it. Thanks, Hattie

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      We have crossed Nebitt’s old tracks several times, Hattie. The Afar Triangle hasn’t changed too much, in its essentials, since the late 1920s. The pastoralists still feel their way of life superior to all others.

  27. Karen Lane
    March 27, 2013

    Makes you think about how far we’ve come. Mind boggling.

  28. Tom Dailey
    March 27, 2013

    This is such an evocative piece, Paul, from the toe-tapping urgency to get it all done, to the incredibly–actually, if you can stand still long enough–short time since we left our species’ womb, to now, when we are like neurons whizzing into the cosmos…except for your patient plod. It gives one much more than pause. Thank you and thank all your cameleers past to come. Thank you for this journey.

  29. dagmar lavigne
    March 27, 2013

    This has already taught me to “slow down”…as I patiently wait for your dispatches and milestones.
    I commend you and will continue to follow for the years to come…keep up the exceptional writing…you and your trek are truly admirable and inspirational.

  30. Loo
    March 27, 2013

    This is like a three-legged race! I step along with you as you share what it is to be human. I applaud your mission. Keep it simple. You have undertaken a huge responsibility for all of mankind. You’ll shed your old overcoat and never be the same.

  31. Sundog
    March 27, 2013

    Thanks Paul & sponsors for you being there & writing it down. Good luck, stay safe & may the winds be at your back.

  32. Linda Hoernke
    March 28, 2013

    Thank you again for a wonderful insight and comparison of “humankind.” I am following you all the way…your writing is a treasure.

  33. Margaret Mazzaferro
    March 28, 2013

    It’s such a privilege to live this trip vicariously through your words. Thanks.

  34. Matthew Traucht
    March 28, 2013

    Thank you Paul for your journey and the story you are telling. I’m a writer, a photographer, a traveler. I have a degree in anthropology and am a few scant weeks from completing my masters in landscape architecture. I lived for two years in Africa and can’t wait to go back. You are driving me, inspiring to me. With every one of your posts, I learn something more about myself. I look forward to your stories tomorrow and the day after that. I feel so happy to know that I will get to travel on this journey for you for the better part of the next several years.

  35. Matthew Traucht
    March 28, 2013

    (on this journey) *with (you)

  36. Jenny Mackintosh
    March 28, 2013

    Beautiful writing, thank you. Happy walking!

  37. Christine Whitelaw
    March 28, 2013

    wow!

  38. Carolyn Dempster
    March 28, 2013

    What a pleasure to track your journey through your beautiful writing Paul. How are the boots & legs holding up?

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      Carolyn—all faculties still intact. Boots: not so good.

  39. Margaret Moore
    March 28, 2013

    Thrilling,Paul, to read your rich description of this leg of your journey. Thank you for opening my eyes to our deep and rich history. I am grateful to have met you through Cynthia Berry and now having the privilege to follow your walk. Margaret Moore

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      Glad to have you along, Margaret.

  40. Mrs. LeFurgey’s 1st Hour Class
    March 28, 2013

    We are so excited today to see our first email on Mr. Salopek’s journey! We wish him luck and look forward to following his quest. We are all 14, 15 and 16 years old. We will be grown when he reaches his destination.

  41. WML
    March 28, 2013

    Pablo…cruise!

  42. Sito
    March 28, 2013

    I remember a story you did — actually, I don’t, I just remember the impression it left. I think it was about Big Bend. What I remember is that you wrote like the desert. Spare, vast, expansive but full of meaning.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      Thanks, Sito. I send my regards to all my borders friends—from one desert to another.

  43. Mark G
    March 28, 2013

    Wow! Already a great tale! I am hooked.

  44. Gary Boivin
    March 28, 2013

    The sight of animals has to be a tonic for the soul. They show that no matter how harsh a place may feel, it has value as part of our wider world. Take plenty of time to recoup in Djibouti. Yemen is bound to be wildly fascinating and nerve-wracking, at the same time.

  45. Dale Dodson
    March 29, 2013

    What a privilege to start the day reading of this journey–so beautifully written and rich in both factual history and reflective insights. Already looking forward to the next installment.Thank you and safe travels!.

  46. Pamela Livingston
    March 29, 2013

    Fascinating and beautifully written.

  47. Nancy Granger
    March 30, 2013

    Yes, you are a superbwriter!
    I am enjoying your walk…

  48. David Bofinger
    March 31, 2013

    The reference to “neolithic revolution” is a problem, it came much later than the events discussed in this article.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      David, you are right. The Neolithic Revolution refers to the transition to agriculture and sedentism around 11,000 years ago. I should have referred instead to the advent of symbolic thought or “modern behavior”—whose timeline, as you probably know, is still debated.

  49. Eva Maria Huschka
    March 31, 2013

    I have lived there, found some stone axes, loved it.
    I love your language!

  50. Jack Fuller
    April 1, 2013

    A wonderful piece, Paul. Thank you.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 9, 2013

      Thanks, Jack. You have been a great sounding board for these ideas. I’ll continue to rely on that.

  51. Eddie Patton
    April 3, 2013

    Paul, you astound me. With good authors, like yourself, I can immerse myself in the being of your adven-
    tures. Onward thru the fog!!!!!

  52. E E Castleberry
    April 3, 2013

    You are my hero. Briliant storytelling! Im hooked.

  53. Hiker Bob
    April 6, 2013

    This one is happy that this wonderful journey is going to last 7 years of adventure, travel reporting and history telling. Thanks for dreaming this up!

  54. jack tracy
    April 7, 2013

    Keep up the good work.

  55. april sayco
    April 11, 2013

    it always gives us so much to think and appreciate life.i’m always glued reading your articles..like walking with you on your travels.Godbless always.

  56. getachew aya
    May 12, 2013

    I am proud & amazed when I heard the modern human journey started from Ethiopia.

  57. Sally Patterson
    May 29, 2014

    Paul,
    Just learned of your journey today. I am a business woman and a modest writer myself..You however, write like an angel..do you have all you need? Please let me know..I am a gifted fund raiser. Firefogel@aol.com aka Sally Carol Portland, OR

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The Glorious Boneyard: A Report From Our Starting Line – Out Of Eden Walk | Lucid Gypsy

    [...] Look where Mr Salopek is now! If you haven’t heard about this incredible journey have a look back over his pages. The Glorious Boneyard: A Report From Our Starting Line – Out Of Eden Walk. [...]

    March 28, 201312:42 am

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