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.