National Geographic

Trail Notes: Mound Cultures

Near Dahaban, Saudi Arabia, 22°30'42" N, 39°11'16" E

Humans leave echoing imprints across the surface of the Earth. We feel compelled to reshape our environment in systematic ways. Familiar shapes have begun to appear and reappear on the long walk. The most striking is the mound.

In the remote Afar Triangle of Ethiopia, the African desert was stippled with thousands of stone monuments—graves or plinths raised to the antique dead. Walking among these artifacts, built by the local Afar nomads, was like trekking through an immense graveyard. They were beacons of memory.

Guide Ahmed Alema Hessan walking past mound culture of Ethiopia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Ahmed Alema Hessan on the move amid Ethiopia’s mound culture: stone monuments to the dead. Photograph by Paul Salopek

In Saudi Arabia the impulse is modern. For mile after mile, we thread our way among thousands—no, hundreds of thousands—of piles of construction spoil. Truckloads of dirt are the dominant land feature across much of the desert north of Jeddah. Saudi Arabia is bursting with construction sites—a building bonanza sparked by a surging young population (the Kingdom’s median age is 26) and loosened public spending since the Arab Spring. These are mounds of the future. It is only appropriate, then, that our chief cameleer, Awad Omran, should wear a blue plastic construction helmet, found discarded beside the road, to navigate them on our camel, Seema.

Banounah and Awad negotiating the mound culture of Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Mohamad Banounah (walking) and Awad Omran traverse Saudi Arabia’s mound culture: piles of construction spoil. Photograph by Paul Salopek

There are 13 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Adam Jasmick Jr.
    July 26, 2013

    You journey continues to reveal history that few ever would be exposed to with your narration and photos. It’s a shame that the construction debris is being dumped in the desert. Future explorers may find it difficult to appreciate the mounds created to recognize/honor the deceased.
    Stay safe! Looking forward to future posts.

  2. Larry Perkins
    July 30, 2013

    I’m fascinated not only by the ancient traces left for you to find, but the long-lost details behind them. We know that the humans who traversed that land had brains just like ours, and thus a rich culture that they carried along with them. As you say, they weren’t really going anywhere, so they presumably didn’t hurry. It must have been an amazing, if gradual, journey of discovery and conjecture and invention. Think of the leadership challenges, the campfire confabs, the inevitable social conflicts, the emerging geniuses. I am floored by the implications of your story. Thank you once again.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 1, 2013

      It is hard to reconstruct an entire cosmos of human discovery that’s lost to memory. But agree, Larry, the people at the speartip of the first global diaspora probably only moved—as in resettled with a landscape—quite rarely, perhaps as little as once a lifetime. It’s always tempting to ascribe it always to mere appetite—resource depletion, hunger. But who knows what reasons truly motivated (and still motivate) people to climb over the next hill?

  3. Keith Fee
    July 30, 2013

    Really enjoy your posts.

  4. Loretta Bowden
    July 31, 2013

    Though I am a senior, love of mankind and your journey exists. Very exciting.

  5. HikerBob
    July 31, 2013

    Being a camper and hiker, and while continuing to share in your Walk, my present pathways are enlarging and emblazoned with anew vividness and faint echoes of their own history, my eyes have been injected with your lessons of what has been as well as what is.

  6. HikerBob
    July 31, 2013

    A reminder to all that it is most interesting to go to the Map Room and blowup the maps to full detail of Paul’s path and current position.

  7. HikerBob
    July 31, 2013

    The “Lines in the Sand”, clearly show on the blown up satellite maps in the Map Room.

  8. matthew
    August 24, 2013

    Love your updates. So interesting Paul!

  9. Kinsloe
    August 29, 2013

    This is spectacular, a true hero’s journey. Thank you for sharing the beauty and the muse!

  10. Lizzy
    February 7, 2014

    Thank you for all your posts they are all very interesting and educational. It’s really cool to know everything that goes on around the world.

  11. Maria
    April 21, 2016

    It is awesome that there you found the ancient traces.

  12. ana regina
    April 22, 2016

    its very cool all of the things you’ve had find and discover in the walk and i think that one of the most interesting is this of the ancient traces.

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