National Geographic

Coasting

Near Haql, Saudi Arabia, 29°05'00" N, 34°52'16" E

We hunt and gather along the Red Sea.

Hassan al Faidi, our new logistician, a charismatic young Hemingway, casts his fishing line into the darkling waves.

Angling: Hassan al Faidi and Awad Omran take a break from walking to hunt and gather on the shores of the Red Sea. Near Haql, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Angling: Hassan al Faidi and Awad Omran take a break from walking on the shores of the Red Sea. Photograph by Paul Salopek

He does this over and over. He holds the thin monofilament across the pad of his extended index finger. He is feeling the slow tug of the waves, the gravelly vibration of the hook as it drags across coral, the gentle nudge of a fish’s lips as it tests his bait 20 or 30 yards away under the saltwater. We have been doing this for a very long time—this communion with hope: The oldest fishing hook, made of shell, was found in a sea cave in East Timor and dates back 23,000 years.

But we have been beachcombing far longer.

Throughout much of the Pleistocene—including 60,000 years (and 22 million high tides) ago when anatomically modern humans exploded out of Africa and spread across the Earth—sea levels were generally lower than today. Prevailing theory holds that bands of wandering hunters shambled along the broad ramps created by newly exposed continental shelves. Land bridges emerged, facilitating our species’ global expansion. Beneath the Red Sea, a long mound called the Hanish Rill may have poked above the waves between Africa and Arabia, offering early humans a chain of steppingstones to swim or raft between as they abandoned the mother continent. Such recent marine discoveries are rewriting the textbooks on human migration. An improbably old coastal campsite in Chile dating back 14,600 years, for instance, suggests that at least some of the earliest Americans settled the New World by seagoing canoe and not on foot, as long believed.

There are some extravagant coastal migration theories.

A few researchers have hypothesized that foraging along beaches made us smart, which is to say fully human. By scavenging washed up seafood through thousands of generations, they say, we unwittingly dosed ourselves with Omega-3 fatty acids—a famous brain nutrient abundant in seafood. (“Fairy story,” Meave Leakey, the famous paleoathropologist, huffed when I asked her about this idea.) There is even a fringe school of thought that claims our ape ancestors returned to the sea. According to this Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, traits such as bipedalism, big brains, and hairlessness are relics not of African savannas but a lot of prehistoric swimming and wading.

Whatever the case, seashores haunt our consciousness. We are drawn to them. Most of humanity lives next to the ocean.

Coasting into Duba, Saudi Arabia, on a waterfront promenade. Photograph by Ali al Harbi

Coasting into Duba on a waterfront promenade. Photograph by Ali al Harbi

For much of my trek through Saudi Arabia, this has been so. Sleepy cinderblock villages. Sprawling industrial ports. The Red Sea has been almost always within sight. It is a vast blue eye, flat and lidless like that of a fish, staring up at the hot daytime sun. At night it becomes a separate sky, but a starless one. Leaning back against a camel saddle, I have peered into its darkness for hours. I remember my nights at sea as a commercial fisherman. The tang of saltwater on steel. A welder working on the dredges—showering red sparks up into the cold north Atlantic constellations. Our hands so pickled in seawater they were like boiled onions. Staring into the sea is like staring into yourself.

“No good,” Hassan mutters.

He yanks in a small puffer fish—too bony to eat. I accidentally hook a sea snake. The sun is hemorrhaging into the wet horizon. We will go without brain food tonight.

It is a two days’ walk to Jordan. We are gentle with each other—on this desolate beach—Hassan the logistician, Awad Omran the cameleer, translator Ali al Harbi, and I. We speak in low tones. We move deliberately. We watch the sea vanish. There is an ending happening here.

* * * * *

THE RED SEA: A BRIDGE, NOT A BARRIER

Photo courtesy the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities

Ali al Ghabban. Photo courtesy the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities

Dr. Ali al Ghabban, the vice-president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, is a leading scholar on the history of Saudi Arabia. His family comes from Al Wajh, an old hajj port north of Jeddah. I spoke to him recently about the first major geographical obstacle humans encountered as they left Africa—the Red Sea.

Q: Given the archaeological evidence available on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia, how far back was Homo sapiens roaming this shoreline?

A: Since there are no human skeletal remains in Arabia from the time ranges in question, we cannot be sure about the answer to this question. However, on the basis of similarities in stone technology between finds in Arabia and Africa, it is reasonable to suppose that anatomically modern humans have been present in Arabia for at least 125,000 years, and possibly a little longer.

Of course, there were earlier hominins in the western escarpment region of Arabia, and they were present from at least 400,000 years ago, and most probably much earlier.

You should also note that the present shoreline is the shoreline that would have existed when sea level was close to the same height as today. Twenty thousand years ago sea level was over 100m lower, and in the Tihama region, where the offshore continental shelf is quite shallow, the contemporaneous shoreline would have been 50-100 kilometers farther out into the Red Sea. The sea level was high again at about 125,000 years ago and again at 200,000 years. High sea levels like today lasted about 5-10,000 years during the Ice Ages and recurred at about 100,000-year intervals over the past million years.

Q: Whenever I’ve stumbled across remnants of traditional culture on the walk, I’ve been struck by the similarity in everything from house architecture to sea songs in Saudi towns along the Red Sea. Everyone from Pharaonic Egyptians to the Romans to colonial Europeans plied these waters. So is there a “Red Sea culture”?

A: Human populations in Arabia through time have benefited and adapted to living a seaward culture, as resources from the sea have been sufficient to sustain their living needs. Through time and interaction with other cultures in the region led to the transmission of thoughts and ideas, as well as trading in various commodities in both directions, to and from other parts of globe. The building of ports, ships, and other items relevant to the daily needs of seaward cultures are clear evidence for human adaptations to living by the sea, and using its resources to cover the needs of daily life.

Q: What are some Red Sea sites that you would recommend to history-minded visitors?

A: Most of the early sites consist of little more than stone tool scatters, and these are difficult to find. Probably the most visible features in the landscape from an early period are the shell mounds of the Farasan Islands. There are many hundreds of these mounds, and the largest are up to five meters high and extend for hundreds of meters along the shoreline. They are quite recent, dating to about 5-6000 years ago, and were formed by Stone Age people with seafaring skills who lived by fishing, shell gathering, and some gazelle hunting.

Sea ports along the Red Sea make an attractive feature for those wishing to explore and appreciate the cultural history of the region. Among those sites is that of Acra Come, which was well known during the Roman Era, as an active sea port.

The Farasan Island is very rich with coral buildings built for wealthy pearl merchants and decorated with gypsum that has beautiful design motives. Jeddah city is also renowned for its historical down town, which features many buildings that exemplify a unique building architecture, with beautiful wooden window shades.

Q: There seems to be a flowering of archaeology in the Arabian Peninsula in recent years. Recent finds have pushed back the dates of modern human occupation so far that there is even an “Out of Arabia” theory of human dispersal. What more can we expect?

A: The General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities in Saudi Arabia has established a program of international collaboration with leading archaeological experts from around the world. The geographical extent of archaeological research zones in the Kingdom is so varied that it includes coastal, oasis, desert, wadi, and palaeo-lake regions. Also, archaeological research in the Kingdom covers evidence for human presence from the earliest times till the past few centuries.

The shell mounds in the Farasan Islands represent one of the largest groups of sites of this kind anywhere in the world. This is thanks to the fact that they have been well protected from modern development or other destructive activities, and they are also associated with a very productive and fertile marine environment. The earlier Stone Age sites, though not spectacular to look at, are pushing back the earliest dates for human presence in the Arabian Peninsula to dates that are comparable with those in northeast Africa and the Middle East.

Another group of spectacular sites occur in central Saudi Arabia at the Jubbah palaeo-lake in the Hail region, where there is excellent evidence for Middle Palaeolithic sites along lakeshores. These sites are of global importance, and we believe they are the signatures of modern humans moving out of Africa. Other field expeditions are looking into world-rated rock art sites in Jubbah, Shuwaimes, and Nejran, which tell the story of ancient Arabian populations in the peninsula.

There are 56 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Adam
    December 5, 2013

    Paul,
    This posting is exceptional! The historical information you provide is excellent, but the addition of the information provided by the Dr. Ali al Ghabban in the question & answer format gave me pause. We, humans, are so interconnected as a species, yet instead of working & living to improve our understanding and collaboration, we live at a time when so much hatred and conflict exists among the peoples of our Earth. Our differences may be pronounced, but I believe that what we have in common should bring us closer together. There is hope for our species!

  2. Tevan
    December 5, 2013

    Thanks Paul for your good information provided on Red Sea and areas history and culture. Waiting for the next episode. Take good care.

  3. Matías Nicolás Tartara
    December 5, 2013

    Is a good thing that Saudi Arabia is starting to care more about the history beyond the muslims. I think in the near future we will see some amazing things from that politic as far as new discoverys goes! Is so important in our past.
    I love the sea and the pictures that you post are amazing!! I can only imagine the amazing views that you live every second!
    Thanks!

  4. Fetene gebrewold
    December 5, 2013

    Paul:
    As a native of Ethiopia born not too far from Afar where you began your long journey wearing your skirt, it reminded me of the same type of skirt I used to wear. I am following your journey with great interest and wish you good luck in your journey.
    Fetene

    • Paul Salopek
      December 7, 2013

      The versatile shire or macawis: article of clothing, pillow, towel, blanket, and headscarf all in one.

  5. tom
    December 5, 2013

    paul, sounds like you are “eating native” in your travel. fishing and foraging for yourself and fellow travelers? enjoying local cuisine. I know you’re a southwesterner like myself and wonder if you’re missing a good bowl of pozole, menudo or albondigas from your new mexico?

    • Paul Salopek
      December 7, 2013

      Fortunately, chile peppers, the indispensable ingredient in Mexican cooking, have spread across the globe from their primordial source of cultivation in the Americas. Pili-pili in Africa. Filfil in Arabia. Chilli in Malaysia. Whatever the local name, the spice of my childhood has conquered many cuisines.

  6. Hikerbob
    December 5, 2013

    Are you wearing a kilt, Paul?

  7. Ammar
    December 5, 2013

    Excellent article Paul. Please keep these coming!

  8. patrick burns
    December 5, 2013

    fasinated by your relatings of your remarkable undertaking ! i will be following your blogs and National Geographic coverage.Good luck

  9. Cyrusfan
    December 6, 2013

    You have a factual error. 60 000 years corresponds to 22 million days, but note that a high tide happens twice a day, specifically every 12 hours 25 minutes. That corresponds to 43 million high tides!

    • Paul Salopek
      December 7, 2013

      Thanks for the correction, Cyrusfan. My minds’s eye flipped through the thousands of tidal charts I’ve peered at, automatically seeking the highest tide in a 24-hour cycle to sail on. But you’re right, of course. There are always two.

  10. Mary A Read
    December 6, 2013

    Hello Paul, looks like Amman will be the last of Jordan for you as you move forward into 2014. Some years ago, on a drive through the desert in Jordan, to an oasis, we stopped at a beautiful grove of apricot trees in full bloom, in a hilly place. We could turn around and view three famous seas, from there in faraway distances. How beautiful Jordan is, especially in oasis. A sad time of change there perhaps. Liked your last post; am learning so much from you. On now to new horizons- each step of the way as exciting as the last- jumping ahead to Tajikistan!- long journey in strange places. Can’ t wait. Mary

  11. mary
    December 6, 2013

    To HikerBob- no Hikerbob thsat would not be a kilt; that would be a sarong.

  12. mary
    December 6, 2013

    To HikerBob- no Hikerbob that would not be a kilt; that would be a sarong.

  13. Alex
    December 6, 2013

    I see the rocks and/or shells on the shore there…would be nice if you posted a picture of them. I love shelling and finding rocks. Since I doubt I will ever get over to the Red Sea or “across the pond”, would be really great to see a photo of the shells/rocks. Thanks and enjoy your walk; we sure are enjoying your posts. It’s better than an online course!

  14. Craig
    December 6, 2013

    I read your article in the National Geographic this morning. My sister taught school in Whales AK and could see Russia on a clear day. I look forward to reading about your walk. Take Care. Craig

  15. Barbara
    December 6, 2013

    I had such a sense of being at the Red Sea when reading this. Thanks so much.

  16. Ganaga Letchmi Ramachandran
    December 6, 2013

    Really enjoyed reading this article. Looking forward to the next one

  17. Linda
    December 7, 2013

    as posted in a tweet, this experience is not possible for my gender. It is so unfortunate that most of the world is off limits to women. I would love to be in your company right now, seeing and exploring first hand. But, alas, we know the reality. At least I can be there in spirit.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 15, 2013

      I respect your perspective. But on the contrary, Linda, women do make such journeys. They also make better reporters because they have access to the half of the population that was largely hidden from me in places such as Saudi Arabia: women.

  18. mohammad
    December 7, 2013

    Dear paul,that way of fishing, that beautiful teak wood small boat and that intimate seashore, all of them help memorize my childhood, in an small dusty port in south of iran. You are comming to my direction, to the enchanter levant.
    Mohammad from IRAN

  19. Betsy
    December 7, 2013

    How joyful it is to travel with you with photographs and your poetic descriptions. You are taking me and my imagination with you. As a woman I don’t think I could actually experience it myself but am eager to travel with you.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 15, 2013

      See my reply to Linda (above), Betsy.

  20. Linda Hoernke
    December 7, 2013

    Thank you again for your wonderful post. I so enjoyed the interview with Dr.Ali al Ghabban. “Staring into the sea is like staring into yourself.” So poetic/so true~~

  21. Linda Check
    December 8, 2013

    What an amazing undertaking. You have already accomplished much. I eagerly anticipate tracking your progress and reading more of these beautifully written posts. Best of luck!

  22. Cheri
    December 8, 2013

    I joined your caravan several posts ago, so perhaps you have already commented on traveling with camels.
    The photo in this post, taken from the back of a camel, made me wonder about the their idiosyncracies.

  23. ricardo
    December 8, 2013

    animo me encantan sus historias y sus fotos cuando pase por Mexico espero unirme a su caravana voy a leer muchos mas de sus comentarios.

  24. Anne Shaw
    December 8, 2013

    Your postings of your travels through Suadi Arabia have brought back very fond memories of living there as a Canadian in the early to mid eighties. Our second son was born there and we had the privilege of camping by the Red Sea on two occasions. We continue to have a framed picture of that experience hanging on the wall inside the entrance to our home. Thank you also for the historical information you have provided. The best for your ongoing adventures.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 15, 2013

      I agree. Saudi Arabia is a beautiful place. It was a privilege to walk there. Thanks, Anne.

  25. Douglas Kneeland
    December 8, 2013

    The posts are great. Like many National Geographic readers, I love maps. I would love to see a “live” map showing where you have been so far, and where you plan to go.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 15, 2013

      Douglas: See the project Map Room at the Out of Eden Walk site managed by the Science Journalism Fellowship Program at MIT. It has many maps, including ones that outline the pilgrim roads, the topography of the Afar Triangle, etc. All are produced by our partners at the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard.

  26. Andres
    December 9, 2013

    I love the way your last paragraph conveys the intimacy of group:

    “It is a two days’ walk to Jordan. We are gentle with each other—on this desolate beach—Hassan the logistician, Awad Omran the cameleer, translator Ali al Harbi, and I. We speak in low tones. We move deliberately. We watch the sea vanish. There is an ending happening here.”

    Are you about to part ways in Jordan? I wonder what you mean, about the gentleness. The cooperation and silence amongst hiking friends is such a profound experience. Out of the necessity of survival, friendship.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 15, 2013

      You answer your own question very well, Andres. My Saudi partners cannot join me in Jordan.

  27. Eva Maria Huschka
    December 9, 2013

    Lieber Paul! Aus Muenchen in Bayern, Germany sende ich Dir meine Gedanken. I can not wait for your wonder-ful posts and am following your walk on your map. When in the Rift Valley myself, I often wondered how mankind would have managed to cross the Red Sea. Now you answered my question. Following your posts has become an addiction.
    I am grateful that there are men like you, curious, fearless, knowledgeable and poetic.
    Will you let us know how/whether Xmas is celebrated in Jordania?
    May your guardian angel watch over you and your companions.
    Eva

  28. Jim
    December 9, 2013

    Paul,

    Great stuff. Thank you.
    Can you tell us more about your kit.

  29. Kath Engler
    December 9, 2013

    Lovely writing . I agree that we are drawn to seashores, to water sounds, to distant horizons. Enjoying your posts.

  30. pan mai
    December 10, 2013

    Read you will walk to Yunnan China around 2016 as written in NG. Hope to mee you then. Enjoy your walking.

  31. ana paula engler
    December 10, 2013

    Great post.
    Thanks !
    I am learling a lot.
    Ana Paula Engler

  32. Lisbeth
    December 10, 2013

    What a wonderful experience for us all! Good luck!

  33. Rebecca L. Fisher
    December 10, 2013

    My husband and I read and reread your posts, like rare letters from faraway family members. Your walk reminds me that we are all family members in a sense. Each day when I walk I think about our ancestors and all the people whose feet have ever trod this planet. Thank you for undertaking this journey, and for your beautiful dispatches.

  34. Gabriel
    December 12, 2013

    Hello Paul, i’m from Brazil and I just read your report in National Geographic magazine that is published here too, and I am fascinated about what you are doing… I wish I could do something like that, explore the world and do the exactly what our ancestors did. It’s wonderful, I’m so glad for you. I wish all the luck and I hope that you find good people to help you. Thank you so much for doing this for our generation.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 15, 2013

      Obrigado. Que bom que você está andando junto com o projeto.

  35. jim chapman
    December 12, 2013

    Paul, don’t be dissuaded by Meave Leakey. I am a firm proponent of the AAH. That there is no discernible fossil record is obviously because the transition took place on the seashore, which obliterated the record. With all due respect for your plan, I do feel that the human odyssey probably continued along the coast towards India and not to the north, through the Middle East. Safe travels, Jim

    • Paul Salopek
      December 15, 2013

      The track of gene markers in living populations supports your routing hypothesis, Jim. Ideally, I should have walked along the coast of Yemen to Oman and then onward toward the Arabian Gulf to India. Security consideration in Yemen blocked that path.

  36. Jim G
    December 13, 2013

    Paul, just a note to say thanks for sharing this with us. In a word; amazing! This goes without saying, but do take care. Jim G,

    P.S. you are not missing much in our modern world – same old junk!

  37. Aloysius Rusli
    December 19, 2013

    Happy to read your starting story in NGM Dec 2013 issue. Now starting to follow you on your way. May your guardian angel be always at your side. Your journey notes make the readers grow in their awareness of this beautiful little blue planet. Hopefully nurturing a peace-loving attitude. AR.. 19 dec 13.

  38. Sonja Kodric
    December 21, 2013

    Can I tell you a Red Sea story?
    We traveled to the coast of Sudan to Suakin, where old abandoned Portuguese palaces made of coral line the shore. Their terrace steps go right down into the water. We slept in the ruins overnight, and were awakened in the morning by spouting-spitting water noises. It was dolphins – breaking the surface of the water as they passed by a few feet away. We snorkeled – it was a phenomenal colourama of fishes and corals, absolutely incredible.
    Later, in Port Sudan, we boarded a passenger ship (the ‘ship of shit’), sailing up the Red Sea. It was a mistake taking ‘sleeping-on-the-deck-class’ – conditions were so bad. We got so sick we were barely able to stagger off the boat in Port Suez.
    I still have some pebbles from Suakin, but they are mixed up with all the other little rocks we collected on that so-called ‘world trip’. Should have labelled them – can’t remember which is which anymore.

  39. Daniel Sachs
    December 23, 2013

    Seems like a wonderful journey so far Paul. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Belen New Mexico

  40. Brenda Weisman
    December 31, 2013

    Fantastic journey and wonderful commentary.

  41. Cristian
    January 3, 2014

    Querido Paul, te cuento que soy nacido en Buenos Aires y criado en la provincia de Santa Cruz en la patagonia Argentina, conozco las tierras que serán el fin de tu inspirador viaje, incluyendo la isla de Tierra del Fuego.
    Andar es caer hacia delante.. y cada paso es un fracaso que evitamos..
    Cuando llegues a la ciudad mas austral del mundo tu vida habrá cambiado en muchos aspectos y para siempre, creo que en algún sentido la mía también, y la de miles de personas en todo el mundo, que a través de tus ojos, tus botas y natgeo compartimos esta travesía evolutiva.
    Gracias y suerte!

  42. monique hersh
    January 11, 2014

    Paul, just joined the journey a week or so ago…wondering what camera you travel with? Assuming it must be small, portable, durable and with many options available. Photos are amazing! (….and with a great eye behind the lens!)

  43. bulldog96
    February 6, 2014

    Great post
    Paul

  44. Monique
    February 21, 2014

    Greetings,
    Your journey is so amazing and spectacular! I wish I could do something similar to explore and experience all those beautiful things.

  45. Deborah
    March 9, 2014

    There was a tantalizing exhibit in Washington DC recently with an array of archaeological finds from Saudi Arabia. Fascinating objects, but it was such a recent development that Saudi Arabia cared to explore its past that almost nothing was known about the objects or the cultures that produced them. I am glad that this work is underway and grateful that you have taken the time to speak with people about it and to share what you have been learning.

  46. ilya
    November 20, 2014

    Why Paul traveld on the konoe

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