Walking the World for 10 Years, a Storyteller Ponders the Upsides of Nomadism in an Age of Drastic Change

Walking the World for 10 Years, a Storyteller Ponders the Upsides of Nomadism in an Age of Drastic Change

On the 10th anniversary of his walk, Paul Salopek visits Sanxingdui, a Bronze Age archeological site loaded with artifacts. He recounts mass migrations along his route, including the recent counter migration of young Chinese professionals from the city to rural areas.


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Geography, Social Studies, Anthropology, English Language Arts, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

This article is part of a collection called Out of Eden 10th Anniversary: Human Migration. It is also included in the Idea Set, Exploring Human Migration With the Out of Eden Walk.

By Paul Salopek


One lesson from a 24,000-mile global trail: Embrace your inner migrant.

Sanxingdui is China’s latest archaeological marvel.

Located in the lush farmlands outside the megacity of Chengdu, the world-class historical site has disgorged a dazzling trove of Bronze Age relics, most hauled from a series of gigantic burn pits: strange sculptures of bug-eyed deities, colossal masks of hammered gold, gleaming jade ornaments, and life-size trees smelted from bronze that glitter with stylized flowers and mythical birds.

Archaeologists sifting these 3,000-year-old ruins know little about the mysterious people who made such sophisticated art. A few clues only deepen the enigma of Sanxingdui: Many of the 13,000 artifacts unearthed so far were intentionally torched and buried at a single ritual event. Some experts believe the treasures are sacred objects yanked from the temples of a sprawling city-state and destroyed as a final goodbye to unreliable gods after a natural cataclysm—perhaps an earthquake or flood. All signs of Sanxingdui vanished soon thereafter. A few similar bronzes, excavated at a smaller site 30 miles away, were likely carried by refugees escaping a collapsed Sanxingdui.

“What we are seeing in Sanxingdui are probably sacrificial pits,” says Zhao Hao, an archaeologist from Peking University, in Beijing. “Everything was stacked and buried very carefully. It was all organized. So it doesn’t appear to indicate destruction by war or internal conflict.”

As probably the only recent tourist to visit Sanxingdui in original Bronze Age style—I walked there from Africa—such haunting signs of early human catastrophe and exodus resonate.

A decade ago this month, I set out on a steamy desert morning from the Rift Valley of Ethiopia to begin strolling toward the distant tip of South America. My 24,000-mile storytelling journey, called the Out of Eden Walk, aims to retrace, on foot, the faded pathways of the Stone Age nomads who first discovered the Earth. And on the 10th anniversary of my lunatic pilgrimage, the murky tale of Sanxingdui offers, in my trailside view, an especially apt reminder for our own age of emergency:

Keep some bags packed, folks. Don’t be lulled into complacency by the seeming permanence of “home”—our cities, temples, markets, and farms. The world is up-shifting into accelerated-change mode. So don’t be afraid to move along with it: Mobility is humankind’s oldest and most powerful survival tool.

Consider the statistics I’m walking through.

Nearly a billion restless people, UN agencies say, are ricocheting today between and within the world’s national borders. This represents the largest mass migration—forced or voluntary—in the 300,000-year story of our species. I’ve met literally thousands of these brave and desperate travelers while walking the badlands, superhighways, riverbanks and railway tracks of 19 countries.

In Ethiopia’s desert, I walked alongside columns of climate refugees fleeing parched farms in the Horn of Africa. Most were bound for the Middle East to rent out their muscles as laborers. In Jordan, I camped with dazed survivors from the slaughterhouse of Syria who clung to life in donated tents. Traversing northern India, I wandered among multitudes of ambitious young Punjabis studying English in order to pass Canada’s visa requirements. More recently, in hyper-urbanizing China, I’ve even encountered a counter-migration of young professionals who, worn out by the frenzy of city life, are trickling back into China’s emptied rural landscapes.

History—as scribbled by smug homebodies—often assigns these wandering souls a glib label: losers.

But that’s only because agriculture tamed the wild and woolly world 12,000 years ago, pinning all human achievement to toiling for one’s bread at a fixed patch of earth. Ever since, our sisters and brothers who roam the landscape have been deemed marginal characters, a second-class people: Migrants are dismissed as too weak, feared as too dangerous, or scorned as too backward or competitive to be trusted. Settled societies have tried to exterminate cultural nomads—whether Sioux or Romani—for centuries. (Governments abhor anyone who moves; they defy easy control.) Today, it’s the world’s vast pool of illegal migrant workers who endure near-universal bigotry and exploitation. Even legal immigrants face walls of bureaucracy to relocate. As for refugees, though pitied, they are often infantilized as disempowered victims. (Compassion is warranted, of course, but otherness strips refugees of agency, erasing their strength as survivors.)

Yet here’s what I’ve concluded across 22 million footsteps of highly privileged rambling in the wake of our shared Stone Age ancestors: Migration is a solution, not the problem. And neo-nomadism is looking increasingly like the strategy of winners.

In eastern Turkey, I stumbled across 700 miles of wheat and tomato furrows north to the Caucasus. These oldest of fields are now tallied among the 25 to 30 percent of the world’s farmlands depleting acutely from overuse. What happens when such Neolithic bonanzas of soil fertility finally play out? Do we really expect millions of local farmers to stay put? And what about the millions they no longer feed? Migrations, controlled or uncontrolled, will be a part of that denouement.

In the wild highlands of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, I met villagers astonished by a windfall from the climate crisis. Local creeks were swollen with runoff from irreversibly shrinking glaciers. Apricot orchards were thriving. But in 20 years or less, the beautiful alpine region will be drier than ever, and likely a depopulated ghostland. This is just the tip of the melting iceberg. According to one respected climate change analysis, “one to three billion” people worldwide will be displaced by extreme temperatures in the next 50 years. Again, mass migration will be the best option. The people who move will be strivers.

Meanwhile, here in China, I’m plodding through a rural panorama of geriatrics.

“I’m the youngest guy here, and I’m 59,” Lu Wang Jiang, a forest ranger in a mountain outpost called Ruhanguo, told me in rugged Yunnan. The village is stunning—glowing in the reflected light of an 18,000-foot massif—yet it’s also all but dead. Indeed, few Chinese without wrinkles sit in the provincial parks or labor in the vegetable fields that I walk past.

China is aging fast. In a dozen years, a third of its population, about 400 million people, will tip into their 60s. How China—the “factory of the world”—and other powerful but mass-immigration-resistant East Asian economies resolve potentially crippling labor shortages without the aid of global workers will be a dilemma that affects us all.

When it comes to collectively brainstorming our way through these and other drastic 21st century changes, whom should we consult?

Sedentary cultures hunkered behind barricades of anxiety? Or the migrating populations already on the hoof—with road wisdom to share?

I mean people like Tanatar “Tolik” Bekniyazov. A melon seller from the steppes of western Uzbekistan, Bekniyazov had slipped into neighboring Kazakhstan on dozens of occasions to work illegally in construction. My walking partner across 1,200 miles of his Silk Road country, he loped ahead carrying along a tolerant mindset and an equanimity toward hardship that was enviable—and instructive.

Or perhaps cultural empaths like Zhang Mei, who trekked with me up the canyon-hemmed headwaters of the Yangtze River in Yunnan. Zhang is the daughter of a working-class family who rose through suppleness and iron self-discipline (yin and yang) to straddle the worlds of China and the United States. Now dividing her time between Yunnan and California, she has built one of the most admired green tourism companies in China.

Of course, not everyone can walk away from global woes or stride toward emerging opportunities. Nor is movement an inherent good. Rust-belt cities in Jilin, China, and Michigan, United States, can be truly revitalized only with the deep local knowledge of their longtime natives. And an ethnically cleansed village anywhere isn’t a triumph of migration but a coordinate of dehumanization.

Still, I maintain my thesis of the open trail.

At this troubled crossroads in history, we’d best start listening more carefully to our family members marching to new horizons. I take heart from the ancient hunter-gatherers who blazed my project’s meandering routes. They problem-solved with their feet, going wherever the game was—in every sense of that word.

“Society only functions normally if we can move,” writes migration expert Parag Khanna in his book Move, which argues that societies that best channel the inevitable and exploding energy of 21st-century nomads will win the race for the future. “Once you stop pedaling a bicycle, it quickly falls over. Our civilization is that bicycle. And move we will.”

As for the sedentary people of Sanxingdui, they left no written records. Or maybe they drew their stories on perishable materials—long-crumbled bamboo or textiles.

Archaeologists know nothing, as of yet, about how this advanced and long-settled civilization struggled through its sudden downfall. Did it atomize into smaller but more sustainable villages? Were the homeless and wandering Sanxingdui-ians accepted or turned away from neighboring Bronze Age kingdoms? It is impossible to say.

All I know as I walk away from the astonishing dig site in Sichuan, where Chinese scientists in space-age protective suits work inside climate-controlled shelters, is what every footfall I make on the surrounding roads echo back to me: Don’t be afraid.

View the original dispatch to see video of excavation and research of the archaeological site at Sanxingdui.

Media Credits

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Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 24, 2024

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