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.


4 - 12


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.

By Paul Salopek


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

Sanxingdui is located in the farmlands outside the big city of Chengdu, China. The historical site bares many old treasures from the Bronze Age. There are strange sculptures, huge gold masks, jade ornaments, and life-size trees with flowers and birds made of bronze.

The archaeologists studying these 3,000-year-old ruins know little about the people who made the art. A few clues only deepen the mystery of Sanxingdui. Many of the 13,000 artifacts found so far were burned and buried during a single event. Some experts believe the treasures are sacred objects. They believe the objects were taken from temples and destroyed. Perhaps the ritual was a final goodbye to unreliable gods after a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or flood. All signs of Sanxingdui vanished soon thereafter. A few similar bronze relics were found at a smaller site 30 miles away. They were likely carried by escaping refugees.

Zhao Hao is an archaeologist from Peking University, in Beijing. He says that the objects in the Sanxingdui pits were probably placed there on purpose. “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 people would have visited Sanxingdui during the Bronze Age, I walked there from Africa. Based on my experiences, I can recognize evidence of early human loss and mass movement.

A decade ago this month, I set out on a warm desert morning from the Rift Valley of Ethiopia to begin my long walk toward the distant tip of South America. My 24,000-mile storytelling journey is called the Out of Eden Walk. It aims to retrace, on foot, the pathways of the Stone Age nomads who first discovered the Earth. And on the 10th anniversary of my daring travels, the mystery of Sanxingdui offers us a good reminder for today:

Keep some bags packed, folks. Don’t become too comfortable in the idea of “home.” Don’t count on cities, temples, markets, and farms. The world can change quickly. So don’t be afraid to move along with it. Being able to move is humankind’s oldest and most powerful way to survive.

Consider the numbers. Agencies for the United Nations say that nearly a billion people are moving between and within the world’s national borders. This represents the largest mass migration, or movement of any kind in the 300,000-year story of humans. I’ve met literally thousands of these brave travelers while walking the varied walkways, riverbanks, and railway tracks of 19 countries.

In Ethiopia’s desert, I walked alongside refugees fleeing dried-up farms in the Horn of Africa. Most were going to the Middle East, looking for work. In Jordan, I camped with survivors of the horrible war in Syria. They clung to life in donated tents. Crossing northern India, I wandered among many young Punjabis. They were studying English in order to pass Canada’s visa requirements. In China, I recently met young professionals who were tired of stressful city life and wanted to move back into rural areas. History, as written by people who don’t go anywhere, often sees these travelers as losers.

However, that’s only because the discovery of farming changed the world 12,000 years ago. Agriculture requires humans to work one patch of land for their food and income. People suddenly saw the good in staying in one place and building. Ever since, our sisters and brothers who roam the landscape have been labeled a second-class people. Travelers and wanderers are dismissed as too weak, feared as too dangerous, or labeled as untrustworthy. Settled societies have tried to get rid of cultural nomads for centuries. Governments disapprove of people who wander; they are seen as not easy to control. Today, the world’s large population of illegal migrant workers are treated very poorly in their new countries. Governments even make it hard for legal immigrants to relocate. People often pity refugees. However, they are also often treated like powerless victims. People forget the refugees’ strength as survivors.

Yet, I have learned something in my conclusion after 22 million footsteps in the paths of our shared Stone Age ancestors. Migration is a solution, not the problem. It is looking like the plan of winners.

In eastern Turkey, I stumbled across 700 miles of wheat and tomato fields. These are now among the 25 to 30 percent of the world’s farmlands that are drying up. What happens when these important growing areas finally stop producing food? Do we really expect millions of local farmers to stay in place? And what about the millions they no longer feed? Migrations will be part of the change that happens when lands stop producing food.

In the wild highlands of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, I met villagers surprised by sudden benefits from climate change. Local creeks were overflowing with melted waters from shrinking glaciers. Apricot orchards were thriving. But in 20 years or less, the beautiful, forested region will be drier than ever. It may become an empty 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 able to change and survive.

Meanwhile, here in rural China, I observe that most people are elderly.

“I’m the youngest guy here, and I’m 59,” explains Lu Wang Jiang, a forest ranger in a mountain outpost called Ruhanguo. The village in rugged Yunnan is stunning. It glows in the reflected light of an 18,000-foot mountain range. But there are so few young people. Indeed, few people without wrinkles sit in the 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 reach their 60s. China is known as the “factory of the world.” Along with other powerful East Asian economies, it has resisted mass immigration. How these countries solve serious labor shortages without the aid of global workers will be a problem that affects us all.

Who should we get advice from when thinking about these big 21st century changes and problems? Cultures that stay in one place and worry? Or migrating people already on the move—with wisdom about traveling to share?

I mean people like Tanatar “Tolik” Bekniyazov, a melon seller from the grasslands of Western Uzbekistan. Bekniyazov had slipped into neighboring Kazakhstan on dozens of times to work illegally in construction. He was my walking partner across 1,200 miles of his Silk Road country. He loped ahead carrying along an open-minded and inspiring attitude toward hardship.

Or perhaps people like Zhang Mei. She trekked with me up the canyons and streams that form the beginning of the Yangtze River in Yunnan. Zhang is the daughter of a working-class family. She rose through her adaptability and tough self-discipline. These skills help her manage the two cultural worlds of China and the United States. She divides her time between Yunnan and California and has built one of the most respected green tourism companies in China.

Of course, not everyone can walk away from global problems or step toward new opportunities. Nor is movement always right and natural good. Cities that have fallen apart in different parts of the world can only be brought back to life with the deep knowledge of their longtime local people. And forced migration anywhere is an injustice.

Still, I stand by my belief in the power of the open trail.

At this troubled time 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 whose paths I followed for my project. They went where there was food and better luck. Their choice to migrate helped solve their problems.

“Society only functions normally if we can move,” writes migration expert Parag Khanna in his book Move. He says that societies that use the energy of 21st-century nomads will have the most successful futures. “Once you stop pedaling a bicycle, it quickly falls over. Our civilization is that bicycle. And move we will.”

As for the people of Sanxingdui, they left no written records. Or maybe they drew their stories on materials that didn’t last, like bamboo or textiles.

Archaeologists do not know yet how this advanced and long-settled civilization struggled through its sudden downfall. Did it break into smaller villages? Were the homeless and wandering Sanxingdui-ians accepted or turned away from neighboring Bronze Age kingdoms? It is impossible to say.

At this astonishing dig site in China, scientists wear space-age protective suits and work inside climate-controlled shelters. As I walk away, all I know is that every footfall I make echoes 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

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Oliver Payne
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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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