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: Embrace your inner migrant.

Sanxingdui is China’s latest archaeological marvel.

Located in the lush farmlands outside the megacity of Chengdu, the historical site hosts a dazzling trove of Bronze Age relics. There are sculptures of bug-eyed deities, colossal masks of hammered gold, gleaming jade ornaments, and life-size trees made of bronze that glitter with stylized flowers and mythical birds.

The archaeologists studying these 3,000-year-old ruins know little about the people who made such intricate and advanced art. A few clues only deepen the mystery of Sanxingdui: Many of the 13,000 artifacts found were intentionally torched and buried at a single ritual event. Some experts believe the treasures are sacred objects, taken from the temples of a sprawling city-state 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, 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 as people would have during the Bronze Age—I walked there from Africa—I recognize haunting signs of early human catastrophe and mass migration.

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 pilgrimage, the mystery of Sanxingdui offers, in my trailside view, a good reminder for our own age of emergency:

Keep some bags packed, folks. Don’t become too comfortable in the permanence of “home”—our cities, temples, markets, and farms. The world changes quickly, 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.

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—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 climate refugees fleeing parched farms in the Horn of Africa. Most were bound for the Middle East, trying to find work as laborers. In Jordan, I camped with dazed survivors from war-torn Syria, who clung to life in donated tents. Crossing northern India, I wandered among multitudes of ambitious young Punjabis studying English in order to pass Canada’s visa requirements. More recently, in China, I’ve even met young professionals who are worn out by stressful big-city life and are moving back into China’s emptied rural areas.

History—as written by smug people who stay home—often labels these travelers as losers, but that’s only because agriculture tamed the wild world 12,000 years ago. Suddenly, all human achievement was related 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 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 get rid of cultural nomads—whether Lakota or Romani—for centuries. Governments disapprove of people who wander; they are seen as not easy to control. Today, it’s the world’s vast pool of illegal migrant workers who too often experience prejudice and exploitation. Even legal immigrants face many hurdles from governments when trying to relocate. As for refugees, although pitied, they are often treated like powerless victims. Their strength as survivors gets erased.

Yet here’s what I’ve concluded across 22 million footsteps in the paths of our shared Stone Age ancestors: Migration is a solution, not the problem. It is looking increasingly like the strategy of winners.

In eastern Turkey, I stumbled across 700 miles of wheat and tomato fields. These oldest of fields are now among the 25 to 30 percent of the world’s farmlands that are depleting from overuse. What happens when these essential fertile areas finally stop producing food? 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 the outcome of lands that stop producing food.

In the wild highlands of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, I met villagers astonished by sudden benefits from the climate crisis. Local creeks were overflowing 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. It will likely become 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 able to adapt and survive.

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

“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 mountain range—yet it’s also all but dead. Indeed, few people 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 reach their 60s. China, known as the “factory of the world,” and other powerful East Asian economies have resisted mass immigration. How they resolve serious 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?

Inactive cultures who stay in one place surrounded by walls of worry? Or the migrating populations already on the move—with road wisdom 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 occasions to work illegally in construction. He was my walking partner across 1,200 miles of his Silk Road country. He loped ahead of me, carrying along a tolerant mindset and a calmness toward hardship that was enviable—and instructive.

Or perhaps people like Zhang Mei. She trekked with me up the canyon-lined headwaters of the Yangtze River in Yunnan. Zhang is the daughter of a working-class family who rose through her adaptability and tough self-discipline. These skills help her manage the two cultural 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 step toward emerging opportunities. Nor is movement automatically good. One example is industrial cities in decline in Jilin, China, and Michigan, United States. These cities can be truly restored only with the deep local knowledge of their longtime natives. Forced migration caused by prejudice anywhere isn’t a triumph; instead, it is organized dehumanization.

Still, I maintain my belief in the power 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 whose paths I wander for my project. They problem-solved with their feet, going wherever there was food and good fortune.

“Society only functions normally if we can move,” writes migration expert Parag Khanna in his book Move. He argues that societies that look to 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 sedentary people of Sanxingdui, they left no written records. Or maybe they drew their stories on perishable materials—long-crumbled 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 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 scientists in space-age protective suits work inside climate-controlled shelters, 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

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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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