Paul Salopek's Seven-Year Science Project

Perhaps you have already been following reporter Paul Salopek's Out of Eden project, a seven-year attempt to follow the migration patterns of early humans as they radiated outward from East Africa's Great Rift Valley across Europe and Asia to the New World. Perhaps you already follow him as he details his preparations for the trip on Twitter and have found your throat enveloped by the haggard claw of envy as you picture how much of the next seven years you'll spend sitting in front of a desk as this intrepid journeyman fulfills the deepest longing of your once-adventurous heart. If you have not yet heard of it, however, you are in for a true delight; as the Nieman Lab reports, Salopek will be broadcasting narratives from his journey every 100 miles or so.

The plan, as he envisions it, is to stop to take six samples: Ambient sound, photos of the earth and sky, a panorama of his current location, a minute or so of video, and an interview, all in the same method in each location. He sees it as almost a scientific approach, one that can show the changes and similarities in terrain, but also culture and people. And while these transects will make for good multimedia, Salopek said their real value will be as an archive of what the world looked like from 2013 to 2019.

It's an ambitious, interdisciplinary undertaking, and those of you lucky enough to live on the East Coast might have caught his speech about the project at Harvard on Thursday; if you were busy that night you can also watch the video here. Here are some of the highlights from his speech [transcript, and any resultant errors, mine]:

"The red line is me, and I'm going to walk that journey starting in January. It's a journey that our ancestors made between 50 and 70,000 years ago. It's a journey that many scientists tell us was a formative one for our species, because as we moved along across the surface of the planet, we innovated our way...became a troubleshooting species."

"I will cross about three dozen borders, three continents, scores if not hundreds of languages, depending on the route - scores if not hundreds of ethnic groups, depending on the route. It's a journey of about 30 million footsteps, and a journey of at least seven years of my life."

He also at one point during the talk mentions his wife, which raises a whole host of other questions. Will she be coming along? Will she appear via satellite, a la The Chief in the old Carmen San Diego game? Will they just meet up after he's done? I cannot know enough about the specifics of this project.

"Invariably at this phase, the kids will raise their hands...and say, "But why walk?" That's what everybody gets hooked on. That's the inevitable question. Why not just hail a cab?...There are two main reasons - there are two basic attributes of being human: one is storytelling. And one is doing what I'm doing now, which is walking."

"For 95% of our species' history, we walked on average 3,200-3,500 miles a year...That is like walking from Boston to the West Coast, to Portland, every single year of your adult life. And that is what is normal. That is what we are designed to do - the superb mechanism for walking that we are endowed with through evolution, through adaptation, through natural selection. We are walking machines."

"I'll move up into the Levant and my first year will end either in Oman or in Jerusalem. I'll stop there for a while - recover - write - report - and then move on through the Middle East. How through the Middle East? This line is very vague. It depends on the situation of the day, the borders of the day, the month, how they harden, how they soften up. Move along through central Asia, through the southern foothills of the Himalayas, through northern India, then through Yunan Province, through China - I have calculated that will take as long as 14 months, to get through China alone on foot...I'm going to go up through Siberia as far as I can get until the winters start seriously slowing me down...I will cross the Bering Strait by boat, and then ramble on down the western flank of the New World, all the way to Tierra del Fuego, at the very tip of Latin America, which archaeologists say our ancestors arrived at about 12,000 years ago."

Every line of this is indisputably thrilling. Just try saying "Tierra del Fuego" without feeling just a little bit more dashing. Also, as foolhardy as it might seem to try to mosey across various disputed Middle Eastern borders, Salopek at least has experience to guide him; he and his interpreter were charged with spying and imprisoned for a month in Sudan back in 2006.

"I'll be writing environmental stories...I'll be talking about economic stories...stories about human displacement, refugee movements...and stories about some of the causes of this displacement...Stories about my business, the media. Who gets to tell stories in the age of the web, which has democratized information?...It's also a walk into the anthropocene. It's not just a walk into the past; it's a walk into the future."

More to come - seven years more to come.

[Image via AP]