Many Harvard students shudder at the prospect of a 0.9-mile trek between the Radcliffe Quadrangle and Harvard Yard, while across the globe, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek, in his project called the Out of Eden Walk, winds his way along a 24,000 mile journey that mirrors the path of human migration.
The Out of Eden Walk, described on its website as “a collective pilgrimage, conducted at boot level, that gathers and braids a multitude of voices together in order to describe the human experience across the globe,” traces the route that humans took millions of years ago that populated the world as we know it. Before Salopek embarked on his journey, he made a pit stop at Harvard. Salopek received a visiting fellowship from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, and in the spring of 2012 arrived on campus ready to build a network of experts to support him on his impending journey.
A good map is essential for a journey across the globe. Salopek turned to Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis, where he encountered Senior Geographic Information Specialist Jeff C. Blossom, who currently serves as the chief cartographer for the Out of Eden Walk. A friend of Salopek’s, Blossom creates thematic maps for the project and collects and archives GPS data on Salopek’s whereabouts during each day of his travels.
Salopek embarked upon this excursion in January 2013, and has spent the past seven years (he took 2020 off due to the pandemic) documenting the people and cultures he’s encountered. He began in Ethiopia, and is currently making his way through the Yunnan province in southeastern China. The excursion will end once Salopek reaches the bottom tip of South America.
The project engages a committed group of readers over a sustained period of time while also creating opportunities for young people to learn more about journalism, globalism, and cartography — the Out of Eden Walk is not an average journalistic endeavor. The Walk has garnered global attention for Salopek’s alternative approach to reporting — the coverage within the Walk is an example of the much-overlooked “slow journalism,” a form that prioritizes depth, longevity, and introspection rather than fast-paced, quick-turnaround writing.
According to Nieman Foundation for Journalism curator Ann Marie Lipinski, the workshops and classroom activities the project inspired “are so interesting, and so different from how journalism traditionally defines its role.”
Salopek has facilitated the creation of workshops and e-learning opportunities such as Out of Eden Learn — developed in tandem with the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero — that offers children aged 3–19 the opportunity to build multicultural understandings through broadening students’ horizons beyond their own communities. So far the initiative has reached over 30,000 youth in 60 countries.
As Lipinski puts it, the Walk of Eden has sparked curiosity of readers around the world by “trying to see what would happen if you slow that pace, and really connect the dots story by story by story, and slow it down to the pace of a walk.”
Not only has the project received worldwide coverage, but people have had strong emotional reactions to it, Lipinski says. “The comments that people leave on his posts are just some of the most moving commentary I've seen posted to a journalistic work,” she adds.
To promote his journey, Salopek came to Blossom with a vision for a thematic map. Blossom recalls Salopek requesting “a map that showed the ghostly pathways of our ancestors, who moved in waves and bands over a period of some 50,000 years to get from Africa all the way to the tip of South America.”
From Salopek’s musings, Blossom created a map titled The Greatest Walk — strokes of fuchsia pink trace the path of ancient human migration atop a light grey map of the world on a white background.
Blossom has also been closely involved with the education aspect of the project. He uses the Out of Eden Walk as inspiration to teach workshops on cartography to undergraduate and middle school students alike, in the U.S. and across the globe. One of Blossom’s treasured memories from working on the project was in India, where he joined Salopek on a portion of the Walk, and taught fifth graders about map-making — “all these inquisitive, young, bright eyes right on me, just hanging on to every word,” he says.
When naming his favorite parts of working on Out of Eden, Blossom says “it’s the uniqueness, the longevity, and the people involved. Paul is a very magnanimous personality. People love to work with him, there's lots of excitement. I’ve met people here at Harvard, and all over the world, who are just so energetic, so inspired with what they’re doing.”