Georgia: What an Ancient Boneyard Reveals about Our Earliest Global Wanderers

On a years-long hike across the globe, journalist Paul Salopek is following the path humans took after the Ice Age. One of the most important human migration sites in the world is in Dmanisi, Georgia, where people have walked for nearly 2 million years.

PBS Newshour's Hari Sreenivasan joins Salopek in learning more about the first pioneers to wander that part of the world.


GWEN IFILL: Since January 2013, journalist Paul Salopek has tracked ancient man’s path out of Africa, what he calls the Out of Eden Walk.

Last night, Hari Sreenivasan showed you the project that Salopek will spend much of the next decade completing.

Tonight, Hari walks in the footsteps with Paul of early man to one point of real meaning on his global trek.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The fog-shrouded fields and rolling hills of Southern Georgia are much more than a waypoint for Paul Salopek. We were nearing the ancient city and archaeological site of Dmanisi.

PAUL SALOPEK, Journalist/National Geographic Fellow: So, Dmanisi is finally in sight and this is probably one of the most important human migration sites outside of Africa proper.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Salopek is following the path humans took after the Ice Age, 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. But here in Dmanisi, that path is much older.

Along these green and jagged river gorges, we have walked in one form or another for nearly two million years. The history here is stacked high, part of what Salopek calls the layer cake effect of the Caucasus. With a happy dog welcoming us, we passed what was likely an outer defensive tower of the 1,400-year-old city of Dmanisi.

This has been a crossroads for a long time.

PAUL SALOPEK: From day one. And pretty much everybody invaded it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And was this a trading route?

PAUL SALOPEK: This was a silk road trading route city, a big shining city on the hill, very rich, until the Mongols came and plundered it. And then they were here a few hundred years until the Georgians and Armenians pushed them out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s an archaeological gold mine. With the summer digging season finished, we arrived at a sort of bunk house for archaeologists to rest for the night.

PAUL SALOPEK: If we did, by some miracle, get a clear sky, it really will change everything completely.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The next morning, a miracle had indeed swept away the fog. Within what you’re seeing is nearly two million years of history, the medieval city, whose walls still stand, built on top of a Bronze Age settlement that’s 5,000 years old, and still beneath that, the 1.8 million-year-old remains of one of modern human’s earliest ancestors.

Salopek, Dima Bit-Suleiman, his walking partner in Georgia, and I were joined by the director of Georgia’s National Museum, David Lordkipanidze, for the walk up to the hilltop dig site.

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE, General Director, Georgia National Museum: What we found here, it changed our understanding about early traces of human evolution, about first dispersal of our ancestors. And, also, it’s completely changed our views about who, when left Africa and how they were looking and what they were doing also.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What were these guys doing?

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: These guys were enjoying life here.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Enjoying life in a place much more lush and temperate 1.8 million years ago. Thanks to bones discovered here at the same latitude as Boston, we know this was a land with game-like elephant, giraffe, and rhinoceros, but also large predators like saber-toothed cats.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, when they come here, are they the predator or are they the prey?

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: I think they were both. On the bones of the humans, you can sometimes see cut marks, so it shows that they were prey. But, you see, it’s lucky for archaeology, right?


HARI SREENIVASAN: Bad day for them, good day for you.

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: Yes. We are very lucky.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And that lucky day came 10 years ago, with the discovery of a skull, the last of five found that is the remarkably complete skull of an ancient ancestor of modern man.

So this is it?

David took us to the National Museum in the capital city of Tbilisi to see the actual skulls kept in a vault and handled with kid gloves, because they are indeed national treasures.

This is how old?

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: This is 1.8 million years old.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The brain capacity was about 40 percent of ours, and they stood about 5 feet tall. The skull has features of three different species, a possible snapshot in time of evolution. An older adult, probably a male, was among those found. And the toothless, worn jawbone might tell us more than just size and age.

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: It means it was a weak individual who could survive only with help of others. And I think that Dmanisi shows also the first traces of compassions and solidarity in Homo erectus.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Homo erectus, even though they had a brain that was a third our size, they still cared for somebody other than themselves.

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: One of the human characters could be taking on others.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Taking care of others.

How did these guys get to Dmanisi? Why did they leave?

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: See, I don’t think there was just one reason of it. They were able to do it. They wanted to do it. I think main human character is the curiosity.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So this is the same instinct that we have today, to look around the next corner, over the next hill.

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: Paul is doing the same.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As these guys did.

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: As these guys did. Paul is follower of Homo erectus.


HARI SREENIVASAN: And, in a sense, so are we all. But for Salopek, their ancient journey to this point has particular meaning.

PAUL SALOPEK: These are the first pioneer wanderers. These are kind of like the dawn people who first left our collective home in Africa. So being here is a terrific echo of my own project. I’m following people who came much later, but these were the trailblazers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Only 10 percent of this sprawling site has been excavated. That layered effect was evident everywhere.

So, where are you taking me?

In a deep pit, David showed us where an ancient wine maker had sunk his vat.

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: You can see 1.8 million years old.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The bone is 1.8 million years old.

And, in the process, that person had tossed aside some of the much older bones.

This wine jar is how old?

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: It’s a 1,000 years old.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, finding a 1,000-year wine jar would be kind of a big deal for anybody else.

DAVID LORDKIPANIDZE: Not for a paleontologist.


HARI SREENIVASAN: But there are few better places for a writer gauging the crosscurrents of history. So, with sunset not far off, Paul and I walked to the top of the citadel that has stood here for 1,000 years, a relative blink of an eye geologically speaking, the majesty of this place clear, spread out before us, and perhaps a key to its fraught and important past.

So, why is this place such a crossroads?

PAUL SALOPEK: Well, it’s an antique bridge between Asia and Europe and has been for millennia. And there has been migration routes through here going back before memory.

The silk road passes through here. But it also is the epicenter where three major empires meet. And they have always contested this area. From the south, the Persians, from the West, the Ottoman Empire, which is today Turkey, and from the north, more recently, Russia. They have overlapped and contested and fought over this corner of the world for centuries.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, if they have lived here, they have also died here.

PAUL SALOPEK: A lot of people have died here over the years. I think we’re standing on one of the oldest boneyards in the world.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Atop the boneyard in Dmanisi, Georgia, I’m Hari Sreenivasan for the PBS NewsHour.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Salopek has continued walking since Hari caught up with him in Georgia. He’s now crossed into Azerbaijan.