Standing on the edge of the Red Sea 60,000 years ago, the first people looked across the water, saw mountains rising above the horizon, and decided to go there. No one knows how they crossed the water, but they did. Somehow, this small band of a few as 150 individuals made their way from Africa to Arabia—from what is now the tiny country of the Djibouti on one side, to the troubled nation of Yemen on the other. After that, they kept going. They followed the shorelines. They went inland. They scaled mountains and crossed plains. They spread out into the world until they filled every corner of it.
They, of course, were us.
Bab al Mandeb is thought to be the place they crossed. It is the “Gate of Tears,” where the Red Sea narrows and the powerful ocean currents have sunk countless ships over the ages. But back when those first people crossed the oceans would have been lower, so instead of seventeen miles of water there would have been just seven, with islands along the way. Today the islands are submerged and the ends of the straight reach out to each other like some continental version of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Man” on the Sistine Chapel.
When I first read about this, I looked up the place on a map. The language those people spoke, they clothes they wore, the thoughts they had—those are all gone forever. But the place is still there, and I knew I wanted to go there someday. I wanted to stand where it all began…