Where We Have Been

A bumpy, warp-speed view of the ultimate road trip—humanity’s

Throughout her new book, Road Through Time, Mary Soderstrom draws frequent comparisons between her own work and Jack Kerouac’s 1957 classic novel, On the Road. According to Soderstrom, Kerouac’s book is “emblematic of the romance of the road, of inviting paths taken or not taken … [a] sprawling chronicle of a hipster’s wanderings.” The subtitle of Soderstrom’s book—“The Story of Humanity on the Move”—of course portends a preoccupation that is startlingly at odds with Kerouac’s personal spiritual quest. Perhaps the only similarity between the two books is that they both contain road trips—of a sort.

Road Through Time contains two. The first begins in the 1950s with ten-year-old Mary aboard a bus with her mother and sister, departing Los Angeles. Very soon, however, the reader discovers that, unlike On the Road, Soderstrom’s book will not be a continuous, uninterrupted forward journey. Rather, the reader must travel back in time to follow our early Homo ancestors on their journey out of Africa, into Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas, making this portion of Road Through Time a scholarly discussion about the early archeological and geological evidence of humans on the move. This section comprises the bulk of the book.

Soderstrom, a novelist and non-fiction writer, delineates the journey of a sometimes mythical Homo sapiens that implicitly assumes modern humans originated according to the “out-of-Africa” model. First defined by archaeologist Chris Stringer, this hypothesis proposes that anatomically modern humans originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago and subsequently dispersed throughout the world over the last 100,000 years. Soderstrom’s assumption is not an unreasonable one. The out-of-Africa theory is generally supported by numerous archeologists as well as geneticists studying the human “molecular clock.” Yet new fossil evidence and analytical techniques imply this theory of a one-time migration may be too simplistic. Instead, early migrants may have evolved in parallel in various regions of the world.1 They interbred with previously isolated populations—including Neanderthals—suffered population bottlenecks, and migrated into and out of Africa several times.

Be that as it may, Soderstrom’s journey has H. sapiens leaving Africa in response to a deteriorating climate between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower than today. One group of adventurous hunter-gatherers crossed the Red Sea floating on log rafts and arrived in the “inviting” coastal plain and well-watered valleys of the Arabian peninsula, before pressing north and east into the Levant on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. A subset of this group, she writes, continued further east to the shores of the Black Sea while others tenaciously crept onward to what is now Turkey, Iraq and Iran, while their descendants reached what would become known as the Middle Kingdom of China before heading south across the Southeast Asian peninsula. Another group travelled along a “corridor … [that] led along the shoreline of the Gulf of Aden, across to the flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, and around into India,” a route now at least partially drowned by rising sea levels after the last ice age. A growing human population fed this “Great Expansion” as new environments provided ample food and fewer threats of disease. Yet, Soderstrom writes, the onset of the last ice age pushed “humans back from northern latitudes about 30,000 years ago,” and although “the Neanderthals were better adapted physically for this kind of climate” they went extinct. This signalled the rise and dominance of modern humans and their capacity to modify their landscape and survive.

Soderstrom’s warp-speed human journey, unfortunately, does not address a plethora of scientific data—including, for example, evidence that places humans on the coast of Eritrea on the Red Sea 125,000 years ago, at least 45,000 years before her time frame.2 Regardless, Soderstrom continues on a lengthy tour of obsidian trade, the origin of ceramics, copper and bronze smelting, horse and wagon use, the building of the first roads, warfare and communication, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, water routes—the conquest of rivers, seas and oceans—and the settling and destruction of the Americas by Europeans, the impact of super highways and railways on the modern world, for a start.

It is not until more than three quarters of the way through Road Through Time, at the end of chapter eight, that we return to that first road trip starting in Los Angeles in the mid 1950s to find the trio stranded and waiting for Mary’s grandfather to pick them up and drive them to their final destination in Pendleton, Oregon. Readers may find themselves left similarly stranded by the broken-up narrative.

During the final two chapters of the book, Soderstrom embarks on her second road trip. One suspects that this last section provoked the writing of Road Through Time and, as creative non-fiction, it is engaging and interestingly presented. The trajectory of the trip spans Cusco and Puerto Maldonada in Peru to Rio Branco in Brazil by bus. It takes the reader on a journey about roads that follow early game, early peoples and cattle-drive trails and about American, European and Asian growth, population densification and ecological destruction. Soderstrom asks Kerouac’s big question, “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” She means all of us, not just America, suggesting that “changes have sped up in the last two centuries like a runaway car with the accelerator depressed and the brakes out of order.” By way of highlighting those attempting to release that accelerator, she draws on the legendary environmental activist Chico Mendes, murdered in 1988, and quotes him as saying, “at first I thought I was fighting to save the rubber trees; then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”

Referencing Kerouac’s hoped-for “transcendent experience,” when he “looked greedily out the window: stucco houses and palms and drive-ins, the whole mad thing, the ragged promised land, the fantastic end of America,” Soderstrom sees the massive transportation corridors as metaphors of devastation. Yet by book’s end she has lost faith in Kerouac, calling On the Road “sexist and self-indulgent,” which is odd for all that she quotes him. She misses Kerouac’s more spiritual intent—the practice of modern-day Buddhism in the West.

Instead, Soderstrom prefers Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, about climate change and the demise of capitalism. Road Through Time traces some of the ecological and human costs of our human journey. And Klein complements Mendes’s voice in its plea for decent working conditions and wages, emphasizing the idea that real change comes from the bottom—grassroots protest movements. Soderstrom also refers to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, a story of a father and son roaming a post-apocalyptic America, a story she calls “devoid of hope, where all the terrible things that humans have wrought have now settled down over humanity like a killing fog.” And, although the word “road” again appears in that book’s title, Soderstrom seems to have missed the capacity for hope and survival in McCarthy’s seminal work.

Soderstrom does offer her own ray of hope, however, and that is life itself: that we can yet avert the worst—“our dependence on fossil fuels, our disregard for the landscape, our seeming inability to … rescue the climate.” She implores us to relocate or cancel road projects, replant multi-species forests, change how we live in cities. How we can change our city lives remains unclear; perhaps it can be accomplished by reducing our dependence on the automobile or establishing more integrated rapid bus systems as in Curítiba, a Brazilian city Soderstrom visited during her second bus journey. These are changes, Soderstrom suggests, that will be easier to accomplish than reducing human population levels or halting harmful climate change. She ends the book describing a future made imminent by her concern of rising sea levels that will flood her childhood haunts, the Amazon, and the St. Lawrence valley, and make an island of Mount Royal, flooding “much of the web of roads built in the last fifty years.” She leaves the reader fearful of waking tomorrow to a drowned world.

Soderstrom’s passion is palpable, although, unlike Kerouac’s novel, Road Through Time is a non-fiction book, published by University of Regina Press, an academic press. Even though this is classified as a trade title published for a general audience and Soderstrom is not an academic, it needs to be noted that when presenting scientific evidence an author is constrained to adhere to both fact and ­evidence-based scientific interpretation. Soderstrom cannot be swayed by a desire to “burst the bounds,” to “be as edgy and adventurous as [Kerouac] with some facts thrown in.” Good intentions acknowledged, she cannot stray from the truth. She cannot leave the reader unenlightened about the plausibility or timing of a rapid and raging sea-level rise. This is where Soderstrom ultimately fails her readers and therefore more broadly her cause.

Parts of Road Through Time, particularly the later chapters, are reminiscent of the engaging writing style of Soderstrom’s earlier The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond and Green City: People, Nature and Urban Place, including references to the ideas of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman and Jane Jacobs. Soderstrom has a capacity to explore appealingly the history of urbanization, all the while underscoring the importance of maintaining natural green spaces. But Road Through Time differs from this earlier work in that much of it is weighted with archeological and scientific evidence. This evidence, presented as it is, must adhere to scientific rigour in both content and interpretation despite the risk that in so doing the book becomes more challenging to read, and write. In this fast-paced time of widespread internet usage, when “alternative facts” and “fake news” are prevalent, if not virulent, it is incumbent on scientists, and authors portraying scientific evidence, to be fastidious in the use of facts.

Authors who provide specific scientific data, even ones who are writing for lay audiences—I am thinking of Soderstrom’s frequent use of the “oldest” or “earliest” evidence—need to reference their original source. That source must be scientifically peer-reviewed, as are articles published in the journals Nature or Science, for instance, or books published by an academic press, thereby allowing readers to validate the methodology and accuracy of the data. Is the date used that of a bone, stone or wood artifact? Was the artifact dated? Alternatively was the charcoal in the sediments in which the artifact was found dated? Or were scratches on the surface of the artifact, presumably made by humans but alternatively possibly by animals or geological processes, dated? Each means something different. Soderstrom does not need to answer these questions; she simply has to rely on authoritative, peer-reviewed sources that do. This does limit the field of primary sources, but non-peer reviewed websites or blogs written by armchair archeologists—which, unfortunately, Soderstrom references as sources—fail to provide the rigour necessary to ensure that information is correct.

For example, on numerous occasions Soder­strom refers to evidence of the original seafaring Homo erectus in Crete dating to 800,000 years ago. Regrettably, she does not cite the original scientific publication for this claim, and the references that she does provide indicate a date of 130,000 years for H. erectus in Crete. Soderstrom further states, “tools made by this prehuman also show up on islands on the other side of the world, such as Flores in the Pacific Ocean.” In fact, according to an article by M.J. Morwood and colleagues and published in Nature in 2005, it is on Flores Island that the earliest evidence of water crossings has been found and dated to approximately 800,000 years ago.3 Soderstrom further states that “the Flores population … died out only about 50,000 years ago” when, according to Morwood and others, the date is 12,000 years ago.4

Elsewhere, Soderstrom suggests anatomically modern humans left Africa “sometime between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago.” Her time range spans two completely different climatic events. The first is marine isotope stage 4, between 75,000 and 60,000 years ago, when the world was in an ice age complete with kilometres-thick ice sheets in the northern hemisphere, an expanding polar desert in central Eurasia and falling sea levels. These deteriorating conditions likely forced Neanderthals into south-westernmost Europe and the Middle East; evidence of Neanderthals dates to 60,000 years ago in Kebara, Israel.5 It is also coincident with not a decreasing, but an increasing number of H. sapiens sites in Africa. Evidence indicates that 60,000 years ago there was an extremely large drop in Earth’s productivity coincident with the depths of the penultimate glaciation. It is not until after 60,000 years ago that the number of H. sapiens sites in Africa drops. The second event that falls in Soderstrom’s window of time is marine isotope stage 3, a warmer interglacial interval between 60,000 and about 30,000 years ago, a time of extremely variable climate that likely forced early modern humans to rapidly adjust their behaviour and disperse out of Africa.

Soderstrom’s numerous errors leave the entire book suspect, no matter the plausibility of its intent or conclusions. In closing, Soderstrom reflects on the end of her journey, of its and her life’s purpose, “keeping a grandmotherly vigil … bearing witness to what was, and what might be.” Laudable indeed. My wish, however, is that she had applied that vigilance to her usage of facts.

  1. I am here referring to the well-known “multi-regional” hypothesis championed by M.H. Wolpoff, which suggests that humans evolved, more or less, in parallel in various regions of the world over at least the last million years. 

  2. See, for example, “Early Human Occupation of the Red Sea Coast of Eritrea during the Last Interglacial,” by Robert C. Walter and colleagues, Nature (2000), issue 405, pages 65–69. 

  3. See “Fission-Track Ages of Stone Tools and Fossils on the East Indonesian Island of Flores,” by M.J. Morwood and colleagues, Nature (1998), issue 392, pages 173–76; and also “Hominins on Flores, Indonesia, by One Million Years Ago,” by Adam Brumm and colleagues, Nature (2010), issue 464, pages 748–52. 

  4. See “Further Evidence for Small-Bodied Hominins from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia,” by M.J. Morwood and colleagues, Nature (2005), issue 437, pages 1,012–17. 

  5. See “Thermoluminescence Dates for the Neanderthal Burial Site at Kebara in Israel,” by H. Valladas and colleagues, Nature (1987), issue 330, pages 159–60.