To be human is to migrate

To be human is to migrate. More than any other species, we are a uniquely migratory creature.

Since homo sapiens first appeared on the ancient savannas of Africa, we have wandered, spreading in fits, starts and great migratory waves across and into every continent on the planet. Even Antarctica is today stamped indelibly with the evidence of our existence.

The very first migrations were unhampered by competing cultures or civilizations: the only obstacles, and there were plenty, were other species — dire wolves and smilodons and cave bears and rampaging mastodons — and the vicissitudes of water, wind and weather. But as our species ranged the Earth, settling in hospitable corners wherever we could find them, the chances of one wandering group encountering another already settled grew. It’s easy enough to imagine the encounters did not always end well, and paleontology has confirmed such imaginings.

Mass graves in Europe from the Neolithic period tell grisly tales of what happened when one band of humans came into another band’s space: broken legs, smashed skulls, whole villages wiped out. When every day’s survival was so tenuous, when every precious morsel of food was so hard to come by, people — like any other species, really — were not inclined to be hospitable to perceived competitors.

Today, so many people in so many places are rallying for their borders to be shut, for fences and walls to be erected, for their kind to put a stop to the “hordes” and “swarms” of others that are not their kind. In the U.S., some counter these arguments by pointing out that — unless you are a Native American — you too are descended from people who came from somewhere else. Go back far enough in time, though, and even the Native Americans “came from somewhere else,” walking to a new land from Siberia across a narrow land bridge that no longer exists. And those ancient Siberians, likewise, came from other parts and — like all of us — can trace their origins back to those first homo sapiens on the savanna.

Anywhere beyond the boundaries of that cradle of humanity, we are all — if we’re honest with ourselves — refugees.

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