Learning to Walk

I have no memory of learning to walk.  I fill the void with out-of-body images: photographs my parents took and slipped into the plastic sleeves of our family archives.  In one photo, I’m pushing myself up from the floor: arms straight, bottom up, feet on tiptoes, as if in yogic preparation for what’s to come.  In another, I am standing up straight, holding the leg of our china cabinet with one hand and reaching the other outward for balance.  I’m looking down at my feet with great focus. My little slippers show no signs of wear – yet.

Of course I’m not alone; none of us remembers our first step.  All we know is that it happened some time at the beginning of our lives.  As a human species, meanwhile, we might assume that our “beginning” happened when we began to walk.  There is no memory – no knowledge – of when exactly this happened.  And so we fill the void with fossils that might suggest a divergence from the four-legged locomotion of our ancestors.

But when paleoanthropologists sift through African rubble and ash, they are not only looking for traces of bipedalism.  They hope that their sweat-drenched labors will yield evidence of something greater, yet infinitely more elusive: consciousness.  What exactly consciousness is still incites debate; its varied definitions begin inside the brain and move outward.  Cognition in the head, language at the mouth, creation with the hands and, finally, some subjective relationship with the rest of the world.  Since not all of these phenomena fossilize, paleoanthropologists can only try to unearth manifestations of conscious – or “modern” – behavior.  Tools, for example.  Or art.

When, then, did humans gain these two great capacities – walking and conscious behavior?  And is there any connection between the two?

One Step for Homo erectus

In 1974, Homo erectus, or upright man, got a mascot: a fossil hominid named Lucy.  Archeologist Donald Johanson spotted part of her femur sticking out from the dusty ground in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia, and three weeks later his team had unearthed forty percent of her skeleton.  They could tell from the way her knee bent and her lumbar curved that she had spent most of her time on two feet.  They also determined that at 3.2 million years old, she was the earliest example of a walking hominid.

Another find in Laetoli, Tanzania a few years later more or less confirmed this chronology.  A team led by Mary Leakey discovered three sets of footprints pressed into volcanic ash and cemented by rainwater.  No knuckle prints preceded the impressions; this was not the path of lumbering primates.  Homo erectus had walked here, too – this time, 3.7 million years ago.

Then, in 1992, archeologists unearthed another skeleton, just forty-six miles from the site where Johanson found Lucy. Ardipithecus ramidus, or Ardi, walked on all fours and upright – she did this 4.4 million years ago.

Movement & Consciousness
Despite an ever-fluctuating timeline, we know that our ancestors reared up on their hind legs some several million years ago.  More sophisticated endeavors, it turns out, came much later.  In seeking to qualify “consciousness” for a scientific audience, the archeologist Christopher S. Henshilwood defined modern human behavior as “thoughts and actions underwritten by minds equivalent to those of Homo sapiens today.”  In 1991, in a cave on the coast of South Africa, Henshilwood found an example of this: small pieces of ochre, crosshatched and otherwise engraved.  The creators had used tools, certainly, and since the abstract images on the ochre suggest some “arbitrary conventions unrelated to reality-based convention,” perhaps the tool-bearers had symbols in mind.  Maybe they were making art for art’s sake.  In any case, this was modern human behavior at its purest, and its earliest.  Henshilwood estimated the ochre to be 77,000 years old.

Crosshatched Ochre

77,000.  That number never fails to astound me.  Because if hominids began walking around millions of years before they began to resemble Homo sapiens, then walking shaped their consciousness – our consciousness.  Walking makes us think.  It makes us human, not just as upright walkers but as creatures of reason and creativity.  It was, and is, something as fundamental to the human experience as sex, or death.

Contemporary philosopher Alva Noë, in his book Out of Our Heads, writes that the whole of the conscious human experience relies upon movement; that “consciousness is not something that happens in us.  It’s something that we do.”  Noë critiques some cognitive scientists’ tendency to relegate consciousness to the brain alone and unwed it from the world around the body.  In Noë’s mind, the two are inextricable: the former would not exist without the latter.  “Perceptual consciousness” involves accessing objects and visual information by moving a hand or an eye toward them.  Experience, according to Noë, lies in the “two-way dynamic exchange between the world and the active perceiver.”  You can’t think without moving through or towards something.

Timeline of the Hominid Lineage

It is easy to imagine the roots of consciousness, or early modern behavior, developing with the movements of our Homo erectus ancestors.  Early humans were nomads, after all.  They sought food and fertile mates, and when abundance turned to scarcity, they moved on.  “Neither humanity nor its environment was static,” writes Joseph Amato in On Foot.  “Walking was shaped to place and place was shaped to walking.”  Early humans centered their lives on the assumption that they were transient, and that the land they encountered would always be moving past them.

Before I learned to walk, I slept in a crib.  My parents placed their swaddled babe in the middle of the crib each night, only to find come morning that I had somehow moved myself forward.  My father recalls watching me, on several occasions, trying to propel myself ­­through the front of the crib – my head pressed against the wooden slats, my arms and legs performing a determined, dry-land breast stroke.  “If every newborn baby has an appetite for forward motion,” writes Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines, “the next step is to find out why it hates lying still.”  My efforts earned me the title “ The Go-Go Girl.”

A Wandering Artist

If movement stimulates thought, then perhaps lots of movement allows the mind to reach new planes of contemplation and creativity.  The Greeks explored this idea with their creation of the god Dionysus (Bacchus, in Latin).  Bringer of wine, pleasure, and the Bacchic euphoria, the god’s epithet is, simply, “ The Wanderer.”  He moves with a posse of revelers; in Euripides’ Bacchae, he “urges on the wandering band with shouts and renews their frenzied dancing, as his delicate locks toss in the breeze.”

But Dionysus is more than a party animal; he’s an artist.  What looks like debauchery is actually a kind of feverish groping for inspiration; a successful frenzy climaxes in an ecstatic release of dance, music, and unfettered creativity.  And while everything about Dionysus may be over the top – the booze, the sex, the staying up until all hours – his perpetual state of motion seems to prime him for enhanced activity, creative or otherwise.

The Cult of Dionysus was an affront to the civilized self-restraint championed by Greek city-states (and personified by the god Apollo).  It was also wildly popular among Greek citizens.  They worshiped a god who was, in many ways, much more free than they could ever be.  Dionysus’ ability to reach a state of pure pleasure and existential clarity is certainly enviable.  Is it a coincidence that the Greeks conceived of a figure whose identity was inextricable from – and enhanced by – ceaseless movement?  Perhaps the Greeks, in their infinite wisdom, recognized walking as something that defines being human, and purposefully bestowed a predilection for life-affirming activities on “The Wanderer.”

Flâneur State of Mind

It’s one thing for a god to achieve a state of controlled chaos just by walking around.  But can a mortal?  In 1863, Charles Baudelaire wrote an essay called “The Painter of Modern Life,” in which he reviewed the work of artist Constantin Guys.  In seeking the proper word to praise Guys, Baudelaire layered new meaning onto the word flâneur, the masculine French noun meaning “stroller” or “saunterer.” Baudelaire’s flâneur became a sort of urban synthesis of observer, philosopher, dandy, and artist – a contemplative individual who walks the city in order to experience and understand it.

“For the perfect flâneur, the passionate spectator,” he wrote, “it is an immense job to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.”  A harbinger of the modern age, this cultural oddity could “be away from home and yet [feel] oneself everywhere at home.”  For an artist, to be a flâneur is to enjoy a penchant for deep perception – to imbue one’s art with the “acrid or heady bouquet of the wine of life.”  Evidently, the only way to do this is to loose oneself from all social and personal mores and become what Ralph Waldo Emerson would later call the “transparent eyeball.”

In the moment of perfect flâneur lucidity, the symbolic infrastructure of the landscape crumbles.  With nothing left to mediate her experience, the artist can finally connect with the earth directly below her feet and, if she’s lucky, represent it more fully.  Perhaps that lucidity is a kind of hyper-consciousness activated by constant movement.

Marchand Abat-Jours | Eugene Atget, 1900

In her 1973 essay “On Photography,” Susan Sontag identifies photography as an “extension of the eye of the flâneur” – a middle-class endeavor that, like the meditative stroll of the flâneur, involves setting out to find something real and exciting.”  She cites Atget’s shabby and surreal Paris, Brassaï’s ephemeral images from Paris de nuit, and Weegee’s seamy New York City night scene as exemplars of the flâneur aesthetic.  “The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker,” Sontag writes, “reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.”  What Dionysus, Baudelaire’s flâneur, and Sontag’s urban photographer have in common is that their constant movement through space brings them something in the way of a higher understanding – of themselves, of their surroundings, of their creative capabilities.

After graduating from high school, I embarked upon my own artistic exploits à la flâneur, although I did not know that word at the time.  In Rome, I walked to Trastevere in the pouring rain, and photographed motorcycle headlights illuminating raindrops.  In Bulgaria, I walked through the Saturday bazaar, and photographed a man and a woman below a large poster of old Soviet propaganda: In the arms of mother Russia you will be safe.  In Berlin, a man walking past a building near Checkpoint Charlie, covered with graffiti and still baring its shrapnel wounds.  In Munich, snow-covered tourists squinting upwards at Marienplatz’s Glockenspiel clock tower– an ornate cuckoo clock with moving wooden figures in colorful tights.

Channeling Wanderlust

I walk to understand new places (as much as a stranger can), and only when I think I have succeeded do I capture a frame.  My wanderlust forces me to move; movement, in turn allows me to instill in my creations the “heady bouquet of the wine of life.”  I am a follower of Dionysus, an epilogue for Sontag.  It doesn’t matter that I – we – can’t remember learning to walk.  What matters is that we walk, unabashedly, on the ground that swallowed our ancestors.  And that we embrace our wanderlust, that igniter of thought and creation.



Angela Jane Evancie is a writer, photographer and radio producer based in Burlington, Vermont.  She graduated from Middlebury College in 2009 with a joint degree in English and Geography.  She is spending this year with a Compton Mentor Fellowship in multimedia journalism.

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Angela Jane Evancie

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