What is a human being? This question hasn’t always — and arguably still doesn’t — have a definite answer.
One of its answers comes from National Geographic Explorer Jane Goodall. When she was 26, Goodall traveled to Tanzania, where she discovered that chimpanzees fashion tools from their environment for different purposes. Before Goodall’s observations, it was believed that humans were the only species that makes and uses their tools, and it was these observations that made scientists reevaluate the definition of humankind.
Another answer: Movement and migration are one of the unifying characteristics of what makes us human. This has been elucidated by another explorer of sorts (though not affiliated with National Geographic), Jorge Drexler.
Drexler is a humanitarian that was named as the Goodwill Ambassador for Health and Water by Spain in 2010. As the Goodwill Ambassador, he promoted and extended access to drinking water, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. He also happens to be a Grammy and Academy Award winning musician, who was an otorhinolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) in a past career. From his past trying to understand the way our human bodies work as a doctor, to the present conveying human migration and movement in his lyrics, Drexler has spent his entire career contemplating what makes us human.
Exploring the idea of human activities that are based on movement, like migration, is not new for Drexler. In his 2017 TED Talk he said that: “at the same time, as important as knowing where we’re from, is understanding that deep down, we’re all from nowhere and a little bit from everywhere.” Last Friday, I went to his concert at the Howard Theatre — one and a half miles from National Geographic’s Headquarters in Washington, D.C. — where he was presenting his newest album ‘Salvavidas de hielo’ [‘Ice Life Vests’]. He specifically explored this idea in three different songs that he played.
This first song, which was the concert opener, is ‘Movimiento’ [‘Movement’]. In the video below you’ll see Jorge and a Mexican runner, Lorena Ramírez, from the Tarahumaras (which means ‘The light-footed’) who are well known for running hundreds of kilometers at a time.
This reminded me of National Geographic Fellow, Paul Salopek, who is tracing the steps our ancestors took 70,000 years ago from Ethiopia to all different parts of the world as part of his Out of Eden Walk. Tempted by new horizons, and listening to the voice of challenge coming from unknown landscapes, our ancestors started to move across deserts, continents, and glaciers. Drexler’s “Movimiento” could be the unofficial anthem of our ancestor’s journey, understanding, as Drexler says in the song: “Somos una especie en viaje/No tenemos pertenencias sino equipaje” [“We are a traveling species, without any belongings, only luggage.”] And we will continue to be alive and thrive as long as we keep moving.
The second related song is titled “Bolivia.“ In this song, Drexler describes that he is the grandson of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. As he said in the concert: “This song is based on the story of the lives of my grandparents holding their son, who is my father, and how they fled Europe in 1939. Many countries had their doors closed for them. And the only country that kept its doors open was Bolivia. We very easily forget the past, but here is a reminder.” History, as he says in “Bolivia,” is like a pendulum and a revolving door, that comes and goes. And thus, tomorrow we might be the ones seeking refuge, or offering the helping hand.
The third related song is “Bailar en la cueva” [‘Dancing in the cave’], the title track of his 2014 conceptual album. In this song, Drexler describes another way humans move: dancing. He sings that humans have been dancing since cavemen. And we haven’t stopped since. This movement, this dance, is essentially human. “Dancing as a belief/as heritage/as a game.”
These songs highlight an essential human attribute: movement, whether it be through migration or dancing. Jorge Drexler’s songs remind us that as long as we have been humans, we have kept moving, meeting with other people, and in this way, learning from one another. Let’s continue to do so.