Background

Inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tale, we walk the tree of life ‘in reverse’ starting at the present day and symbolically travelling back in time to our shared origins. We've draped the Tree of Life over the landscape lining it up broadly with existing footpaths. On the day, with the help of a team of volunteers, we populate the tips of selected branches of this tree with groups of people. Consequently, some groups walk representing chimps, gazelles, birds, amphibians, plants, bacteria and, naturally enough, humans. With a little pre-arranged choreography, we ensure each group meets sequentially at set rendezvous along the way. In this way, our ever-increasing band of pilgrims arrive together at our biological origins around 4 billion years ago. 

Strictly speaking all these trails should be the same length seeing as all extant species share the same origins and share 4 billion year lineages. However, not everyone is keen or able to walk 12 miles and so we made the trails many different lengths so that people may choose their walking distance through the Trail adopted.

Walking Scales: If we are all to reach our goal in a sensible time frame, each step must represent thousands or even millions of years. In terms of the life forms with which we are most familiar, very little happens in the first few billion years of evolution, and yet, especially from a primate point of view, everything happens in just the last few million years. Given this, we decided to create three different scales over the Trail. The first expands our mammal dominated period, dating from the terrible climatic catastrophe that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. From this point on you will walk back 10,000 years every step. Beyond this point, our time travel increases by an order of magnitude to 100,000 years per stride and then, for the last 2.7 billion years, we increase by another order of magnitude to around a million years every stride. In this way we ensure a relatively constant procession of rendezvous throughout the Trail.

As we walk the Ancestor’s Trail excerpts from Richard Dawkin’s Ancestor’s Tale will be read out, explaining where we are on the evolutionary timeline.  

The Ancestor’s Trail was conceived by Chris Jenord in 2009, in response to the International Year of Biodiversity and Darwin’s 150th anniversary.   The first Trail took place a year later in the Quantock Hills in Somerset with forty or so of Chris’s friends and family.  It grew substantially over the following years, with the support of volunteers from Central London Humanists.

In 2011 Richard Dawkins became aware of the project, providing publicity and financial support, and in 2013 and 2014 he appeared in person as a speaker. 

In 2014 the Trail moved to Epping Forest and the River Lee Country Park in Essex, and it has taken place there every year since.

This ‘pilgrimage’ is a shared experience organised by humanists to celebrate the simple truth that all Life on Earth is related through evolution. Like all pilgrimages, the Trail is a participatory event. As a deeply social species, our sense of belonging strikes right to the heart of our very nature, and so, although alone we may start, together we shall gather.

Imagine, if you will, the evolutionary Tree of Life. Its profusion of leaves each representing a single species of life on earth. A simple enough analogy, but there is no denying the potent truth sparkling within Darwin's original sketchbook scribble. A truth that has changed forever our perception of who we are. Our human leaf holds on beside all the rest, and yet so many other leaves have long since perished, or seem destined to lose their precarious hold all too soon. Indeed, viewing the picture over the fullness of life's history, we extant species shrink into a highly fortunate but tiny minority of survivors. And survive we have, despite repeatedly being pitted against all the odds, down through the millennia.

The Trail began back in 2010 in response to the International Year of Biodiversity and Darwin's 150th anniversary the year before. Darwin's contribution was rightly and properly recognised but is that it? Must we now sit patiently and wait for his 200th?

The Ancestor's Trail is an attempt to fill this gap through an annual event celebrating our place within the biodiversity machine we call evolution. Because evolution is one big biodiversity machine we also want to support biodiversity. The human role in the current Biodiversity crisis is hardly a cause for celebration, but we can celebrate our efforts to conserve life.

Nor am I denying the enormous challenges facing humanity as our population approaches double figure billions, but let's not forget that, along with every other life form alive today - we've made it - unlike the vast majority of species now extinct. You and I are incredibly successful beings- not ONE SINGLE of your ancestors died before s/he first successfully reproduced, thus bringing your next nearest ancestor into the world. Viewed this way, inescapably, you personally represent 4 billion years of uninterrupted survival success. It'd be a crime not to celebrate such an achievement and celebrate we do on the Ancestor's Trail.

Chris Jenord

© 2018 Ancestor's Trail

Background photograph by Martin Morris