Background and aims


Essentially you 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.

Most people walk the human line of evolution, but whichever trail you choose you'll merge with increasingly distant ancestors until we reach the origins of all life around 4 billion years ago.

Strictly speaking all these trails should be the same length seeing as all extant species come from the same origins with lineages that have been on the planet just as long as ours. However, not everyone is keen or able to walk 12 miles and so we made the trails many different lengths so that you can choose your walking distance through the Trail you adopt. For less hearty walkers or younger families we have trails from 3 miles upwards.

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.

Our Thinking

Ancestors Trail 2010 009

This “pilgrimage" is a shared experience organised by humanists to celebrate the simple truth that all Life on Earth is related through evolution.

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.

Like all pilgrimages, the Trail is a participatory event. As an overwhelmingly 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.

Mission statement:

  • To annually celebrate our shared origins with all life on earth:
  • Because evolution is one big biodiversity machine ~ the Trail aims to promote and raise funds for nature conservation organisations.

Public Engagement with science – without which we would be ignorant of our origins.

The Arts – as an alternative method by which we can grapple with these truths, and because a celebration without the arts isn't much of a celebration! The arts also extend a welcoming hand to a wider cross section of people.