Our Ancestors

Tuesday August 7, 2007


I have just returned from the Bulgarian National History Museum in Boyana, which is an impressive collection by any standards. Some of the Thracian material is breathtaking. But at the same time, I always find something giddying about museum collections that go back to the very beginnings of human history. Not because the timescale is so large, but because it is so small.

Think of it like this. As a rough guess, averaging over human history a generation may be, say, fifteen years. If, for example, we say that Homo sapiens emerged around 250,000 years ago (I’m going by the figures dredged up from Wikipedia, but these calculations vary depending on who you listen to), then rounding down, this makes something like 16,000 generations or so. A decent sized football stadium might contain three times this number of people. Which means that if you tried to fill a decent sized football stadium with your mother, your granny, your great-granny and so on, then long before the stadium was full you’d be admitting folks who you might be somewhat wary of considering as family.

When it comes to human history, things are just as disturbing. Let’s say that human civilisation – that is, this business of living in cities, or at least in townships – goes back around twelve thousand years to around the time of the agricultural revolution. Then we have eight hundred generations. Eight hundred people is the population of a rather small village. Thinking like this seems to make human history appear vanishingly small. Suddenly some of those craftspeople who were forging gold objects in Thrace in the fifth century BC seem much closer – one hundred and seventy or so generations. Why, these generations could fit together into a decent-sized room…

This is why I find history unsettling. Because when you start looking at it, our present way of life, our present apparent securities, our present certainties are all far more fleeting than we imagine. And here I am, not so long after the first modern human, a strange and cunning ape writing words onto an odd little grey machine, whilst outside it pours with rain. And there you are, another strange and cunning ape, reading these same words from your vantage point elsewhere in the world. And standing behind us those few generations of those who were like us, several thousand, no more. How very peculiar it all is…

# · Rich Batsford

Your analogies of people in rooms and stadia really does bring home the brevity of human development.

I find this very reassuring in a way. Like most of us, the failings of human beings to acts decently towards one another is a constant source of pain to me, but I find it helpful to reflect that its very much a work in progress – we havent been at it for long.

As Im fond of saying to people at what seem to be suitable moments in a conversation, we’re not long out of the trees yet.


# · PeterAtLarge

Oh, yes, just a blip on the radar screen of time. And we think ourselves so important, so vital to the world we are working so hard to destroy. Here’s one cunning ape who acknowledges the strangeness of it all! Cheers, PaL

# · Ernie McCracken

This brings to my mind a line in a song by Leonard Cohen:
“We are so small among the stars, so large against the sky.”
Here and now are only a position and an instant, but they are always and everywhere with us.

# · Ken Slonaker

I enjoyed reading “Our Ancestors”. That’s a very interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered before. Thanks.

# · Will

You always win brownie points for quoting cheery Len at me, Ernie. Thanks everyone for your comments. Will

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