Join The Ancestor's Trail as it recreates a symbolic journey backwards in evolutionary time through the Quantock Hills in Somerset.
The weekend starts with a keynote talk by Richard Dawkins, and trails (of varying lengths, from under a mile to about 13.5 miles, depending on the evolutionary branch you choose to follow) all converge at the beautiful, fossil-rich beach at Kilve. The Ancestor's Trail is sponsored by RDFRS UK.
Read on to find out more.
Inspired by Richard Dawkins's book The Ancestor's Tale, The Ancestor’s Trail celebrates our place within the biodiversity machine we call evolution. Humanity, it seems, is always up for a celebration but while there are a super-abundance of annual festivals around the world - from steam rallies to the birth of deities - until now there has been no annual celebration of our shared origins with all life on Earth. The Ancestor's Trail fills that gap.
The Ancestor’s Tale is loosely modelled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Instead of pilgrims journeying to Canterbury, Dawkins’s protagonists are living species, journeying back through evolutionary time. In real time, individual species diverged and speciated. But in backwards time separate species start the journey apart (in the present) and “converge” as they descend into the past. Humans “meet” their common ancestor with the chimpanzee and bonobo around 6 million years ago and from there we continue back far deeper into geological time.
Dawkins's reversal of time is designed to overcome the “conceit of hindsight”, in which all of evolution is seen as something inevitably progressing towards the human. The Ancestor’s Trail symbolically follows this same journey on foot.
So how does it work? At this point you’ll need to manipulate the evolutionary tree in your head. Lie it flat along the spine of some picturesque hills in Somerset, its branches approximately lining up with the hills' many tributary footpaths. Now add yourself (perhaps with some friends or family) in a selected location representing one particular branch of the tree. Simultaneously many other fellow pilgrims will be scattered across the hills, each representing different life forms.
We are now poised for our journey. Before lies life’s deepest history. As we walk we rewind time. If we are to reach our goal within a sensible time frame, each step must represent thousands or even millions of years. As we go we will periodically meet with other groups of walkers who have followed non-human branches. In this way our ever-increasing band of ‘pilgrims’ arrives together at the Dawn of Life – a beautiful, rugged, rocky beach called Kilve: famous, appropriately enough, for its fossils.
The Trail is a participatory event - this is important. As an overwhelmingly social species, our sense of belonging lies right at the heart of our nature and so, although alone we may start, together we shall gather.
Despite the fact that our planet’s biodiversity is in such crisis, the event is a celebration, but in an effort to give something back we raise funds for nature conservation charities - this year the RSPB and World Land Trust.