In many ways (not all!), this is a great time to be alive. In addition to benefits of medicine and technology, my Samhain observance (and indeed, my life overall) is enhanced by a large and growing body of knowledge about my Ancestors. So many of our Ancestors lived their lives honoring their Ancestors, but did so with scant knowledge of them. For many, their knowledge was limited to knowing that their more recent Ancestors (say, the previous several thousand years) had lives much like their own present lives. Most of our Ancestors who honored their Ancestors lived with their only “knowledge” of their Ancestors being traditional creation stories, which usually described the first humans as living much the same as people present at the time. What a huge difference to today! Today we know not only that our Ancestors lived very, very different lives at different times, and also know that our Ancestors go back far, far before humans. Indeed, a moment’s reflection shows that 99.9+% of our Ancestors were not human.
While the sum total of what many of our Ancestors knew of their Ancestors could be told in an evening of stories, it would take quite a library to describe what we know of our Ancestors today – a library which is growing nearly every day. This body of knowledge is so vast that only a tiny fraction of it can fit into a blog post – so I won’t even try to make the representative or an orderly review. Instead, just a few thoughts will suffice.
One big difference that I’m reminded of often, and especially near Samhain, is how inventive our Ancestors were, allowing them to survive under difficult conditions. Recent discussion pointed out the Lebombo bone – a bone inscribed with 29 notches, which was made by our Ancestors around 40,000 years ago. This bone was used to count something, like the many tally sticks which followed (and of course even the Lebombo bone was likely preceded by others). The 29 notches could count days, suggesting that women may have been the first to keep a count on bones – but even this is unclear, as the bone is broken on one end (so the tally may have been more than 29), and other later tally sticks have many different numbers on them. Can you imagine making a living in the wild with your main tools for survival being bones and stones?
If you lived back then, one of the scarier aspects of life may be food – the fact that having food next week or the week after that was often in doubt, even if you had just brought an animal back to the village to eat. With no refrigeration nor chemical preservatives, there weren’t many options. But we just discovered one option that was used to preserve food for several weeks! Bones enclosed in skin would would keep the marrow inside the bone safe to eat, even as the skin on the outside of the bone rotted and dried. One time of many may have gone like this. The last game kill was weeks ago. Everyone is hungry. A grandfather died, not wanting to take food that younger villagers could eat. The babies are crying. Now, now we must go and use the food stored in the leg bones. It keeps the village alive as the people search for food and game. Time and again these bones saved the lives of our Ancestors, and without them you would not be here reading this blog.
The extreme age of these bones – of how long we’ve been using notches to count – is clearly seen by comparing this length of time to other huge stretches of time. We (humans) just discovered one of the oldest trees – 2,600 years old! Yet, even that tree was only a seed when the Lebombo bone was already 37,400 years into the past! That tree took root and grew here in North America – in North Carolina, the sorrowful destination of hundreds of captured people sold into slavery when the tree was already 2,400 years old.
The DNA in people alive today tells part of many of these stories of our Ancestors. I’ve explored this in my own DNA in the video here. For many of us, this can give a stark look at the hardships of the past. As one example of many, slavery left many marks in the DNA of people alive today. A recent DNA study shows the main regions slaves were taken from during the American/African slave trade, matching up with historical records of where slaves were acquired and sold – among other findings.
For all of these and so many more, I’m overwhelmed by the mountain of love and struggle which we all stand upon – those millions of Ancestors who lived their lives, fighting to survive, to flourish, and to give us the world we have today, for both good and ill. How could I sit by and ignore this? How could I let this sacred time of Samhain slip by without them on my mind? I can’t. I can only recognize that what I do is only a tiny nod compared to their effort.
I’m so glad that I’m not alone in this recognition. So many others now are waking up to this reality. Dandelion Lady gives us several new, helpful prayers to our Ancestors for Samhain. One of them (check out the others!) is:
A Prayer for Our Most Ancient Ancestors:
Most Ancient Ones, I call back through the vast reaches of time to you!
Back through recorded history,
Before the Romans fought and fell: City, Republic, and Empire
Before the fertile lands between the Euphrates and the Tigris were cultivated and cultures rich and vast sprang up.
Before the taming of the wild steppe horses,
Before the land bridge to the Americas was crossed,
Before all these things you were there.
We do not forget you this day, most ancient ones.
You are us, and we are you, our DNA the same as yours.
Your minds bright and shining, your words clever, your hands working just as ours.
We thank you for your gifts and we thank you for your survival.
We are you, come back again, building on your work through the shifting sands of time.
Most ancient ones, homo sapiens, please accept our offering!
And new for this year, Starhawk brings an opportunity (I think there are still a couple open spots!) to celebrate and honor our Ancestors for Samhain with this ritual.
However you are celebrating this deeply sacred season of Samhain, may your observances, and your Ancestors (so many of whom we share) be blessed.
The Author: Jon Cleland Host
Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.