What does “The Ancestors” bring to your mind? A grandparent? People living in the 1800’s, without electricity? Like the unfathomable oceans of time before and behind us, and like the depths of space beyond our little Milky Way galaxy (“only” 200 million light years across), our Ancestors are far too vast for our minds (well, at least mine) to grasp very well.
A post cannot do more than make a tiny scratch on the surface of the topic of the vast mountain of our Ancestry. The scant footprints, both in the image above and in the Native American Footprint discovery hint at this mountain. In fact, some basic concepts can help us start to see the extent of this mountain.
It may seem trivial that we of course have 2 parents (and hence 4 grandparents), but this makes our number of Ancestors increase very rapidly, doubling every ~25 years in the past. Starting with 2 parents, 4, grandparents, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 – we get to hundreds of Ancestors only a couple centuries ago, a bit before the United States Civil War. Being that the last Civil War widow just died in 2020, this isn’t all that long ago. Only a hundred years before that – when the early science fiction novel Micromegas was being written, there were likely thousands of people alive who were your Ancestors, and that number reaches into the millions of people when Europeans began arriving in the Americas. This is why, even when only counting our human Ancestors, we all have literally dozens of billions of human Ancestors.
We are family
But hold on. That calculation gives ~4 billion Ancestors, around 1200 CE. That can’t be right. The whole world only contained ~0.4 billion people in 1200 CE, so what gives? The fact that we have common Ancestors solves this problem. Simply put, we are double (triple, quadruple….) counting some people, who were you Ancestor by more than one line of descent. For instance, she could be your mother’s, mother’s, father’s, mother’s, mother’s, father’s, mother – while also being your father’s, father’s, mother’s, father’s, mother’s, father’s, mother. Thinking about it, this means that once we go back a few thousand years, we are each descended from nearly everyone (who had grandkids) who was alive in several regions of our countries of origin, back then. Further, this also means that nearly everyone on earth today is a descendant of nearly every single person alive (who had grandkids) from several thousand years ago. But didn’t people stay in isolated villages? No. a few people traveled, even back then, and it only takes one (over the centuries) to include an entire region. In other words, at that time (called the Identical Ancestors Point), every single person alive on Earth was either: 1) an Ancestor of everyone alive in 2021, or, 2) the Ancestor of no one alive in 2021. It also means that once we get back to the Identical Ancestors Point, all of us – you, me, Greta Thunberg, Jane Goodall, Neil DeGrasse-Tyson, etc., – we all have exactly the same Ancestors, going all the way back to single celled life on Earth billions of years ago. On Samhain, we can remember that even our Ancestors bind us all together as one huge family. Every single person we meet is literally our cousin. I’ve often thought of how interesting it would be if I could know, on meeting someone, that they are, say, my 27th cousin, or my 11th cousin, or such – as a constant reminder to respect all people, who are all my family (and this extends to all life on Earth as well). A few thousand years to the Identical Ancestors Point is of course very recent compared to our 1,000 thousand years of human Ancestors, and of course very small compared to our literal billions of years of Ancestors before humans. That means that when you venerate your Ancestors, and when I venerate my Ancestors, we are invoking 99.99999+% the same exact Ancestors, because we share them.
We are a Very, Very Diverse Family
We can also see from this that nearly all of our Ancestors – well over 99.99+%, were not humans. Humans have only been around for about 2 million years, after all, which is about 0.05% of the time that we’ve had life on Earth (and generations were much shorter for nearly all our Ancestors). This enormously expands our choices when calling on our Ancestors! Some of our Ancestor were fish, or huge reptiles like Dimetrodon, or agile monkeys living their lives in the treetops! I’ve gone through many of these in detail (with the gifts each of these Ancestors has given each of us) in this Samhain post.
These concepts and many more are in the enlightening book The Ancestors Tale, by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong, and can also be found in many scientific sources helping everyone understand our Ancestors more deeply.
With that slight glimpse of the enormity of the mountain of Ancestors supporting each of us, here are two wonderful Ancestor posts – perfect as we approach Samhain!
Mark Green’s Atheopagan post about the spiritual world our human Ancestors lived in can help us all imagine the possibilities for our own worldviews. With special focus on the Shigir Idol (which I was delighted to learn of), he describes the hints of the best of their world, dimly communicated to each of us through the scant and precious items which have survived to today, including the Venus Figurines, cave art, and so on. What can we make from the gift they have given us?
Do we have to Venerate even our Toxic Ancestors?
There is so much goodness in this Ancestors post by John Beckett. As someone for whom Ancestor (Aanikoobijigan in Anishinaabe) veneration is a major part of my spirituality, this is an extremely important point, regardless of if one sees their Ancestor work as talking with spirits of the dead (as John and many other Pagans do), or seeing it as I do – that no spirits are real, but that their lives were real and connecting to them has real benefits. I’ve seen plenty of people avoid the powerful and deep spiritual practice of connecting to our Ancestors due to the very point this post addresses – that one or more of their most recent Ancestors were toxic. It’s so easy for anyone to see that as a reason to ignore the other literally millions of Ancestors – and that’s one reason why this post is so important. In fact, I’ve pointed out that this is an issue for every single one of us. Even if all the Ancestors we know of were wonderful, loving people, it’s mathematically inevitable (see above) that many of our Ancestors were murderers, bigots, rapists, and more.
John also mentions the toxic positivity of requiring their forgiveness. We all have some toxic Ancestors, and many, many loving ones – and most had both good and bad in various proportions. We can all celebrate the Ancestors we want to, including the billions of Ancestors before humans. They are Ancestors as much as our grandparents, and calling on them (such as calling on my fish Ancestors when I go swimming) connects me to a wider world of life on Earth. I too include them in my daily dedication. That part of my daily dedication is: “I hear my Ancestors, who made me, who live in me. Together we call to future generations, in whom we will live. Today, as before, We make their world.”.
Starstuff, Contemplating by Jon Cleland Host
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.
Heather is a parent and a scientist raising her four children to explore the world through scientific understanding and with spiritual appreciation of the Universe. She has a Master of Science degree in Physics from Michigan State University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor of the Arts degree in English Literature, also from the University of Michigan. She teaches physics as an adjunct instructor at Delta College, runs the Math Mania program at a local elementary school, has worked at Dow Corning as an engineer and at NASA as an intern, and she has led science outreach workshops for K-12 students through joint programs between NASA and the University of Michigan. She is a naturalistic non-theist, whose faith has been shaped by her childhood within the Episcopal Church, her adult membership in the Unitarian Universalist church, and through Buddhist meditation. She has a passion for bringing science and spirituality to everyone in a fun way, both for her own family and for the wider community of the Earth. She is a co-author with Jon Cleland-Host of Elemental Birthdays: How to Bring Science into Every Party.