A meditation on the Ancestors, by Jon Cleland Host

26 days left for you to help HP place an ad at The Wild Hunt.  Go to HP’s Indiegogo campaign to contribute.

The theme for the early autumn at HP is “Finding Meaning”.  

Who are our ancestors? And how can we connect with them?

Editor’s note: The following meditation is designed to be done with a group, but it can be modified for individual use.  The meditation calls for a narrator and a group of hooded, silent actors.  Ideally, the meditation would be performed in a room where the lights can be dimmed gradually.  Stage directions are in italics.

In the comments below, consider how far back in your ancestral history you can feel a real connection.

Who are our Ancestors?

[The lights are partially dimmed when the meditation begins.]

Sit comfortably.  We are going to spend some time thinking about our Ancestors — all of them.  Breathe deeply.  Look at the fire, or close your eyes, as you like.  As the year nears its close and the light fails more each day, this is the time when the dead are traditionally thought to be closer to us.  You can almost feel their presence.  [The lights slowly continue to dim.]

Who are some of the dead you remember?  Friends?  Relatives?  Parents? Grandparent?  We each have four grandparents.  Who are or were they?  What about our 8 great-grandparents?  Or our 16 great-great-grandparents?  They lived around the time of the Civil War.  They all experienced a lot in their lives.  They nurtured and loved your grandparents.  And may even have dreamed of you, their descendants.  [Dim the lights all the way now.]

Now step back to their great grandparents, just 4 more generations or about 100 years.  Each of us has 256 great-to-the-6th-power grandparents, who lived around the time of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  Look how the numbers go up!  By going back 500 years, to when Columbus “discovered” America, your great-to-the-18th-power grandparents were alive, and numbered around a million!

Of course, there was a lot of overlap*, so many of those Ancestors are probably your direct Ancestor by more than one branch of your family tree.  By going back only a little ways, say only to the Dark Ages, we have a half a quadrillion Ancestors!  They weren’t all separate people.  The entire world’s population then was only a few hundred million people.  If we go back more than a millenia or so ago, we are each direct descendants from nearly everyone in our race.  Going back just a few millenia, we are directly descended from most of the humans alive on the planet at the time.

Into prehistory …

Four millenia ago, the great pyramids were built in Egypt and Stonehenge was built in England, mostly by our direct Ancestors.  We are their children.  Think of their lives, hauling the stones, sweating, living, loving, dying.  What of their religion?  In Egypt, they worshiped Gods like Ra and Set.  The religion of Stonehenge had something to do with the sun and moon, but no written records exist.  Think of those Ancestors of us all, close to us here in this room.  [Hooded actors enter silently and walk around.]

Now go back farther — another 1,000 generations [about  25,000 years].  Our Ancestors now have a religion that has left us today with mother goddess figurines and stone circles scattered over Europe.  They have art and culture, and they painted beautiful murals in France.  Who were they?  What were their day to day lives like?  They probably married and had elaborate funerals.  Can you see their loving faces in your mind?

Farther still, now a total of 50,000 generations [~ 1.5 million years].  We’ve named these Ancestors “Homo Erectus” meaning “upright man”, and if they were alive today, they would appear a lot like us.  Think of sitting with them to chip stone tools or to plan the next hunt.  Or imagine them bravely leaving their homeland on Africa, hardy bands of pioneers, facing the dangerous new land of Europe.  In some ways, they are with us today, especially in many of our ways of thinking and in our large brains.

More Ancestors?  Farther back?  Yes.  Continuing back to 100,000 generations [3 million years], our Ancestors are called Australopithicenes, like the famous woman Lucy.  Only about 4 feet tall as adults, they had some characteristics of chimps, and lived in towns under the African sun.  Onward!  Our more distant Ancestors beckon to us from the dark mists of time!  [The actors are walking stooped over.]

Our Ancestors 2 million generations ago [15 million years], our great-to-the-two millionth-power grandmothers and grandfathers, sitting in their camp, eating fruit and gossiping in their own way about who is interested in whom.  Their lives consisted of rivalries, politics, and family connections.   They have just left the jungle to forage on the open African plains, and they now fear the lions and hyenas.

Our mammalian Ancestors …

Before that, 8 million generations [40 million years] before us, our Ancestors live on branches in the jungle.  Much like monkeys, they swing happily from branch to branch.  They feel the wind in the hair on their arms and legs as they leap, the males working hard to impress the females.  What is it like to live that high in the branches, rarely touching the ground?  In your mind, ask them.

Around 12 million generations ago, life for our Ancestors was hard.  The trees offered little safety from the flying velociraptors seeking to snatch our Ancestors for dinner.  Why be in the trees?  They don’t know — but that’s where they were born.  They shuddered to hear the high pitched cry of their predators, always aware that razor sharp talons could be a heart’s beat away.

Yet, there were times of calm.  Picture one of our Ancestors gazing up at the tranquil evening sky.  A small star appears, slowly becoming brighter.  Soon it is brighter than the full moon, and her sisters and brothers have turned to see this light.  Brighter still, it now casts sharp shadows on the leaves, and is too bright to look at.  It streaks overhead, then vanishes over the horizon.  A huge flash blinds many of them, then a monstrous red mushroom cloud can be seen silently rising over the distant mountains, trailed by an immense column of rising debris.  Rocks are seen to suddenly loosen and fall from the distant mountain tops as the shock wave approaches.  Without warning the shock wave hits, stripping the leaves from the trees and casting many of our Ancestors to the ground below.  Silence again, except for the cries of the survivors.  But the real horrors are yet to come.  Within minutes meteors are seen all over the sky, and within hours entire forests burst into flame.  After the inferno, darkness covers the earth, killing the plants plunging even the tropics into a cold, snowy winter that lasts for over a year.  The terrors called the dinosaurs are gone, but starvation and freezing have taken their place.  [The actors are on all fours.]

Even earlier, around 20 million generations before today (80 million years ago), our small, shrewlike Ancestors cowered in the underbrush, living in the shadows of the terrible dinosaurs.  Scampering quickly away from any disturbance, they were active at night, their thick fur keeping them warm, and the dark providing some cover from the snapping teeth and clutching claws that ever threatened.  Many of our Ancestors felt the pain of a claw or tooth slicing into their body, writhing in pain, then falling limp.  Others began to hide more and more in the trees — which were a safe haven at first, at least they were before some of the dinosaurs evolved feathers and flight.  Listen to the roar of dinosaurs.  Clutch your young to your chest, hiding from danger.

How did we live before that?  100 million generations before us [200 million years], our Ancestors first evolved the ability to feed the babies with mothers’ milk.  The reptile young’s food is always uncertain.  Yet our babies sleep sated with warm milk from a loving mother.  Imagine the rich taste of that first milk, and the ease of not needing to make captured prey soft enough for a baby’s small mouth.

The animal kingdom …

150 million generations [340 million years] ago our Ancestors looked a lot like lizards.  No fur for warmth, yet our young survived, hatching from eggs on land as the land was colonized.  What do we still have from them?  Their simple minds know to fear, to fight, to run — responses we still feel today when danger threatens.

Around 200 million generations ago, drying ponds forced fish to either survive short ventures onto land, or die.  Our Ancestors faced the parched feel of the air on their skin, and left the comfort of the water.  Land was a tough place to be, and wriggling like fish with only stubby little legs was clumsy — yet, our Ancestors survived.  Their eyeballs hurt as they started to dry, and the dirt clung to their skin.  How would that feel?  [The actors are lying flat, moving a bit.]

300 million generations [500 million years] ago, our Ancestors experienced the joy of swimming!  Sleekly powering through the water, leaving a wake of swirling foam.  They were moving faster than any living thing had ever moved — to see a morsel of unsuspecting food, and to snatch it before it even knew what hit it!  The power, the grace, the speed — have we all experienced that thrill, to be in complete and instant control of where we are?  This was life!  With fins, and before that, with just an eel-like body, the water flows over us as we speed along.  [The actors crawl around again.]

How big is big?  400 million generations [500 million years] ago our Ancestors looked like small eels, or large worms.  The growth in size had taken us beyond the tiny creatures we had been, now our offspring were slowly becoming larger, and their eyes began to develop.  Sight, so easily taken for granted, appeared!  No longer would we wonder what was out in front of us.  Now to see!

Microscopic life …

Can all these cells get along? Going back 1,200 million generations [600 million years], our Ancestors had just formed as separate animal bodies from clumped, cooperative cells.  It was the dawn of new age, as when individual humans grouped together to form the first nations.  Some cells specialized to a specific task, and soon all were hopelessly dependent on each other.  Tiny worms were all we were.  [The actors lay flat, not moving.]

Separate cells floating in the ocean — that’s where we were for a billion years.  Back 5,000 million generations before today [800 million years], the largest life on earth was microscopic.  Our Ancestors floated in the ocean, perhaps showing us today how to be accepting and tranquil.  They are silent, they are invisible — yet they are everywhere in the water.  Just as today, where the bacteria that are like them fill every niche of our lives, on our hair, clothes, and yes, even this room.  The generations are going quickly now, bacteria can reproduce themselves in less than an hour, so my great grandchild is only 3 hours older than me.  So different, yet still with us today — many of our genes, and our ability to breathe air, were invented by these Ancestors.   [The actors sneak out — they can no longer be seen.]

Back now 15 trillion generations, our Ancestors are just forming into what we’d call life.  Chemistry has produced an oil slick on the surface of the oceans, a mix of organic molecules.  Some of these can copy themselves, and the waves crash on the rocks to form tiny bubbles — tiny cells.  The planet looks dead, but no longer can it be called that.  Do these new forms of life have any consciousness?  How do we relate to these our Ancestors?  They are forming out of the rocks and water, so what is a generation here?  Are we so centered on our own way of existing that even this, on our own planet, feels alien?**

Are we so centered on our own way of existing that even this, on our own planet, feels alien?

In the beginning …

Generations can no longer be counted, but remember that the stuff that formed those bubbles, the rocks, the water, the carbon — all formed first from the explosions of dying stars — billions of years before the earth formed.***  The earth, forming from the accumulated wreckage of these stellar explosions, had the materials needed for life to arise.  Our Ancestors include these dying stars, which billions of years ago exploded in supernova explosions too large to be imagined.

To connect with our Ancestors is to connect with this long, awesome story of evolution, with stars, galaxies, bacteria, worms, fish, salamanders, furry critters, monkey, chimps and humans.  We are their children.  We are the universe, turning to look in awe at what we come from.  Could we be any more blessed?

Notes:

* Overlap is an essential thing to understand.  Overlap is when a given person, say Thomas Jefferson, is your great6-grandparent by more than one “route”, in other words, he’s your: father’s mother’s mother’s mother’s father’s father’s mother’s father, while he is also your: mother’s father’s father’s mother’s mother’s father’s father’s father.  In other words, two of his great5-grandkids got married, or some such.  Yes, this is inbreeding, but that’s what happens, a lot, since we are all related.  And we don’t even have to go back very far to be related.  As we go back in time, the number of greatx-grandparents goes up extremely rapidly, and is very quickly many times the entire population of the planet at the time.  “Overlap” is the reason that explains why we still had that huge number of greatx-grandparents even though the total population is much less — it’s because we are double (triple, quintiple…) counting people.

** There are many possible ways that life may have first arose, and many of them are of course beyond the scope of a service that we are trying to make more experiential and less academic!  However, one likely route is relatively simple.  The early earth had a soup of organic materials, forming what was like an oil slick on the surface.   Waves crashing on rocks formed tiny bubbles — think of  a soap bubble in the air.  It has air inside and outside, with a thin layer of water.  These were similar in that they had a thin layer of oil (stabilized by a phospholipid bilayer), with water outside and a watery mixture inside.  That’s pretty much all a bacteria is.

*** Earth formed 4,600 million years ago.  The stellar explosions I’m talking about were probably about 10 billion years ago.

Calculation of the number of generations (generation = 24 years):

Gen. No. of people Years ago Mil. of gens. Gen. length (yrs) Mil. yrs ago
parents

1

2

24

0.001

24

0.024

grandparents

2

4

48

0.01

22

0.244

great grandpar.

3

8

72

0.05

20

1.244

2G grandp

4

16

96

0.10

16

2.844

3G

5

32

120

0.20

11

5.044

4

6

64

144

2

5

14.044

5

7

128

168

8

5

44.044

6

8

256

192

13

4

64.044

7

9

512

216

20

2

78.044

8

10

1024

240

100

2

238.044

9

11

2048

264

150

2

338.044

10

12

4096

288

200

1

388.044

11

13

8192

312

300

1

488.044

12

14

16384

336

400

0.3

518.044

13

15

32768

360

1,200

0.1

598.044

14

16

65536

384

5,000

0.05

788.044

15

17

131072

408

15,000,000

0.0002

3787.044

16

18

262144

432

17

19

524288

456

18

20

1048576

480

19

21

2097152

504

20

22

4194304

528

21

23

8388608

552

22

24

16777216

576

23

25

33554432

600

24

26

67108864

624

25

27

1.34E+08

648

26

28

2.68E+08

672

27

29

5.37E+08

696

28

30

1.07E+09

720

29

31

2.15E+09

744

30

32

4.29E+09

768

31

33

8.59E+09

792

32

34

1.72E+10

816

33

35

3.44E+10

840

34

36

6.87E+10

864

35

37

1.37E+11

888

36

38

2.75E+11

912

37

39

5.5E+11

936

38

40

1.1E+12

960

39

41

2.2E+12

984

40

42

4.4E+12

1008

41

43

8.8E+12

1032

42

44

1.76E+13

1056

43

45

3.52E+13

1080

44

46

7.04E+13

1104

45

47

1.41E+14

1128

46

48

2.81E+14

1152

47

49

5.63E+14

1176

48

50

1.13E+15

1200

49

51

2.25E+15

1224

50

52

4.5E+15

1248

51

53

9.01E+15

1272

52

54

1.8E+16

1296

53

55

3.6E+16

1320

54

56

7.21E+16

1344

55

57

1.44E+17

1368

56

58

2.88E+17

1392

57

59

5.76E+17

1416

58

60

1.15E+18

1440

59

61

2.31E+18

1464

60

62

4.61E+18

1488

61

63

9.22E+18

1512

The Author

Jon Cleland Host

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.

Check out Jon’s other posts:

This Thursday

This Thursday is a Samhain Special with Telmaris Green: “Why Witch?”

The theme for late autumn here at HP is “Death and Life”.  Send your writing and art to humanisticpaganism [at] gmail.com by November 6, 2013.

Advertisements

3 Comments on “A meditation on the Ancestors, by Jon Cleland Host

  1. I downloaded this from the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo group a long while ago, but I haven’t looked at it in ages – so this is a great time for it to be brought to my attention again, thanks! It beautifully captures my understanding of ancestors.

  2. Pingback: Happy Hallowed Throwback Thursday | Under Two Trees

%d bloggers like this: