A pilgrimage to the dawn of life ~ in Bristol

Based partly in Bristol last August, the Ancestor's Trail is an annual event combining walking, biodiversity, science and art. We all have a family tree but our takes this to a wholly different level. We go back  further than TV's ‘Who do you think you are?’ - much further; as far as it is possible to go in fact, sharing life’s ultimate roots story along the way.

Inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’, the Trail guides its walkers along a time line from the present day back 3.8 billion years to the origins of life. Essentially we drape the Tree of Life over the landscape, lining up its branches with footpaths. On the day of the event the branch tips are populated with groups of walkers who, with a little pre-planned choreography, rendezvous with the Human line of evolution at specific times. In this way our ever-increasing band of pilgrims arrives together at the Dawn of Life. Described as a 'biological pilgrimage' walkers symbolically ‘de-evolve’, with each step representing thousands or even millions of years back in time. 

Because not everyone is keen or able to walk our full15 mile trail, we make the other branches of the tree many different lengths so that people can choose their walking distance through the Trail they adopt. Most people walk the human line of evolution, but for less hearty walkers or younger families, there are a whole range of shorter options right the way down to less than a mile. As you go, you merge with trails from our increasingly distant ancestors. Some of these are populated by folks representing other life forms-  for instance chimps , lemurs, birds or jellyfish. Although we make every effort to make the event scientifically accurate, we try equally hard have fun! We encourages families and/or interest groups to walk together(eg as birdwatchers or people who love fishing). Some people even dress up as the animals/plants they represent! The Arts are also extensively ultilised and our arrival at our origins (potentially in central Bristol in this case) has so far always been a moving occasion with local musicians, marching bands and poets (including Bristol’s very own Ralph Hoyte) creating a celebratory finale. Also included have been a professional body painter, dancers, a choir, a theatre group and even a rap artist. Bespoke songs have been written for the event and it has been featured on Clare Balding’s Ramblings show on BBC Radio 4.  

You don’t need me to tell you that Bristol has already established itself as a Green City. The vision statements for the Bristol Green City Partnership include:

Education and responsibility: A green capital where education gives knowledge and concern about the dependence of people’s well-being on the health of nature, 

Nature: A city region that values and nurtures its green open spaces within and surrounding countryside without, working to increase substantially the quantity, quality and diversity of native animals, plants and habitats.

In line with this, given the current human-induced biodiversity crisis, and the fact that evolution is one big biodiversity machine, the Trail aims to create a platform for nature conservation charities. 

What’s more Bristol has already demonstrated its appetite for large scale public events with cycle extravaganzas and green fairs to name but two.

The Ancestor’s Trail has so far been relatively modest in terms of numbers attending, but it lends itself to a much larger audiences and what better location than Bristol?

Although run in Somerset for the past 4 years, our pre-trail lecture event took place at the University of Bristol’s Great Hall in the Wills Memorial Building last August featuring Professor Richard Dawkins and several other science speakers, but also music and theatre. Afterwards we transported people to Somerset but in future why not re-locate the Trail itself to Bristol? I have already walked several possible routes into the city utilising the mostly excellent paths already in existence.  I’d suggest laying the Tree of Life over the river Avon as it snakes from Bath to Bristol. There were a couple of places where the footpaths may need attention, but essentially everything is there already.

The event could end at the green fair, thus bringing more people in contact with all the many biodiversity /green organisations already so active in Bristol. The event should provide quite a spectacle bringing people in from surrounding regions and nationally. The Somerset Trail has previously welcomed people from Portugal, the USA, Canada and Australia. Bristol, of course, has the media experience and networks to make the most of the event.

However, that’s not all. For the other 364 days of the year I am also keen to create a mobile phone Trail APP which, when downloaded to your smart phone, would give the solitary walker a narrative as s/he walks the Bristol Trail. I have been working with Bristol’s very own SATSYMPH who have already championed this powerful technology in the city(and elsewhere)  to create specific narratives which can be allocated to particular GPS pool locations along the route. As walkers enter each pool they can choose to listen to information and or poetry/music/sound-scapes relating to the time period they have reached. . Such a project could also be aimed at school groups to fit with Bristol’s educational aspirations. This narrative could include meteorite impacts, ice ages, volcanic eruptions and the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, to name but a few. The last part of the walk would highlight the current human-induced biodiversity crisis and could even provide material imagining a world devoid of life forms still common today, with links to biodiversity projects in Bristol such as Bioblitz.   




Why the contribution is important

Imagine, if you will, the evolutionary Tree of Life. Its profusion of leaves each representing a single species of life on earth. A simple enough analogy, but there is no denying the potent truth sparkling within Darwin’s original sketchbook scribble. A truth that has changed forever our perception of who we are. Our ‘human leaf’ holds on beside all the rest, and yet so many other ‘leaves’ have perished, or seem destined to lose their precarious hold all too soon. Indeed, viewing the picture over the fullness of life’s history, we extant species shrink into a highly fortunate but tiny minority of survivors. And survive we have, despite repeatedly being pitted against all the odds, down through the millennia.

The Trail began back in 2010 in response to the International Year of Biodiversity and Darwin’s 150th anniversary the year before. More recently it also celebrated Wallace’s centenary in 2013. Their combined contributions have been rightly and properly recognised but is that it? Must we now sit patiently and wait for another 50 years? Surely our roots story deserves far more frequent celebration.


The Ancestor’s Trail is an attempt to fill this gap through an annual event highlighting ‘our place’ within the biodiversity machine we call evolution. Humanity is always up for a celebration. There already exists a super abundance of annual festivals around the world. They mark all manner of things, from steam rallies to the birth of religious deities. And yet nowhere do we find an annual celebration of our shared origins with all life on earth. Why not? This simply isn’t good enough!

Like all pilgrimages, the Trail is a participatory event. As an overwhelmingly social species, our sense of belonging strikes right to the heart of our very nature, and so, although alone we may start, together we shall gather.

At a previous Communicate Conference at Bristol County Hall, Sir David Attenborough was asked for the one thing he would most like people to take away from his life’s work in Natural History TV. He replied ‘to give, especially young people, a sense that they are part of nature’. He is not alone in fearing that successive generations are becoming increasingly divorced from nature; as admirably addressed by various speakers in Andrew Kelly’s Festival of Ideas in recent years. Our project aims to champion exactly Sir David’s message . 

You don’t need me to tell you that Bristol has already established itself as a Green City. The vision statements for the Bristol Green City Partnership includes statements about dependence of people’s well-being on the health of nature and  working to increase the diversity of native animals, plants and habitats.

Indeed, what better city than Bristol to celebrate the planet’s biodiversity and our place within the tree of life.   

Given the fact that evolution is one big biodiversity machine, the Trail annually creates a platform for specific nature conservation charities ~ 2011: Butterfly Conservation, 2012: RSPB/World Land Trust, 2013: a Tortoise charity. 

There are many wildlife organisations in Bristol. We would celebrate them all, one a year.


by user379920 on December 09, 2013 at 10:23PM

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