The Ancestor’s Trail USA
Human nature and deep evolutionary time
Posted May 11, 2018
If you want to understand something, you’d do best to understand where that thing, whatever it is, came from and what its function is. From an evolutionary perspective, a human being is an organism that emerged from the great-ape lineage a few million years ago. And humans, like any animals, are comprised of various physical and behavioral adaptations designed to facilitate survival and reproductive success in the kinds of environments that were typical during human evolutionary history. We can only understand ourselves if we understand our evolutionary roots.
Understanding the evolutionary path that led to modern humans can help us understand such things as:
- Why handgrip strength in humans is a ubiquitous health indicator (Gallup, White, & Gallup, 2007)
- Why humans prefer foods that are high in fats and sugars (see Wrangham, 2009)
- Why human mating systems include a mixture of monogamy and polygamy (see Barash, 2016)
… and a lot more!
Want to understand human nature and psychology? You’d better understand our evolutionary history!
Toward this end, let me tell you about one of the most amazing projects that I have ever had the privilege to work on.
Several years ago, renowned UK science teacher, Chris Jenord had a great idea. On the heels of reading Richard Dawkin’s (2004) “The Ancestor’s Tale,” and after witnessing a major pilgrimage-based religious event in Spain, Chris developed the idea of the Ancestor’s Trail - an inter-connected set of hiking trails that map onto different lineages of life. All with their own evolutionary-based timescales. And all joining together, as is the case with the evolution of life on Earth. All leading back to a single common ancestor. As is the case with the evolution of life on Earth.
Brilliant! With this idea, an amazing project was born. Touted as an exceptional instance of ecotourism in the UK by Smithsonian Magazine, the UK version of this trail that Chris and his colleagues put together was a smashing success. An unparalleled activity in evolution education. And thanks to the advances in GPS and web-based technologies, the UK version of the Ancestor’s Trail lives on permanently so that anyone can experience on his or her own schedule. School groups, Humanist groups, and others regularly take advantage of this resource.
One day in 2014, I got a random email from Chris. He’d heard of the SUNY New Paltz interdisciplinary Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program - and he’d heard of the amazing trail networks in our local Shawangunk Mountains. So he essentially pitched the idea of a US version of the Ancestor’s Trail, developed under my leadership.
Hey, I have a lot of things going on and immediately knew that this would be an enormous undertaking. This said, I love evolution and I love hiking. And I like organizing events. So I was a total sucker for this one!
On Saturday, April 28 of this year, we held the unveiling of the USA version of the Ancestor’s Trail in the Spring Farm area of the Mohonk Preserve. About 80 people joined the experience, including “Charles Darwin” and “Alfred Russel Wallace” (actors, but still!). It was a glorious spring day here in the Hudson Valley and, amazingly, everything worked out according to plan!
When participants, who included students and faculty at SUNY New Paltz along with many members of the broader community, showed up at 10am, they were greeted by our local bagpiper/paleontologist, Alex Bartholomew, whose Bagad-style bagpipe music provided the ultimate welcome for our guests.
From there, we gathered in the beautiful pavilion at Mohonk, where my co-organizers (Aron Wiegand and Olivia Jewell) helped get everything squared away and provided some introductory words. We then gave everyone brief guidebooks that laid out the experience and had people assemble into one of four groups. These groups, that all included experienced hike leaders who had the information down, set off one one of four trails that corresponded to one of four phylogenetic lineages - all set to meet up with one another during the day at junctions that represent critical moments in the evolution of life.
On the primate trail, which started in the modern era and went back 18 million years (about a mile, by the way!) to the dawn of gibbons, the hike leaders interpreted different locations as critical points, such as the emergence of the Neanderthals and the emergence of Homo Sapiens - both of which were only a few steps along the trail! Now that is a bit humbling, isn't it!?
Eventually, the four groups met up at the end of the lineage that corresponded to the evolution of ray-finned fishes. At that point, upon a large boulder at the base of Bonticou Crag, “Charles Darwin” (AKA Aron Wiegand) gathered the crowd and discussed the interconnected of life and how the Ancestor’s Trail experience underscores this point in a profound manner. From this point, we hiked as a group back to the Pavilion, which also corresponded to the origins of life on earth: 3.8 billion years ago. Importantly, all life that has existed since goes back to this same common ancestor - simple replicating organic entities that emerged due to a wonderful biochemical accident many years ago.
Bells and Whistles
Given the enormity of this project, which, by the way, was funded by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason, we shot high. In addition to the large-scale opening event, we held two pre-events the evening before so as to get people ready and excited.
First, on campus the afternoon before the unveiling, we held a special event called Why Evolution Matters: Prelude to the Ancestor’s Trail. This event included a few elements. First, via ZOOM, we were actually able to get Chris Jenord to join us on the big screen and provide words of encouragement and wisdom regarding the project. In a similar vein, co-organizer Aron Wiegand (who was in all-out Charles Darwin garb, accent, and mindset) and I provided some introductory words regarding the Trail. Next, we had Hudson Valley local, John Stern, unveil some amazing documents - documents that come from a personal letter correspondence between John’s great-grandfather of Moravia and Charles Darwin himself. It was awesome!
Next, under the leadership of SUNY New Paltz student Kelsey Newhook, we had a series of world-class evolutionists from all over the world chime in via ZOOM to speak, briefly and from their own unique perspectives, on why evolution matters. Speakers included:
- Amy Alkon (Author of "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence.")
- David Buss (Author of Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind)
- Dustin Eirdosh (University of Leipzig)
- Maryanne Fisher (Professor of Psychology, St. Mary’s University),
- Gordon Gallup (Professor of Emeritus of Psychology, University at Albany)
- Catherine Salmon (Editor, Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences)
- Rosemarie Sokol Chang (Publisher of Journals of the American Psychological Association)
- Joel Wade (Presidential Professor of Psychology, Bucknell University)
Streaming video of this entire prelude event is found here - and it is worth checking out!
After this exciting prelude event, all participants were invited to Darwin’s Happy Hour at Bacchus, a local watering hole. Both “Charles Darwin” and “Alfred Russel Wallace,” along with several others from the Victorian age, joined for Victorian-themed drink specials and good cheer. All in anticipation of Saturday’s big event!
Online Version of the Ancestor’s Trail - USA
Thanks to modern GPS and online technologies, I’m happy to say that a permanent version of this project, that will exist in virtual space on the web, is in the works. Prior to 2019, we hope to have this portion of things completed - and we look forward to having this exist as a permanent educational resource for generations of learners to come!
Big thanks to the many sponsors of this project, including:
- The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason
- The United Kingdom Ancestor’s Trail
- SUNY New Paltz (president’s office)
- SUNY New Paltz College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
- The New Paltz Evolutionary Studies Program
- SUNY New Paltz EvoS Club
- SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab
- SUNY New Paltz Honors Program
- SUNY New Paltz Costume Design Shoppe
- SUNY New Paltz Graduate and Extended Learning
- SouthEastern Evolutionary Perspectives Society
- NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society
- Bacchus Restaurant
And big thanks to the dozens of SUNY New Paltz students who contributed in all kinds of ways to the success of this project. I continue to be nothing short of amazed at what our students are capable of!
Barash, D. (2016). Out of eden. New York: Oxford
Dawkins, R. (2004). The ancestor’s tale. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Gallup A.C., White D.D., & Gallup Jr. G.G. (2007). Handgrip strength predicts sexual behavior, body morphology, and aggression in male college students. Evolution and Human Behavior 28, 423-429.
Wrangham R (2009). Catching fire: how cooking made us human. Philadelphia, PA: Perseus Books Group.