Origins — the fascination of ancestors — recent, ancient, extreme

I have had an interest in the history of my family since childhood, when I wrote a short history of the Mathers family that drew heavily on documents and recollections of family members, particularly those of a great-uncle and great-aunt born in Scotland in the 19th century. When I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as a teenager, I was fascinated by the genealogical charts in the Appendices to the Lord of the Rings. For some reason, I find the tracing of connections to a larger history deeply satisfying. Over the last ten years, I returned to researching my ancestry using the powerful tools offered by the Internet, with access to databases and historical records that I would not have dreamed possible before.

My great-great-grandfather, John Melross (1824-1906)

My great-great-grandfather, John Melross (1824-1906)

While I have traced my Mathers ancestors back to the 18th century, I was able to trace my wife’s ancestry back to the beginnings of the European colonization of North America. And then a few years ago, I discovered a documented link back to minor British aristocracy. The detailed genealogical records on British aristocracy enabled me to follow several ancestral lines all the way back to William the Conqueror (1028-1087 CE) and further back to Charlemagne the Great (748-814 CE). To some amateur genealogists, this is the holy grail of ancestral research.  However, experts have estimated that at least 2/3 of people of European descent are descended from Charlemagne the Great. The trick is to find a complete documented line of descent, which few can do. So descent from Charlemagne is nothing notable, and the chances are that none of Charlemagne’s specific DNA has survived in my sons.  Still this personal link has stimulated my interest in European history, the evolution of the Roman Empire into the countries of modern Europe, and made it much more real to me, not just words in books. It helps to be living here in Europe surrounded by the traces of earlier ages.

Merovingian kings

Merovingian kings

Prior to Charlemagne, the evidence becomes patchy, and although there are lines of descent claimed to connect Charlemagne back to the Merovingian dynasty that ruled parts of Western Europe for three hundred years after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (350 CE to 750 CD), we are entering the domain of legendary genealogy : Arthur, the grail kings, the Cathars, the descendents of Jesus and his family etc.  Dan Brown territory, which has its own fascinations. Nothing like good conspiracy theories of history.

stardustrevolutionFor me, tracing ancestry back in time, connects me to the larger history of the human race, and ultimately to the evolution of life, and further back to the evolution of the universe itself. I am currently reading a book The Stardust Revolution  Jacob Berkowitz (Prometheus Books 2012) which traces the story of the quest for the origin of the elements that make us up, and the planet on which we evolved. We are literally stardust, as the heavier elements that compose organic molecules were created in stars and distributed through the universe when stars ended their lives as supernovae. The Stardust Revolution is about extreme genealogy…connecting us back to the very beginnings of time and space in the big bang : “It’s extreme in what it tells us about the nature of our ancestors. They were stars”.

We are touching on big questions here : who are we, why are we here, why is there something rather than nothing? My principal Zen teacher, Hogen Daido Yamahata, points out that there is no separation between us and our ancestors :

“When I observe closely a dry leaf, a blade of grass, an earthworm, I am struck by the deep wonder of the sacred universe. These small things may seem to be useless, but in truth nothing is useless. We are all descendents of the beginning of the universe” (The Other Shore, 1986)

“When I sit, I am the tip of the iceberg. All of my ancestors are actualizing here within me. Everything is actualizing here”. (The Other Shore, 1986)

On the one hand, we are cumulation of a countless chain of cause and effects (a.k.a. karma). On the other hand, as Hogen-san also points out, here-now is all there is:

“Whatever we have been in the past – monkeys, earthworms, amoebas, for example – is within us in this moment. And yet, past is past and present is purely present. Everything we have done has been inevitably been necessary for our realization of Here-Now.  … We are not controlled by our past, but we are creating and enlivening everything past and future by this awareness of Now”. (On the Open Way, 1998).

So I am hoping to post some writings on ancestors and linkages, ranging through

  • family history  – my documented direct ancestors and relatives
  • historical ancestors (if lucky enough to find links to medieval genealogical records (going back, around 1200 years)
  • legendary ancestors – lineages before the time of Charlemagne’s grandparents (say to around 2 or 3 thousand years ago)
  • deep ancestors – from genetic evidence of maternal and paternal ancestry spanning the period back to the earliest humans (200,000 to 500,000 years ago)
  • evolutionary ancestors – tracing the evolution of the hominids all the way back to the emergence of single cell life on Earth around 4 billion years ago
  • Extreme ancestry — our cosmic origins from 4 billion to 13 billion years ago in the big bang.
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