Generations Past

Neolithic burial cairn, Kilmartin Glen

This summer, I wanted to go away for a change of scene, but I did not fancy all the kerfuffle involved in travelling abroad, so I decided to stay within the UK. I ended up having two wonderful trips, one to Orkney, to visit the Neolithic sites there, and one to the shores of Loch Fyne, again in Scotland and, by coincidence, very near to Kilmartin Glen, which has a host of Neolithic and bronze age burial cairns and other remains. (The photo is of a Neolithic burial cairn in Kilmartin Glen.)

I think that I was most struck by how very ingenious and skilled were the people who lived some 5,000 years ago. There’s a tendency, of which I have been guilty, to think that history starts with the so-called ancient world, Egypt perhaps or Mesopotamia, and that history really got going with the Greeks and Romans. I realise now how absolutely absurd this (Western) attitude is. The very word “history” is sometimes defined as meaning times since writing developed, and this also seems pretty blinkered to me. So-called “prehistory” lasted for hundreds of thousands of years, and makes the last few thousand years seem like a postscript at the bottom of the page. And during all this time our ancestors, Neanderthals and homo sapiens, were using skill and intelligence to survive and improve their living conditions and to enhance their lives with art and ornaments. What they did was extraordinary. They used fire, made weapons, hunted and fished, created art and ornaments, and used animal skins for clothing – none of which I could do today without help and instruction. Neil Oliver, in his book A History of Ancient Britain, shows a photograph of a flint handaxe from Hoxne, in Suffolk, made about 400,000 years ago. No, that’s not a typo – 400,000 years ago. He also shows a photograph of Goat’s Hole Cave in Wales, where a body, the so-called Red Lady (in fact a male), was carefully buried some 33,000 years ago. He was buried with due ceremony – red ochre and artefacts.

On Orkney, I visited Skara Brae, which dates back about 5,000 years. The site was a village of some ten houses, made of stone. There was a sewer system – each house had a drain to carry waste away to the sea – and a stone hearth, stone beds and a stone “dresser”. At some later date, covered walkways were built between the houses, so that the villagers could meet up with each other without having to brave the winter weather. In other words, there was sophisticated town planning. The people of that time also built chambered cairns in which to put their dead. The care and the way they placed artefacts with the bodies suggest that they fully believed in an afterlife, as had the people in Wales some 30,000 years previously. These were people with spiritual beliefs.

What I find most moving is to realise that, at any time in the past, be it 500, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 or half a million years ago, there was one particular – and, in my book, very special – woman alive. This was the woman who had a daughter, who had a daughter, who was part of an unbroken chain of daughters down to me – and to my daughter and her daughters. I suppose you could say that the same is true for a particular man, the man who had a son, who had a son etc down to my father, but that doesn’t stir the same curiosity in me. Maybe it’s because a man doesn’t necessarily know that he has fathered a child, nor is the designated paternity of a child always the true genetic one. The male line can be fudged, or obscure, and often has been. On the other hand, a woman always knows that she has given birth.

So I think about this particular woman, and the long line of women stretching back for millennia, and I feel total awe. I have done some family research, and I know that my great great great great great great grandmother, on the strict maternal line, was Isabella Rawlinson, who lived from 1695 to 1753. So I have managed to trace the line back through eight generations and three hundred years. I thought that was quite impressive until I started to think more expansively, and to realise how far back we all go. Looking back at the three hundred years that I know about, I see how often a strand of the line came to a dead end, because a woman had no children, or children who died in childbirth, or only sons. But always, one thin strand kept going despite all the odds – and produced… And you, dear reader! And everyone! It makes me feel pretty special, and I hope it makes you feel the same.

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