When I was learning about geology – many decades ago – we were shown a diagram comparing Earth’s natural history with a 24-hour clock. That was presented to give us an idea of the relative lengths of the various geological eons, era and periods, as well as a perspective of the age of the Earth in relation to how long people have been around.
Retrieved from Eras of the Geologic Time Scale
Few people drive through a mountain range, for example, will have a proper perspective of the time it took to first have the primary material be deposited as sediment, turn the accumulation into rock and later uplift the whole succession into what we see now in the towering cliffs. In the Rocky Mountains of western North America, the rocks we now see were formed as far back as the Middle Proterozoic Era (about 1,500,000,000 years ago). The uplift and deformation of the strata began in the middle of the Mesozoic Era (about 175,000,000 years ago) and continue today.
Retrieved from Wikitravel: Rocky Mountains (Canada)
Different forms of the clock-comparison diagram have been produced over the years but the stories are still the same: the Earth took a long time to reach its present form; hominids, in various forms, have existed only for about 5,000,000 years. The human segment of that period is only about 2,000,000 years which takes up the last minute and a quarter when history is viewed in relation to the clock. Within that most recent, very small interval, the human species has developed from forest-dwelling hominids to modern man.
Retrieved from The History of Life: Represented on a Clock
Retrieved from What is a timeline of human evolution?
One might argue that humans have always been organized around families but there was no clear evidence of that prior to the last 10,000 years (the Holocene Epoch) unless you count the cave paintings by hominids in Europe about 40,000 years ago. The beginning of the Holocene interglacial period is when people began to expand their geographic range, gather in small communities, eventually build cities, live in family units and transform the environment around them. Communication in the form of writing – such as cuneiform script – was only invented a few thousand years ago. Civilization, indeed all of mankind’s entire recorded history, occurred during the Holocene.
Retrieved and modified from Skeptical Science: We’ve been through climate changes before
The oldest document I have come across is called the Elphantine papyri, from 449 BC (2,500 years ago) which appears to be a formal recognition of the marriage between a Jewish temple officer. Ananiah, and Tamut, an Egyptian slave. Most of us won’t find records that old that relate to our own families.
When genealogists research their roots, they are only looking at a very recent fragment of time in which humans have inhabited the planet. They are not really researching family history, or the history of families, but only studying the events of families preserved in the written record. Most of what we can view in terms of records go back only to about the early 15th century – about 600 years ago. It is true that certain types of records were kept in previous eras but few made mention specifically of people and their families. As a result, they are not of much value in constructing true and continuous family histories.
The following shows how all these time periods relate to the age of the Earth (according to the charts shown here):
Period Time (Years) Proportion Clock Interval
Age of Earth 4,550,000,000 100% 24 hours
Hominid History 5,000,000 0.11% 7 minutes, 22 seconds
Modern Humans 2,000,000 0.0004% 1 minute, 17 seconds
Civilization 10,000 0.0002% 0.154 of a second
Limit of Genealogy Research 600 0.00001% 0.00924 of a second
My Personal Years of Study 50 0.000001% 0.00077 of a second
My experience in geology and genealogy take up an exceedingly small slice of time relative to Earth’s history!
Just to keep it all in perspective!
Wayne Shepheard is a retired geologist and active genealogist. He volunteers with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. Wayne has also served as an editor of two such publications. He provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated