The immensity of time

We have been looking a fair bit at the history of early people lately. We took a bit of a stab at early cultures in and around the fertile crescent, but it was not a great success.

I decided to try a different tack by looking at where people came from in the first place, which led us more generally into the processes of evolution. Partly inspired by the very interesting Wonders of Life documentaries, we have recently been discussing how things evolve. We have talked about why things evolve into the forms that they take, and why evolution never stops. We took several looks at a documentary called Before We Ruled the Earth, and also have been reading various books from the library.

One of the things that I noticed was that he did not seem to grasp the scale of time involved. On reflection, it occurred to me that very few people do. A timeline is good and easy enough to find, but they are all limited by the fact that they have to physically fit into a book. I really wanted something which would demonstrate the unimaginable immensity of time involved with evolutionary processes.

Homonin timeline

We started with a timeline of human evolution drawn on a piece of paper. It was a deal longer than the picture shows, but the other end was largely empty. Although the timeline itself is very simple, we had gotten the ideas from, and spent several lessons going through a book on Early People. There are a lot more ideas on the piece of paper than it appears. The scale of the timeline is 10 cm to 1 000 000 years. This means that the time back to the earliest known agriculture and permanent built dwellings takes up about a millimetre.

We went over the timeline to understand which sections of the book related to which sections of the line, and also to try and impress the scale involved. Then we took our timeline and a small collection of flags down to the beach. When we had finished setting up, this is what we were looking at.

World evolution timelineAlthough you can’t see it, at the base of that first headland is a large metal sign. It is 460 metres away, and represents the formation of the earth. 100 metres in front of that, also unseen, is our first flag, marking the start of simple cells. 240 metres closer than that is our second flag, showing multicellular organisms.

Of the three flags which can be seen in the photo, the furthest away marks the start of the Carboniferous period. I picked this point because it I felt it marks the stage where the world would be theoretically survivable, broadly recognisable, and would kind of make sense if we saw it. The two closest flags mark the rise and extinction of dinosaurs. Such a universal reference point for children everywhere, I felt these had to be noted.

Finally, we get to our timeline of homonin evolution, the crucial two centimetres at the end where the homo sapiens hang out, and the final millimetre which is most commonly recognised as ‘history.’

I have been kicking around the idea of large scale conceptual models like this for ages. I certainly enjoyed the process of making our timeline, regardless of what the kids got out of it. On the face of it, it seems a bit much for a six year old, although he appeared to get the gist of it. We will have to wait to see how much of it sunk in. The only question my three year old had was ‘Which silly person left all these bluebottles on the beach?’

I guess we will revisit this idea again in  a few years.

About Blokeschool

I am a homeschooling dad with a wife and two boys. I'm not quite sure what I'm doing, so I feel compelled to write it all down. In my spare time, I work as a manager for the local health district, drink too much coffee, and am an overenthusiastic martial artist.
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7 Responses to The immensity of time

  1. Reminds me of the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with Neil Degrasse Tyson calendar of time. My kids were amazed that humans came along on December 31st. A little hard to digest.

  2. lucy76green says:

    Great drawings. We tried to tackle this sort of this with my eldest at 6 but she was too young to fully grasp it too. We made a history timeline running up the stairs which my daughters loved making but I’ve since had to take down because we redecorated – this post has reminded me to put it back up! Thanks!

  3. That is just fabulous! And even if your six-year-old didn’t get the whole thing, I’m sure it served as a wonderful introduction to build on later. 🙂

  4. Carol@LearningwithBoys says:

    Excellent! I keep wanting to do a timeline for the house but can’t decide where to start. The Calendar approach used in the Cosmos series helped us get a better sense of time, and one of the IMax movies we watched showed time as a spiral. I really like the hands on approach with this and the linear representation.

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