History Repeats Itself in TikTok’s Ancestor Trend

ancestor throwback - Credit: Roman Kybus/Getty Images; PM Images/Getty Images; coffeekai/Getty Images
ancestor throwback - Credit: Roman Kybus/Getty Images; PM Images/Getty Images; coffeekai/Getty Images

Ever since Stephanie Black was 10 years old, she wanted to be an archaeologist. But she was 17 the first time she put that dream into action. After her mother told her she needed to have a plan for her life, Black slammed her door, opened her laptop, and clicked on a class that was being offered at a local college. Now nine years later, not only is Black a Ph.D. candidate in Archeology at Durham University, she’s the creator of an unexpected trend dominating TikTok — and it’s encouraging everyday users to celebrate their own archaeological past.

Also known as the “History Repeats Itself” challenge, Black’s first video of the Ancestors Trend was meant to be a silly appreciation of a recent study that found that 90,000 years ago, Neanderthals in Portugal were eating crabs — a groundbreaking discovery that implies older humans had enough complexity and intelligence to catch and cook smaller prey. To try and make somewhat stifling archaeology news relatable to people, Black posted a video imagining a conversation between herself and one such Neanderthal bonding over a shared love of crab, set to a sped-up TikTok version of “Pierre” by Ryn Weaver. It’s been liked over 75 thousand times.

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Since Black, who goes by @archthot on TikTok, posted her first clip, the Ancestors Trend has become a fixture on the app. The hashtags #ancestorstrend and #historyrepeatsitself have over 25 million views. While Black’s own contributions focus on archaeological discoveries and history lessons, the TikTok style has already morphed into a celebration of historical practices that are still around, thank you letters to queer ancestors who paved the way to equality, and like most online trends, hilarious ancestor reactions, and some probably well-meaning but incredibly insensitive videos from white people. Even celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon have gotten in on the trend. But Black tells Rolling Stone that the overwhelming response to the mostly-wholesome trend taps into a human desire to connect with the past — and shows why she loves archaeology so much.

“It has now gone far and beyond anything I thought. I was genuinely like, ‘No one’s going to see this. Who cares about Neanderthals and crabs?’” she says. “I just keep getting sent videos of different people who’ve done it, like Drew Barrymore and Reese Witherspoon. And that’s the real beautiful thing about it. These are people who I’ve got nothing in common with, literal worlds apart. But I feel like people are taking it as an opportunity to find that kind of connection to their past.”

Black’s most popular video of the trend is also her personal favorite, involving a timeless love for bread and olive oil. The video has been viewed over 6 million times.

“We’ve got nothing in common with an ancient Mesopotamian girl, a Greek girl, a Roman girl. We couldn’t speak the same language,” she tells Rolling Stone. “But you could stick a bowl of olive oil and bread in front of us, and we could eat it and enjoy it and be happy.”

While this is Black’s first viral trend, the creator has spent the better part of three years using her TikTok account to post on ArchaeologyTok, a side of the app dedicated to archaeological study, history, and discoveries. According to Black, the popularity of characters like Indiana Jones has created major misconceptions about what the career actually looks like.

“People don’t understand what archaeologists do,” She says. “True archaeology can be extremely boring. But for me, it’s about finding people’s stories. It’s like I’m a detective and I’m trying to piece together random little bits. I can only go off the physical remains that I have, so I’m just trying to find that story.”

And while she doesn’t want the pressure that would come from labeling her account as purely educational, Black says that she thinks ArcheaologyTok is doing important work in fighting historical misinformation that can go unchecked on the app. She also uses her videos to address the lack of pay and diversity the career path can have — all of which she hopes can help others.

“There’s so much misinformation about archaeology out there, especially on TikTok,” Black says. “If I can be one of a group of people who are fighting back against the misinformation, I feel that’s part of my job as an archaeologist. There’s no point in me doing academia, sitting in my ivory tower, not interacting with anyone. This is something I enjoy. It’s something I’m passionate about. I love, and I want to share what I love with other people.”

Black says the Ancestors Trend has already helped to flood her direct messages and comments with people enjoying making their own videos and dozens more who say her perspective has encouraged them to pursue archaeology as a career. And while she says that most of archeology involves dealing with ancient history, the trend proves that the study will always have modern applications — and a historical way into a better appreciation for life.

“Nothing was better or worse. It just was,” Black says. “There’s this whole idea that I see in my comments. People like, ‘Oh, I would have thought we would have evolved past this.’ But no, people in the past are just like us. It’s about seeing humanity. Because if you can find the humanity in someone that lived 90,000 years ago, then you can find the humanity in your neighbor down the street, and you can find the humanity in everyone around you. And I think that’s a really, really powerful thing.”

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