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Genetics – A new direction for Genealogy

Science shows us all people living today share the same genetic markers with the world’s earliest known ancestors.  In simple terms, if we go back far enough in time we’ll find we all share a common ancestor.  To make this statement, science used genetics, and when genetics is applied to building family lines for genealogy, it opens a new way to develop our family lineage connections and to validate connections made through paper records.

Genetics is becoming a new genealogical tool, because historically genealogy only focused on developing lineage trails through the use of vital records, family documents, published information and family stories.  That approach worked in many situations, but paper records have a lot of problems.  Not the least of which is paper’s ability to survive the years from a document’s creation to the time it is located, assuming the researcher even knows where to look the documents.  Paper trails are also limited by the accuracy of the person doing the recording and the accuracy of the information being recorded.  Family stories don’t survive time well because they mutate as the storyteller’s memory ages, and all too often the story is lost when the last storyteller leaves us.

Our genealogical journey began with two goals in mind.  First, was a need to understand our family’s medical pedigree so history could inform us about any genetic predispositions to illness.  Our second goal was to learn about our heritage and our ancestor's migration paths in an attempt to understand more about our family’s history and culture.  Finding relations, and the places where we came from is the goal of most people doing genealogical research.  For most of us the search begins with familial knowledge imparted by our relatives through word-of-mouth or family documents. 

In our case we began looking at the city clerk’s office where we grew up.  In there we began collecting the records of people we knew were in our family and in their families.  Those documents pointed us to new places to search for more records.  Each new document almost always gave us new clues to more records, which clued us to even more records and locations.  Over time our recursive record-collecting process generated an enormous pile of paper that grew and morphed into the large online database you see on this web site.

Finding recent vital records is not much of a challenge for genealogist, but finding records reasonably accurate and with complete information is a significant issue when looking back in time.  Today, finding recent records is much better than it was just a few years ago, and the records of a few years ago are much better than records created in an earlier time, but as we move back in time the quality and survivability of records diminishes rapidly.  Still, with record keeping and its accuracy improving as we go forward, our children and their children will find the search for family and medical information easier than we found the experience, but this record keeping improvement process isn’t doing much good for the records of years gone past. 

On a positive note, our country's FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) has made the records of long ago more exposed as they are being cataloged into effective databases so that simple name searches are now helping us locate records in places we would have never known to look.  Hampering the quality of the records is the unpredictable level of literacy and accuracy of the people involved in giving and recording information.  This is further hampered by colloquial accents and phrases, and in many cases inaccurate family information makes its way into the records in all time periods.  

Stored documents also are at the mercy of the paper and ink’s useful lifecycle.  In far too many case paper crumbles or the ink fades below being visible.  Weather, fires and natural or civil disasters can have a devastating affect on the survivability of old documents.  In our search for family members we are approaching the paper trail horizon for some family tree branches for many of these reasons our ability to extend branch is being halted, unless some of the missing information is found hidden in undiscovered places. 

While document survivability is a time problem that will only get worse for older records, the historical process of using surnames to identify people doesn’t go back much past the beginning of the second millennium.  Even during the time since then, surnames given to people may not be those of the parent if the child was adopted, changed clans, places or was conceived outside of the surname’s identity. 

Good information about how surnames were conceived and applied is available in these three links where surnames were studied:

bullet Surname Origins and History
bulletA Brief Introduction to the History of Names
bullet A brief history of names

If you've read all three of these references, they clearly show that not only were surnames not applied evenly through out the world, they weren't even used until recently in some part of the world.  These referenced links also point out why there are so many variations of the same name and how we might understand which name variations mean the same thing.

Record and surname horizons face all genealogy hunters if they only use paper as a means of finding lineage.  When paper alone is the only guiding source of information, at some point it stops coming, or it ends up being suspect. 

In our case we have been staring at various paper voids on some branches for a while.  Forcing us to think that with limited clues on where to get the next document, and also because we are so far from where the records were created and might still exist, concerns about how we might find the next connection begins to cloud hope for extending a family branch.  This could have been disappointing as our goal was to at least trace our namesake and recent maternal branches back to their last country of origin so we could understand when and why our ancestors immigrated to America.

It was at this point that I discovered the work being done in the Genographic Project.  This narrative continues with the Genographic Project.

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Last modified: Wednesday, November 15, 2006 01:29:26 PM