By LaRae Kerr
The technology of family history research, specifically the Internet and DNA have changed not only who is interested in genealogy but how the individuation is done.
Quick: Say both Grandmothers’ full maiden names with nicknames, if any. Then, give both grandfather’s professions. Can you do the same with your four great-grandmothers and grandfathers? From memory? If so, you know more about your family than most Americans know about theirs.
According to a 2007 Ancestry.com study, many Americans cannot name all of their grandparents and great grandparents; 22% of Americans have no idea what their grandfathers did for a living; 27% don’t know their land of family origin. Still, 78% of all Americans want to know more about their family history.
Perhaps a description of what genealogy is now, at the beginning of 2008, will assist that 78% who want to know more. Hey, that sounds like a State of Genealogy address.
As a steadily rising nationwide pastime, genealogy and its accompanying technology are intriguing more people than ever before. And here is the hard but captivating truth: each person gets to find their own family history. Cyndi of Cyndi’s List once said she gets email from people asking her to send them their genealogy – without even giving their full names.
Not the way it works. The HUNT for ancestors is what makes family history research so intriguing. Some will find written histories of their ancestors, but others get to dig in and do it themselves.
So who is doing the digging in? Interestingly, the demographics – at least for the United States – are reversed according to this Ancestry.com study. It used to be that the older the family members, the more interested they were in genealogy. Now up to 83% of 18- to 34-year-olds are interested, with 34- to 54-year-olds at 77% and those over 55 at 73%. Certainly, one of the reasons for this reversal in interest levels is the excitement technology brings to research.
The goal of family history research is individuation – the process of tracing an ancestor back to a single person, to the exclusion of all other persons, then to another exclusive person.
Though any given ancestor could have many descendants, any given individual can have only two parents, four true grandparents, etc., in other words, individuation.
Technology has changed the search for individuation from a concentration on place – the town, county and country – to a concentration on the name of the ancestor. This is simply because it used to be that the place was where the records were. Now many of the records – and more every day – are found in one place, the Internet. This switch alone may explain the increased interest of those ages 18 to 34.
Though the use of DNA in family history research cannot replace the use of documents, it can aid researchers in two ways right now. First, DNA can steer researchers who have hit brick walls in the right direction. Remember the gentleman who thought he was Black all his life but after DNA testing discovered he was of Indian descent with no trace of African at all? At least as far as testing was developed at the time. Obviously, this is crucial information for his further research.
Second, DNA can bolster or disprove current lineages. I recently used a Perkins DNA study to eliminate several seventeenth century Perkins men as possible ancestors. See the Blog at Itsallrelatives.us for more information. But the documents from the 1600s told the major part of the tale.
Of necessity, DNA was just one piece of information in my arsenal of research for three reasons. First, DNA can only be used for genealogical individuation when enough samples with proven lineage are available. This is due to the possibility of “non-paternity events” such as illegitimate children, children fathered by someone other than the husband, adoptions and good old fashioned switching (the child of the dead mother is given to the living mother whose baby died), etc. Children resulting from “non-paternity events” are, after all, just as much children of the parents as those resulting from “paternity events.” It is important to remember that DNA will not aid individuation in these circumstances.
Second, DNA research still reveals only the direct father line – that lineage found at the top of the pedigree chart (yDNA), or the lineage of the mother found at the bottom of the lineage chart (mtDNA), and nothing in between. And third, DNA testing can tell if two men are related and approximately how many generations occur between them and their common ancestor.
However, I suspect that if and when I write another State of Genealogy column a year from now, there will be significant changes and additions in DNA research. Already the cues are being bandied about. For example, the microbes in our mouths can be used to trace cultural histories because those microbes vary significantly among ethnic groups (New Scientist of Aug 18, 2007 and “Our bodies and their bugs” by Duane Jeffrey, Daily Herald 19 Dec 2007 p D6).
The technology of family history research, specifically the Internet and DNA have changed not only who is interested in genealogy but how the individuation is done. Look for future State of Genealogy columns.
LaRae Free Kerr, M ED, can be reached at Itsallrelatives@sfcn.org and Itsallrelatives.us.