Three Big Lessons from Genealogy


The miracle of the Internet, combined with the hard work already done by genealogists for their own projects, has enabled me to take a deep dive into my family tree – one that wouldn’t have been possible only scant years before.  The things that I’ve learned have been amazing: that I’m descendant of William the Conqueror; that I have Bohemian heritage; that my surname may be as old as 1000 years; and much more.  Most of this overlies nicely with the 23&Me results I have in hand, as well as with the various historical documents my family possesses.  Most surprisingly however, the main lessons I’ve taken from these last few years of research have had little to do with my particular genetics, my surname, or any claims of famous ancestry.  There are three of these lessons:

Lesson One:  Your surname has next to nothing to do with your heritage.  I know that’s surprising, and possibly sacrilegious among genealogists, but it’s true.  Unless your family has spent its entire history having marriages only between people of the same surname, your actual heritage spreads out exponentially with every preceding generation.  Take my own case, for example.  Surely Gilbert is a Norman surname, but my mother’s surname is likely of Pictish origin.  So, fifty-percent Norman you might say?  Well, one move up the rung to my four grandparents reveals surnames of Norman (my father’s father, of course), German, Pictish (mom’s dad), and another German.  So now the preponderance of my heritage is, if not now German, at least non-Norman.  How about great-grandparents?  Norman, Bohemian, German, Anglo-Saxon, Pictish, German, German, Scottish (probably Orkney).  So, just going back a mere three generations I went from “being” Norman to “being” three-eighths German, one-quarter Scottish-ish, and with a bare smattering of other origins to include now only one-eighth Norman. 

I say ‘being’ in quotes there because that is the central question:  What does it mean to ‘be’ something?  For example, Americans have the habit (annoying to some Europeans who don’t understand the context) of saying something like “I’m Irish” if they have an Irish surname.  Of course, this is American shorthand for saying “My family immigrated from…” but even that has less and less meaning the farther one moves away from the first generation of immigrants bearing the surname.  My Gilbert ancestors arrived in North America as early as the 1640s but the male line has been married into by something like a dozen other families – each varying between “just off the boat” recently immigrated to being in America since colonial times.  Those marrying-in families have had just as many generations of marriage with other families as the Gilbert line has had, and so on. Therefore, in 12 generations of Americans, an individual has 4,096 direct ancestors.  Of my 4,000 or so American ancestors, I know 12 were Gilberts.  Therefore, to say “I am Norman” is a bit of a stretch.  That leads us to the next lesson:

Lesson Two:  Your ancestors’ homelands don’t really say much about your or their genetic makeup.  Going back to the “I’m Irish” example, a lot of people (sometimes jokingly, other times more seriously) say things like “I found out I’m German, that’s why I’m so organized,” or like sauerkraut, or whatever stereotype fits.  Looking at my own Norman heritage, I used to think Gilbert was an English surname – which it is, but what makes up ‘English’?  Normans, Angles, Saxons, Romans, various Celtic tribes, Norse, and many other ethnicities.  Go back a bit earlier and you have a land inhabited by peoples such as the Dumnonii, Durotriges, Belgae, Atrebates, Dobunni, Catuvellauni, and a score of others.  Focusing just on the Anglo-Norman origin of Gilbert, one has to further ask “Well, what is Norman?”  These people were from Normandy, but the nobility at least was descended from Vikings – but also experiencing the same in-marrying effect from the year 911 to the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066.  This made Norman heritage Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Anglo-Saxon, Italo-Roman, Gaulic, Celtic, Frankish, Visigoth – and a ton more you’ve likely never heard of like the Suebi and Occitans.  The point is that early Europeans were far more highly mobile, intermarrying easily and absorbing migratory cultures over and over again, than one might think. 

The impact all this has on genetic makeup is dazzling.  I remember my time in the Balkans, a place of highly charged emotions regarding heritage, identity, race, and religion.  There, a person of one particular nationality described to me another of the Baltic peoples as being less-than-human, another race, and inferior in all ways due to their ethnicity.  Of course, his culture (like everyone’s of any culture I spoke to there) possessed “the original” culture, and therefore superior institutions – and most importantly the right to rule over their inferior neighbors.  My response was “You all look white to me.”  That’s the point, there is no ‘race gene’, only a collection of phenotypes that have been tossed into a millennia-old blender that sometimes produces vaguely recognizable physical characteristics in certain geographical regions.  Simply put, at some point about 800 to 1000 years ago, one of my 30,000 to 100,000 direct ancestors who happened to be speaking French and living around the English Channel said “my surname is Gilbert” – bringing with him a million years of tribal history back to the dawn of our species.

Lesson Three:  The good news – your family can be as large as you want.  Language, culture, geography, and genetics do not map to each other perfectly, or at all in some cases.  Look at my Bohemian ancestry:  Bohemia is named after a tribe known as the Boii, but they were pushed out and supplanted by a series of tribes.  The last of these tribes were a group a Slavs.  Who knows how many of each tribe remained and became absorbed into the new ones?  Also, what does ‘Slav’ mean?  Well, it turns out that nobody really knows.  No doubt there is a Slavic language group, but scholars point out this might even have arisen from ancient Thracian, a people mentioned in ancient Greek texts.  Certainly, linguists agree, that going back even farther one finds that the Slavs and indeed all Europeans spoke a single, ancient, lost Indo-European language akin to Sanskrit.  So, you may “be Irish”, but you can also celebrate your Indian ancestry.

While all of this may be disconcerting and bewildering to someone trying to find their roots, take heart!  The math makes it clear.  At the start of the American Colonial Period, about 400 years ago, each of us statistically have about 65,000 direct ancestors living at that time.  Going back to the time most Europeans started taking surnames, say 1000 years ago, each of us should have about 1.2 TRILLION unique, individual, direct ancestors at that time!  Of course, that is impossible as the total population of the Earth at that time was only about 275 million.  This clearly shows us that every single one of us is closely, very closely, related.  One can very nearly just pick a culture from history they want to celebrate as theirs and it is likely he or she has at least SOME connection.  In fact, mitochondrial DNA studies show that every single person alive today shares a single many-great grandmother between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.  Maybe we should start considering trading in “I’m Irish” for “I’m human”.