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"Genealogy Today", by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
From the Green Valley News, Sunday 19 August 2012, page B1

So Many Ancestors, So Little Time

People have many reasons for doing genealogy. Some want to learn more about themselves by studying their ancestors. Some are curious about what their ancestors did or how they fit into history. Other like solving mysteries, working out puzzles, and genealogy provides clue after clue to keep one going forever.

Genealogy is the hobby that never ends due to the number of ancestors we each have. Going back just 20 generations you could find 2,097,152 ancestors - if you could find them all - highly unlikely, even if you had a whole team of researchers working with you. Going back a thousand years ago, each of us has over a trillion ancestors, more people than were alive at the time.

In that thousand years, you would find many persons duplicated many times in your ancestry. You would also realize how truly we are all members of "the family of man" as we are all related to each other multiple times. That incredible number of ancestors means we are all descendants of Charlemagne, British Royalty, Mayan princesses, Aristotle, and most any other ancient historic figure you’d like to be related to.

One sure way to have someone make claims about your ancestry without charge is to run for public office. The most recent incident of this is the news that President Obama is "likely" descended from Punch, the first slave recorded in colonial America. Since slave records are sparse no one can really prove whether Punch even had descendants, let alone who they are living today.

Unless these claims of descent are made by a credible researcher who demonstrates proof of the claim with verifiable evidence they should not be taken seriously. The key words to watch for are likely, perhaps, probably, possibly, may be, etc. These qualifiers always accompany dubious claims.

For example, the population of Ireland has never exceeded 10 million, but over 70 million persons now alive claim Irish ancestry. Irish ancestry is nearly impossible to document beyond the 1800s due to lack of records and the small number of persons who owned land or were literate due to restrictive laws.

Writing in the Atlantic Monthly recently, author Steve Olson quotes Joseph Chang, a Yale University statistician who describes the mathematics of ancestry as ". . . exceedingly complex, because the number of our ancestors increases exponentially, not linearly." Chang proposes that the most recent common ancestor of every European alive today was himself alive 600 years ago. He claims 20% of the Europeans alive 1000 years ago have no living descendants and the other 80% are related to every living European. Intemarriage and continual migration of peoples from one area to another means as enough time passes all are related to each other.

Projecting forward, this same trend indicates that in another thousand years each of us alive today will be the ancestor of every person who will ever live or if we have no children, ancestor of no one at all. The foregoing demonstrates the insanity of wars and disputes between one group of people for superiority over another group.

So, why bother doing genealogy since we are all related to each other? We might as well save our time and money and just get to know those around us who are part of our extended family. But we each have an individual path back through the past and it’s this path we attempt to identify and follow via family history research. The thrill of identifying another link keeps us doing research and finding more ancestors.

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