Blog : Posts tagged with 'ancestors'

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By ‘eck

In which the past seems obvious


Within a month, another slightly silly news story about paleogenetics. This one isn’t quite as daft as tracing the descendants of Edgar Aetheling, though. Scientists in Leicester have discovered that loosely-related members of a Yorkshire family share an African ancestor, from at least 250 years ago* and probably further back than that.

Unlike the previous story, the research in this piece is all very sensible. What’s silly is the idea that it should be surprising, or that it’s a news story that we have African ancestors. Everyone in Europe probably has black ancestry somewhere in their family tree, if you go back five hundred years or so; and definitely if you go back a thousand.** What’s depressing, I suppose, is that there are people who don’t realise this: people who think that their family is white, has always been white, always will be white. They’re wrong, of course.

* because that’s the most recently their latest common ancestor can have lived.

** I am haunted by a vague memory from university, that the skull of an African monkey, a couple of thousand years old, was found somewhere in Ireland, thus proving contact with Africa back then. I can’t find any references for this at all, though.

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Ancestry

In which we’re descended from great men


Today’s top news* story: English Heritage have been putting out newspaper adverts around the world announcing that they are searching for the descendants of Edgar Aetheling, claimant to the English throne in 1066. As the closest relative of Edward the Confessor, under modern law he would have received the crown; but under Saxon law kings didn’t automatically inherit their position, so he didn’t. Everyone remembers the other kings of England from 1066, but everyone forgets the teenage Edgar.

To be frank, I think it’s a silly idea. Edgar will have millions of descendants, all around the world, most of whom will have no clue and no chance of knowing. Out of these millions, only a small handful of people might be able to prove a connection.

We know this, because a few years ago geneticists managed to trace thousands of men who are probably descended from Niall Noigíallach. Niall Nine Hostages was one of the greatest kings of Ireland,** founded a rather large dynasty, and is the reason O’Neil is a common Irish surname.*** Niall lived around 1500 years ago, half as long again as Edgar, and probably fathered many, many more children than Edgar did. Nevertheless, around 20% of men in north-west Ireland are probably descended from him in the direct male line. If you include everyone who has a woman somewhere between them and Niall in their family tree, you’d probably find that everyone in Ireland is descended from him by one route or another.**** The Queen of England certainly is.

The chances are, you’re descended from someone important in history too. You won’t know it, but you almost certainly are, just because there were so many important people in the past. There’s no way of knowing it, either. English Heritage are on a bit of a wild goose chase, because the people they are looking for are in the country all around them, invisible.

* yes, another topical post

** one of the greatest kings of the Irish or Scots, in fact; when he was around, “Scots” still largely meant “people from Ireland”.

*** You can’t entirely blame him for all those crappy theme pubs though.

**** but the geneticists didn’t do that, because it would have been almost impossible.

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Names and geography

In which we see where the P family used to live


Like a lot of people, I’ve spent a while today playing with the Surname Profiler website,* looking at how distant relatives are spread around the country, now, and 125 years ago. As I was expecting, in the 19th century my mother’s family was very heavily concentrated in one area:

Surname, 1881

…because we know from her genealogy research that her father’s ancestors have lived in this village and the neighbouring one for as far back as anyone can trace.

I was also expecting to find that today, we would be spread all over the country, what with modern transport making migration much easier.** However, our own family just demonstrates what the research project proved: in the words of the project leader, “migration is traumatic.” We don’t seem to have moved about much at all:

Surname, now

Of course, that’s for a name that isn’t common anywhere – that site suggests that the majority of people with our name live within our local phonebook area, and that phonebook lists about 30 numbers under it. If you have a more common name, individual family movements won’t show up. Another branch of my mother’s family – still with a fairly obscure name – is from Cornwall. In 1881, almost all of them lived west of Bristol:

surname B, 1881

Our branch of that family, at the time, lived in Brixton. Not the one in Devon, though, the one at the end of the Victoria line, in a completely blank part of their family map.

* link via Up Your Ego. The surname profiling website is very overloaded at the moment, so be patient with it.

** “Nor should we forget the benefit in rural human genetics brought by the railway: with less intermarrying the ‘village idiot’ has disappeared” – David St. John Thomas, The Country Railway, 1976.

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Ancestors

In which I discover some family history


The Mother has discovered The Internet. Specifically, she has discovered a plethora of genealogy websites, and is using them to try to track down our family tree.

Now, her family is fairly easy to trace back into the 19th century. They had a family bible, kept newspaper clippings and wedding invitations, and are nice, simple, and straightforward to track. My Dad’s family, on the other hand, is another matter.

Dad doesn’t know anything at all about his family tree, beyond his parents, sisters, and the names of a few more distant relatives. Questions to my grandmother, before her death, always went unanswered. However, my aunt has kept plenty of details about our family, and does know a lot more about how they’re all related. As we were visiting her anyway, The Mother asked her if she could get out her family births book so The Mother could copy it all down. And we quickly found out just how complex and baroque my father’s family really was.

For one thing, their surnames are all rather confusing. Once you go back beyond the current generations, very few people in our family bothered to get married. This was, it turns out, one of the reasons why my grandmother always refused to answer queries about family history. It’s very unclear whether her parents ever did marry – there’s no record of it, and my great-grandmother kept paperwork in both surnames until her death – but, my aunt told us, anyone who asked my gran directly about this would usually get punched. Some of my gran’s brothers and sisters shared her surname; but some of them took their mother’s name. My great-grandfather was apparently in the Cavalry – “there’s a photo of him in uniform, on a horse” – in India, in the 1920s, but nobody knows any other details about him.

My grandfather’s family is just as confusing. They, also, rarely bothered to marry. When they did, it often made things worse. One of my grandfather’s close relatives married a man called Frank. Her sister then married Frank’s son – I’m not even sure how you draw that on a family tree. Their son, incidentally, was the mayor of Southampton a few years ago. Having a grandfather who is also your uncle* clearly doesn’t stop you entering politics.

The Mother, being upright, respectable, churchgoing, and definitely no-sex-before-marriage, was rather shocked at all this. She is one of those people who sees The Past as a golden age of morality, when things were done properly and you didn’t get all these single mothers all over the place; so she was rather surprised to see that before her own generation, a lot of my ancestors just didn’t think that way. Myself, I’ve always had a suspicion that Victorian morals are both fairly modern and a middle-class innovation, so I was rather pleased to find all this out. Even though it might make genealogists blanche at the thought of trying to draw the tree out, I rather like my ancestors now.

Update, September 24th: we’ve since discovered that my gran’s parents never were married, because my great-grandfather already had a wife, who he never bothered to divorce.

* in a completely legal way, I should add

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