Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, September 30, 2013

Analysis of the basic issue with ancient pedigrees -- Why "back to Adam" does not work

I can't seem to get away from this issue. I was talking to two teenagers and one of them mentioned that his friend had his genealogy all the way "back to Adam." As usual, I didn't really have an appropriate response to that comment. I am wondering why this has almost become the hallmark of genealogy? Why do otherwise intelligent people accept such an unsupportable claim without question? Would the teenager been as impressed if his friend had claimed proof that the world was flat? Or hollow?

As I thought about these issues I thought it would be interesting to examine the flaw in the entire concept. Exactly where do people move from supported research to fable and fiction? It is not my intention to examine or question the validity of Biblical pedigrees. I am focusing on time periods much closer to the present.

For each researcher, the issue of continuing a pedigree into the realm of fable, arises at the exact point at which the researcher quits relying on his or her own research and begins copying others' pedigrees without questioning the validity or the sources. Obviously, some would-be genealogists start out by copying a file, either from some relative's GEDCOM or from an online family tree. It is not the copying process that is the problem, it is accepting the information without question or examination. In this context, when I question a potential researcher about the file they just copies, sometimes they will defend the copy as coming from some "very reliable" relative who has done genealogy all her life. To repeat, making the copy isn't the problem, but absent reliable sources, accepting the file as accurate is the problem.

I have mentioned before that European royalty had children just like everybody else in the world and the possibility that any one of us is descended from one of these royal families is always a possibility until proven otherwise. But it is the significance of the interstices that creates the problem with extending pedigrees to royalty and then backward through time. Even if we accept the Biblical genealogies, how do we connect those families living in the Middle East with royal families in Western Europe? Claims are commonly made that everyone is a descendant of a royal family. An example is a FoxNews articles back 5 July 2006 entitled "Genealogist: Almost Everyone on Earth Descended From Royalty." The article states, without any sources or substantiation:
Even without a documented connection to a notable forebear, experts say the odds are virtually 100 percent that every person on Earth is descended from one royal personage or another.
Aside from the very questionable claim that all the people on earth, including those with no contact to European royalty whatsoever, can trace their ancestry back to royalty, the conclusion of the article relies on a fallacy. The fallacy is that every person who lived in antiquity has "millions of descendants." To quote again from the article:
Anybody who had children more than a few hundred years ago is likely to have millions of descendants today, and quite a few famous ones.
Interestingly, this claim is exactly the opposite of the issue of pedigree collapse. Due to the fact that the number of direct line ancestors we have grows exponentially (2, 4, 8, 16, 32 etc.) if we go back to about 1200 A.D. when the population of the world was around 400 million people (See Wikipedia: World population estimates) then the ancestors of one person would exceed the entire population of the world. Obviously, the number of ancestors is far less than the theoretical number. The reason is that in reality, people ended up marrying their cousins due to limited travel and proximity. For similar reasons, if all of the 400 million people alive in about 1200 had "millions of descendants" then there would be much greater population on the earth than there is now.

So what does this have to do with pedigrees back to Adam? The point is that most of the arguments concerning relationship to European royalty are just that, arguments without any rational basis. But of course, somebody has to be related to royalty? Yes, the point is that at some point in the past, even "verified" royal pedigrees are not provable. Relation to royalty is one thing, claiming everyone is related to royalty or extending pedigrees back into antiquity are quite something else. So how far back can accurately verified pedigrees go?

In answering this question, I fully realize that there are those who swear that they have their genealogy back to the dimmest of ancient times, but is this realistic? Is there reliable research to support the widely published lists of the royal lines? I would suggest your start to answer this question for yourself by reading Kory L. Mererink's article for ProGenealogists entitled, Genealogical Fallacies Project: Pitfalls in Research Methods." List under Fallacies of Tradition is "noble descent." Progenealogists further make the following statement:
Various genealogies have been compiled for royal and noble lines. Some of these connect with the Bible genealogies which continue back to Adam and Eve. 
Although it may be reassuring to some to think they have connected their lines back to the earliest times, such compiled genealogies contain many errors. None of these genealogies have been proven. Some pedigrees include the names of various gods from which the earliest ancestors of their peoples supposedly descend and which come from early folk tales or mythology. It is practically impossible to separate the fact from the fiction. At this time it is not possible to document a lineage back to Adam. 
For a further discussion about this question see the following article: 
Gunderson, Robert C. "I've heard that some people have extended their ancestral lines back to Adam." Ensign (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church) Feb 1984, p.31. (FHL book 289.305 C473e.)
I have cited the Gunderson article several times in the past. Here is a quote from the article:
Let me explain. In thirty-five years of genealogical research, I have yet to see a pedigree back to Adam that can be documented. By assignment, I have reviewed hundreds of pedigrees over the years. I have not found one where each connection on the pedigree can be justified by evidence from contemporary documents. In my opinion it is not even possible to verify historically a connected European pedigree earlier than the time of the Merovingian Kings (c. A.D. 450–A.D. 752).
The key here is contemporary documents. If you want to argue with me, please send me copies of the pertinent "contemporary documents" proving your pedigree back past the Merovingian Kings. In fact, I have never met anyone making the claim to an ancient pedigree that could read the old languages or had done any original research.


  1. Totally agree with James on this one. The "descent from antiquity" goal has never been accomplished in Western Europe:

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. Now I have another topic to write on.

    2. James, from what I understand, the Wagner essay is one of the most important writings on the topic. I haven't had a chance to read it yet.

    3. And Settapani is reconstructing families from ancient Rome, which is also very interesting. From what I understand, their descendants are lost in the mixup when the Roman Empire fell and new Barbarian leaders began to rule.

    4. Wagner, Anthony. Pedigree and Progress Essays in the Genealogical Interpretation of History. London: Phillimore, 1975. .

    5. The Wagner book cited is in the Family History Library.

  2. Never heard about "Descent from Antiquity" before, thank you for sharing.

    And thank you, James, for "tackling" the "number games" concerning human relation. I've read quite a few well written, sourced and researched articles concerning the Mitochondial Eve and I'm always amazed about their numbers ... I always figured the writers didn't know the in and outs of "paper/document" genealogy. It would be nice if someone with the mathematical skills and understanding of genealogy - and the pedigree collapse - would take a serious look at this. Seems to me there could be some real interesting questions and answers coming from some serious research in that area.

    1. Theda - re your concerns about "paper/document" genealogy and also pedigree collapse for "Mitochondrial Eve"...

      Which bit are you worried about? I did have to sit and think it through, but I came to the conclusion that pedigree collapse has no implications for "Mitochondrial Eve". That's because the mitochondrial line is the exclusively female line and we each have one and only one of those. Sure, my Nth great-GM on that exclusively female line might also be my Mth great-GM (which is what pedigree collapse is about) on another route to me, but the latter line goes through a male at some time - it has to, as I can't have two exclusively female lines of descent.

      So if there's only one such line, then standard genealogical concerns don't seem to matter much - one important variable is, I guess, the rate of mutation in the mitochondria and I don't know if that's driven by years or by generations. Then the other important thing is to understand the variation of the mitochondria across the human population today. Then - lots of hand-waving - it's just do the maths to take us far enough back to eliminate all such variation. (Of course, discovery of new variations might push "M-Eve" back).

  3. I think the "back to Adam" falls under the category of Fantasy Thinking.