Getting started with genealogy
Have you ever been interested in what your great-great-grandparents did for a living? Perhaps you have wondered when your family settled in your home country? Maybe you’ve been curious about whether the family rumor that you are descended from royalty is true? If this sounds like you, you might be interested in delving into the world of genealogy.
Genealogy is the study of family trees. More specifically, genealogy traces lines of descent through generations. Historically, genealogy was relatively restricted to those with the knowledge, experience, and motivation to search, access, and interpret a range of documents, uncovering their history piece by piece. However, the advances in digital technology, anyone can browse a wealth of information online and start to reveal the secrets of their ancestors. Notably, DNA analysis has changed the game for genealogy, adding a new dimension to ancestry research 1.
Genealogy is an area of academic research that can combine many disciplines: history, philosophy, geography, sociology, anthropology, evolution, and genetics all contribute to the field of study. Genealogy has become a widely explored hobby and interest, said to be the second most popular American hobby after gardening 2. The popularity of the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?” has both illustrated and fueled this popularity. Genealogy has strong links with a sense of identity, community, and connection, and many of these motivations fuel people’s interests. But it is not the only application of genealogical research.
Why might someone be interested in genealogy?
There are many reasons why an individual might want to study genealogy, either as a hobby or a career. A few are listed below.
A personal interest
An individual’s interest in genealogy could simply be because they have a personal curiosity for the discovery of their family history or heritage. This could be a particularly important motivation for those in which their history is largely unknown due to immigration, loss of records, or familial separation3. An individual interest could come from a desire to connect to older generations, trace personal stories, and uncover ethnic identity. Curiosity is a significant driver for the popularity of genealogy as a past time, and individuals can find the pursuit highly rewarding if they are willing to put in the time and resources 4.
In some customs and religions, ancestry and personal identity are intimately linked and associated with respect. For example, in traditional Chinese cultures, families will keep records in a genealogy book called a zupu. This book chronicles the history of that family, allowing living members to feel a sense of kinship with their ancestors, contributing to a culture of respect and strong familial identity 5.
Societal motivations can also be associated with identity verification, for example, in establishing descendants from royalty or nobility, or connecting people’s ancestry to certain countries such as the British Isles. Genealogy can also be used in a legal context, such as to locate individuals who are heirs of estates.
Genealogy research can be used for medical purposes. Family trees (also called pedigrees in the field of clinical genetics) are frequently used to map the inheritance of genetic disease through a family 6. Pedigrees can be used in conjunction with other medical tests to determine an individual’s risk of developing a disorder or passing a disease on to their children. Family trees have been particularly valuable for DNA research as it allows scientists to identify which regions of DNA are disease-causing.
Genealogy, especially modern genealogy, can be used by professional genealogists and investigators to identify criminals or victims of crime. This field is called forensic genetic genealogy, and it has been instrumental in the last few years for catching criminals and solving cold cases 7. This relatively new method was popularized by the identification of the Golden State Killer by law enforcement, who were able to match the suspect’s DNA to a family member’s DNA in an online genealogy database, eventually leading them to arrest Joseph James DeAngelo for the decades-old crimes 8.
Finally, genealogy is a useful method for use in several academic pursuits, as well as a field of study in its own right 9. For example, genealogy can provide novel insights in historical research to build more accurate pictures of families, communities, or events of interest.
What tools do genealogists use?
Genealogists have various tools at their disposal to trace lineages. Some of these resources include historical records such as birth, death, and marriage certificates, court records, medical records, military records, and censuses. The data in these resources can also be enriched with findings from interviews, newspaper articles, photographs, and oral histories. Relevant information includes family names, locations, dates, and occupations.
With the growing popularity of genealogy and the capabilities of internet research, there are now numerous databases and software tools that individuals can brose and employ. The internet has also been essential in linking up individuals across the globe, allowing them to share information and data, and stories.
The most reliable resources are primary sources and official documents. Usually, researchers will start in the present day and work backward as they find more data, and more names, dates, and locations to research.
Genealogy research is complex, slow, and often painstaking. It requires collecting mountains of types of information to make reliable conclusions about family history and lineages; modern genealogy involves a combination of historical and genetic analysis 10. A skilled genealogist will be able to identify reliable sources that are accurate and unbiased and collate them in an engaging and precise way.
How can genetics help genealogy?
Genetics is a relatively new addition to the genealogy toolbox. Our genetic material contains a wealth of information that can be uncovered through DNA testing. DNA data can be used to trace family links, migration patterns, and ethnic ancestry.
How to get started
Getting started with genealogy can be as simple as writing down what you know about your family, and working from the known to the unknown. Identifying the aims of your research can help you to focus your attention and study, and connecting with like-minded individuals can enrich your experiences. Who knows, you might find an engaging and rewarding lifelong hobby that could lead you down new walks of life.
(1) Zussman, R. Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community. Contemp. Sociol. A J. Rev. 2013, 42 (3), 443–444. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094306113484702mm.
(2) How Genealogy Became Almost as Popular as Porn | Time https://time.com/133811/how-genealogy-became-almost-as-popular-as-porn/
(3) Hatton, S. B. History, Kinship, Identity, and Technology: Toward Answering the Question “What Is (Family) Genealogy?” Genealogy 2019, 3 (1), 2. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy3010002.
(4) Genealogy 101: Discover Your Roots https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2015/02/20/genealogy-101-discover-your-roots/
(5) Shiue, C. H. A Culture of Kinship: Chinese Genealogies as a Source for Research in Demographic Economics. Journal of Demographic Economics. Cambridge University Press December 1, 2016, pp 459–482. https://doi.org/10.1017/dem.2016.24.
(6) Stefansdottir, V.; Johannsson, O. T.; Skirton, H.; Tryggvadottir, L.; Tulinius, H.; Jonsson, J. J. The Use of Genealogy Databases for Risk Assessment in Genetic Health Service: A Systematic Review. Journal of Community Genetics. Springer January 2013, pp 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12687-012-0103-3.
(7) Greytak, E. M.; Moore, C. C.; Armentrout, S. L. Genetic Genealogy for Cold Case and Active Investigations. Forensic Sci. Int. 2019, 299, 103–113. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forsciint.2019.03.039.
(8) Golden State Killer: The end of a 40-year hunt? – BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-43915187
(9) Hershkovitz, A. A Suggested Taxonomy of Genealogy as a Multidisciplinary Academic Research Field Credibility Assessment of Scientific Information on Social Networking Sites View Project Acquisition of Computational Thinking View Project; 2012.
(10) Mathieson, I.; Scally, A. What Is Ancestry? PLOS Genet. 2020, 16 (3), e1008624. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1008624.