What family name do you use? How did you get it? Did you inherit it, did you marry it or did you choose it?
We place a lot of significance on the family name or surname which we use and the ancestral line from which that family name has come. If we did indeed inherit it according to our culture’s prevalent naming traditions. Yet whichever way we have acquired our surname, whether it indicates our direct parentage or another aspect of our identity, it can carry great significance for us and rightly so since our name and the ancestral connections which are perhaps bound up within it reinforce many aspects of our personal identity.
However we should not forget the other family lines which we are also the descended from just because we do not bear their family name.
Let’s put the one family name (or two) we typically use into perspective for a moment.
If you take a current thirty year old and roughly designate 30 years to each preceding generation, by the time you have gone back through your family history 7 generations you arrive at ancestors born around 1800. In a little over 200 years of your family history these 7 generations potentially constitute 128 great great great great great grandparents, of which half were presumably male and the traditional benefactors of family surnames. The family name you have inherited is just one of 64 possible male-borne family surnames. And if you go back more generations the numbers just keep increasing. But families are not always linear nor logical, biological nor traditional.
The cumulative genetic, material and cultural inheritance you have received from those 128 seventh generation ancestors and their offspring alone is mind-boggling and incredibly exciting.
Within family history research there are always limits to our knowledge and understanding of our ancestors. In no small part due to the fact that historical sources do not always exists as far back as we would like. However it is worth remembering that even our oldest known ancestors were the product and beneficiaries of an ancestral legacy of which we may only be able to see the effect among the subsequent generations.
With the help of ancestral DNA data we can now not only find new relatives descended from our ancestors within those 7 generations, but also get broad glimpses which go much further back into our family’s ethnic past, from data which indicates the populations we share DNA similarities with, based on global location and ethnic identity. But still with DNA there are gaps in our knowledge due to the way mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome are genetically inherited. Since mitochondrial DNA only allows you to trace one maternal line and similarly the Y chromosome is passed down one paternal line there is much family information which is lost in each generation.
Perhaps since there is clearly a multitude of ancestral family information which is inaccessible, lost and excluded from view to us, focusing on our family name and the ancestral line which it represents seems a kind of evolutionist survival of the fittest in which only one name has won out. Yet the realities of ancestral lineage and the foibles of human inheritance are amazingly complex and fascinating whatever name we live under.
Hannah Gill, historytrace, 01/06/2016
Historytrace can help you to discover your family’s places of origin right across Europe. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family history on a deeper level.
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