The purpose of a family tree is to show who a person’s ancestors are and how that person is related to each of them. Some family trees are more factual than others. Your family tree might contain fiction.
There are people who engage in what might be considered “aspirational genealogy”. These people are convinced that they are related to royalty, or a famous person, or an important person from their religion. They start with that assumption and set out to prove it – instead of starting with research and discovering what the vital records show.
Atlas Obscura has an interesting article titled “Over 3,000 Years of Humans Exaggerating Their Lineage on Family Trees”, which was written by George Pendle.
He points out several examples of family trees that could only have been aspirational. The documents and vital records that genealogists use today to show how one person is related to another simply did not exist when the aspirational family trees were made.
The Tree of Jesse, for example, is a genealogical chart that traces the ancestors of Jesus Christ back to the father of King David. It first appeared in the 11th century, and was depicted on illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, and carved into church walls.
The Lurie family tree begins with King David and continues on to include Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Felix Mendelssohn, and many of the Kings of Judah. Again, there isn’t any genealogical evidence to prove these people are part of the same family. Aspirational family trees are unreliable.
Joseph Chang was a professor of Statistics at Yale University. He published a paper in 1999 that looked at genealogy as if it were a mathematical problem. National Geographic has an interesting article about “Charlemagne’s DNA and Our Universal Royalty” that explains it.
If you go back to the time of Charlemagne, forty generations or so, you should get to a generation of a trillion ancestors. That’s about two thousand times more people than existed on Earth when Charlemagne was alive.
Chang noted that the only way out of this paradox is to assume that our ancestors are not independent of one another. Instead of a family tree, it would look more like a family web. Chang wrote that “all individuals who have any descendants among the present-day individuals are actually ancestors of all present day individuals.” This concept could cause people to conclude that they are a bloodline descendant of Charlemagne (and that everyone else is, too).
A.J. Jacobs, the man behind the Global Family Reunion, uses an aspirational family tree. The main concept is that everyone is a cousin to everyone else. This gives a lot of people reason to claim that they are a distant cousin to a famous celebrity.
Image by Sali Sasaki on Flickr.
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