Exploring Ancestry


By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of Matt Lemmon.

“You are not the father!” yells Maury Povich, as the studio crowd erupts into hoots and hollers while a young man brings a hand to his chest in relief.

First aired in 1991, the popular daytime TV show brought paternity tests into the spotlight. The indisputable reliability of the DNA tests determining the future of young men on the show roped in audiences week after week, and still does today.

DNA testing and society’s obsession with genealogy has grown to unprecedented heights since the early ‘90s. Today, DNA testing and tracing back ancestral roots is actually considered one of America’s most popular hobbies. With the number of genealogy websites always expanding, researching our personal heritage has become easier than ever.

Ancestry.com, for example, uses the latest autosomal testing technology to “predict your genetic ethnicity and help you find new family connections.” Through these tests the website can produce an “admixture” which shows an individual’s ethnicity broken down by percentages using more recent ancestry (the past 100-200 years).

But what does a person really gain from looking at their past in such a manner besides a really accurate answer to the “where are you from?” question that so frequently plagues small talk?

Eviatar Zerubavel, author of Ancestors and Relatives, believes the action is spurned from humans’ desire for a sense of self and identity.

“I would say that for the ordinary person, as egocentric as we might feel, we all know it didn’t start with us. We are related to something that came before us, and what’s interesting is that this ‘something’ gives us a sense of identity,” Zerubavel told Rutgers University in an interview.

Zerubavel cites adopted children as a prime example for this gnawing desire humans have to learn about their past, pointing out that adopted children often yearn to learn more about their roots no matter how positive their home life may be.

Although the increase in genealogy websites has been somewhat recent, some believe the concept of family trees dates back as far as the Neolithic era. With a shift into agriculture allowing individuals of that time to begin settling onto farms, our Neolithic ancestors were able to establish larger tribes and be distantly related to people within these groups.

Photo courtesy of M. Dolly.

As reported by Rutgers University, later on genealogy was used as a way for individuals, particularly political members, to trace back and even falsify connections to important royal figures to legitimize or elevate their societal status.

Such use of genealogy, both in the past as well as today, allows users to obtain an overinflated sense of superiority. At the same time however, research has shown that if individuals look too closely at their past, that can cause conflict with living members of the family tree.

The study, conducted by Anne-Marie Kramer of the University of Warwick, found that “of 224 people who gave details of their experiences researching family history, around 30 mentioned conflicts.”

Some of the conflicts that arose included revealing unwelcome information, wanting information from relatives who didn’t wish to share it, doling out inaccurate information to relatives, and coming in contact with inhospitable relatives.

Kramer also found through the study that many of the users’ living family members felt neglected in comparison to the amount of attention the user was putting into finding out about distant relatives. The irony of trying to strengthen family ties with the distant past while destroying current ones is too strong to ignore. Nevertheless, millions of users flock to these websites on a daily basis to find out more about their past, and essentially themselves.

Extensive research and documenting isn’t only done on an individual level either. Members of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as Mormons, have actually created a place to file away records of the births, marriages, and deaths of two billion people.

The files are not just floating around in cyber space either. The LDS Church went so far as to carve 600 feet deep into the solid granite of a mountain in the Wasatch Mountain Range, and protect their physical database with three doors–two of which weigh nines while the third is 14 tons.

Whether it’s obsessing over the branches of online family trees or securing hard copies of familial records well beneath the Earth’s surface, the question may come to mind: do we have too deep of a connection to the concept of “blood lines”? Do we place too much importance on identity threads and the worth that is supposedly derived from them?

Perhaps our individual histories are important and interesting, but fixating on our past should ideally have some place in our present, and not deter us from considering our futures.