Tuesday 2 January 2018

In the beginning...

This past week, being the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, there have been many blog posts and other online comments about starting again, or at least, if not actually starting anew, then beginning with a new purpose and strategy to find out about all those elusive ancestors. None of us are going to begin our research again – we have too much already accomplished – though we might take a crack at reviewing how we have been doing it or resolve (there’s a nice New Year’s phrase) to be more attentive to the sources we use as well as look at alternative methods of finding pertinent information.

Everyone seems to be gung ho on discovering new data or ways to find new data. I suppose, in a way, that is a beginning of sorts. But it is not like we all weren’t doing some good work during the past year or that it was all in vain. January 1st just seems like a good date to reflect on past genealogical activities and renew efforts to do even better during the next 365 days to find the people who began our families, assuming that is possible.

In terms of human evolution we don’t really know when the beginning was. The species Homo sapiens (and thus the families of this group) emerged from Homo erectus about 300,000 years ago. Sapiens is the Latin name for "wise" (Home sapiens = wise man, deduced from his apparent intelligence compared to previous species) and was introduced in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus.
Schematic representation of the emergence of H. sapiens from earlier species of Homo. from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_sapiens
Homo erectus rose from the genus, Australopithecine, in Africa some 2.5 million years ago. So human families go back a long way, not to the beginning of the Earth, over 4.5 billion years ago, but still quite a significant time period. DNA studies pretty much confirm this historical line making us all related in some sense. The time of humans on Earth is miniscule compared to its total history and I discussed in a 7 February 2017 post, Keeping It All in Perspective.

For many if not most genealogists the “beginning” might date only from the Protestant Reformation, in the early 16th century. Around this time many if not most countries in Europe (the Modern World of the time) began diligently keeping records of births, marriages and deaths (BMD). I wrote about that in a post on the Pharos Blog, titled Your Oldest Document. We can really only define the beginning of our own families on the basis of written text showing the names of our forebears. And we can really only properly identify those as our forebears through continuous records extending back from present day.

There may still be some BMD records kept in Catholic Church archives (or in the repositories of other religions) possibly in individual parish churches, but few go back any further that the protestant registers. They were either destroyed in the many conflicts between states over the centuries or left to rot in the basements of churches or civic buildings. Some researchers believe that there are medieval-aged records that can or might identify people but tying them to specific families is problematic.

So are we beginning again in 2018? Not so much! Are we taking stock of how we do things? Probably! Can we find the very first family in our line? Nope! Hope springs eternal that we will get further back in our ancestral parade in the coming year, though.