Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Genealogical Studies are a Euro-Centric Activity

By and large, most family history research is directed primarily at uncovering European roots.

I guess that should not be surprising since much of the early work in reviewing and copying records began with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), whose founders were of British stock. Many of the early researchers were from North America and the British Isles which emphasized studies into English and Scottish roots.

A local family history society did a survey of members’ interests several years ago. They found that of 3,388 submissions concerning the locations of surname interests, 1,758 (52%) were for the United Kingdom, 852 (25%) were for Canada, 380 (11%) were for the United States and 353 (9%) were for continental Europe. Only 3% of family historians were interested in the whole rest of the world. I suspect that most other societies show a similar pattern.

The major databases of ancestral information are concentrated in English-speaking regions: FamilySearch, Ancestry, FindMyPast, MyHeritage and a few others. Their collections are also geographically most heavily weighted to English-speaking countries as the table below indicates.

Total Collections
United States
United Kingdom
Continental Europe & Ireland
of the World

This weighting may be due to:
·         the number of records that were originally created
·         the number of records that have been preserved
·         the number of records that have been digitized and available to view online
·         the number and location of interested family researchers

Information about Asian countries is gradually making its way online although the number of collections is only a fraction of what is available for North America and Europe. Whether it can be integrated with the large volume of records from “Western” nations is unknown. A FamilySearch Wiki describes some of the material that can be searched.

If you are a student of history, or have read about any historical events, you will have learned about the expansion of European societies to the far corners of the world, primarily beginning in the 15th century.
The Cantino planisphere, completed by an unknown Portuguese cartographer in 1502, is one of the most precious cartographic documents of all times. It depicts the world, as it became known to the Europeans after the great exploration voyages at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century to the Americas, Africa and India. It is now kept in the Biblioteca Universitaria Estense, Modena, Italy
What you will also have realized is that, in addition to the expansion of trade and opening up of new regions where people from all corners of Europe could relocate, there was also a terrible toll on the people who already lived in those regions. What was done by exploring nations, much of it in the name of Christianity, was the wholesale slaughter of indigenous peoples, to start with, and the subjugation of established societies that continued for centuries. Thousands of families, along with information about the survivors, were lost in this global expansion by Europeans.

Practically, we can only trace our families back about 600 years. The lack of records that describe people, in particular with respect to surnames, are lacking prior to the 14th century.

Genealogy then has a very limited reference period, both in terms of time and geography. Is that important to most of us? Well, there are a lot of records available (and more becoming available every day) that cover the last few centuries, so we have lots to keep us busy. The complexity of family dynamics also challenges us to define our true ancestral lines which should modify expectations of any study.

When you add in the impossibility of finding information about people in other that European-based societies (Oriental, African tribes, New World indigenous, etc.) because of the absence of written records of any kind or the difficulty of reading what material there may be, the construction of a World Family Tree, even utilizing DNA analyses, becomes a fantasy.

At least the business part of family history research is. Because the written record is concentrated in European centres and part of European history, that is where the focus will likely remain.