By Dr. Brandon Colby MD, a medical expert specializing in personalized preventive medicine and clinical genomics.
At some point during our education — probably during elementary school — most of us were asked to draw our family tree at least once. Back then, we would probably draw a relatively small tree, making sure to include our parents, grandparents, and siblings. Some of the most thorough students may have included all their aunts and uncles, and their families. Including our cousins was enough to make us feel like our family trees were huge!
Now, take a moment to imagine what a family tree that spans generations upon generations must look like, and how much time and research they require before they’re completed.
Whether you’re drawing a simple family tree or researching your ancestors in order to create an extensive one, you were engaging in some form of genealogy. But, what exactly is genealogy?
Genealogy is, put simply, the study of family lines and the tracing of lineages. Genealogy is based on the retrieval of vital and familial data from records of different types, which is later organized to elucidate relationship patterns. It involves the research, discovery, and confirmation of different vital data, such as birth dates, names, places of birth, marriages, and deaths.
Additionally, it can recount information such as occupations, migrations, and other types of data that can be of interest. Genealogy allows us to determine the ancestry or descent of a person by placing them in a family tree, with its corresponding main and collateral branches.1
Family history research has been a topic of interest for many people, and it can certainly be fascinating to discover family members that you had never even known existed. But now, let’s talk a bit more about what exactly makes genealogy so important.
There are many different reasons why someone can become interested in genealogy. Understanding our family origin, ethnicity and past have drawn people to genealogy for thousands of years. But there are also instances in which professional genealogists are hired to perform genealogical research for other reasons.
Genealogy means different things to different people — it can be taken up as a hobby, but it can also be a full-fledged career.
There are no strict rules that define when genealogy is used. In some instances, private individuals want to perform their own genealogy research out of sheer curiosity and to find out more about their ancestry.
It’s not uncommon for someone to become interested in family relationships to the point where they undertake the creation of an extensive family tree on their own. Many interesting facts can be discovered through genealogy; some people may even learn that they’re related to an important historical figure or to a modern-day celebrity.
People can also seek to learn more about their ancestry in order to discover the origins of a genetic disease or to rule out different health risks. Genealogy can also be used by those who have lost contact with their families or adoptees who want to reconnect with their biological families or learn more about them.
In recent years, genetic genealogy has combined DNA testing with traditional genealogical methods — this can be particularly helpful for people who want to discover important genealogical information about how their ancestry and health are related.
Genealogy can also be used to establish one’s identity within a community. For many societies around the world, it’s important to be able to point out exactly which family or tribe they belong to. Certain cultures, mainly in Asia, practice ancestor worship or veneration of the dead as a sign of respect for their families — these practices are part of the history of genealogy, and they have existed for thousands of years.
Royal and noble families are probably amongst the most ardent genealogy fans out there and for obvious reasons. Members of these families have kept extensive records of every member of their lineage for centuries since it was extremely important to always be aware of everyone who could be in line for a title or throne. Being related to a noble family, even distantly, could help you gain access to riches and land that were beyond reach for most people.
Royal genealogical trees are some of the most well-known examples of family research that exist today, and we can find them in history books all across the world.
In other cases, family relationships can be important within a certain religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, encourages its members to research their family trees for religious purposes.2
Genealogy can also be used for legal matters. Establishing descent within a certain number of generations can be used as a basis to gain citizenship in certain countries, such as Spain, Ireland, and Greece. And of course, family trees are often used by lawyers to locate heirs after someone passes away.
DNA genealogy can also be used to solve crimes, including cold cases.3 Some criminal cases have remained unsolved despite the finding of DNA evidence, only to be solved years later when a relative of the culprit unknowingly uploads their genetic data to a genealogy app or website.
This allows law enforcement to trace the person’s family tree until they find the person whose DNA matches the evidence found at the crime scene.
Lastly, genealogy has been extensively used for social studies. Genealogy can be used to deepen our understanding of our local history, and to compare the perspective that members of different families or clans may have had regarding historical events.
Family history can play an important role in societal development and outcomes,4 and genealogy can provide detailed information regarding the relationships that lead to those outcomes.
While genealogical research records important dates in your ancestors’ histories — birth, marriage, death, among others — ancestry is simply the recording of the people that you are descended from, also known as your pedigree. This doesn’t necessarily have to include those significant dates; instead, ancestry is more commonly used to determine where you come from and what your ethnic background looks like.5
For example, you may be able to determine that you have distant Asian ancestry despite being from the United States, without having access to facts such as your ancestors’ birth and death dates. Ancestry can be complex and difficult to quantify through traditional genealogical methods since it heavily depends on genetic information that couldn’t be analyzed for most of human history.
Thanks to modern DNA testing, it’s now possible to discover your ancestry in minute detail, even if you don’t know the names of any other facts about your ancestors.
While some people use the terms genealogy and family history interchangeably, genealogists usually note some distinctions between them.6 Genealogy is commonly used to refer to the discovery of straightforward facts about someone’s ancestors — such as birth dates, marriages, and death dates, for example.
Family history, on the other hand, is more in-depth than genealogy. Family history can include much more detailed information on a family’s members, such as their education, jobs, traditions, anecdotes, military service, changes to the family name, relocations, social standing, achievements, medical conditions, and more. In fact, family history can include practically any fact that you discover about your family members, past or present.
Despite these differences, family history and genealogy are inextricably linked. The hard facts provided by genealogy are needed in order to study family history accurately; but on the other hand, a family’s history is what leads to the events that are ultimately recorded in genealogy.
The study of genealogy has evolved throughout history thanks to societal advancements, such as public historical and genealogical records, and technological innovations, like DNA testing. However, genealogy has practically always existed in some form.
The process of performing genealogical research can vary greatly depending on the resources that are available to you. People can rely on primary sources, such as original public certificates; or secondary sources, such as history books written after the time that is being researched.
There are many different resources that can be used to gather information for genealogical research. Some of these include:
- Birth certificates
- Death certificates
- Marriage certificates
- Adoption records
- Historical records
- School records
- Religious records
- Telephone directories
- Court records
- Oral histories
- Media articles
- Personal journals
- DNA tests
There are also numerous genealogical societies around the globe, and they actively work to collect, preserve, and share genealogical information regarding their communities. Many of these societies are more than happy to help people who are conducting their own family research, and they can provide invaluable assistance thanks to their experience in this field.
Starting your own genealogical research may sound complicated — and it can be, depending on each specific case — but some simple steps can help you get started:
- Make a list of the things that you do know about your family tree.
- Ask family members to provide information about other relatives.
- Identify sources that you can access in order to gain more data.
- Go through those sources and record everything you can find regarding your family tree.
- Consider taking a DNA genealogy test to fill in gaps in the information you have found.
- Gather all the information you have into your own family tree.
Keep in mind that you can keep adding new information to your family tree as you discover it, so don’t feel discouraged if you can’t find everything you wanted at first. As you continue your research, you may unearth new sources that could help you enlarge your family tree.
Genetic genealogy is the combination of modern DNA testing technologies with traditional genealogical research techniques. In addition to providing a significant amount of genealogical and ancestry data that many people couldn’t access before, genetic genealogy has also become a groundbreaking advancement in the study of genetic diseases and patterns of genetic inheritance.
A simple DNA test can be taken at home and sent to a provider to find out more about your genetic ancestry. These test results can later be uploaded to multiple platforms, such as Sequencing.com, Ancestry.com, and FamilySearch to create your own family tree and connect with distant relatives who have also used these services. At Sequencing.com, we offer a wide range of DNA Apps that can provide detailed genealogical reports.
Since DNA testing has made genealogical information more easily accessible for those who had never known their family history, genealogy has become much more popular in recent years than ever before. As more people upload their test results to ancestry websites and apps, it’s very likely that
Before DNA testing became widely available, genealogical research was significantly constrained by variable conditions, such as access to public records, family prominence, geographical location, loss of contact between family members, migration, adoption, loss or destruction of family records, among many others.
So while some families had access to pages and pages of their own history, for many others it was extremely difficult to trace a family tree that spanned more than a couple of generations. And in many cases, even these small family trees were still incomplete and lacked a lot of important information.
But thanks to modern DNA testing techniques, genetic genealogy has allowed people to have access to reliable, detailed genetic information that can be used to trace extensive family trees.
Head over to our Education Center now to learn more about DNA testing and how it can help you discover your genealogy.
Dr. Brandon Colby MD is a US physician specializing in the personalized prevention of disease through the use of genomic technologies. He’s an expert in genetic testing, genetic analysis, and precision medicine. Dr. Colby is also the Founder of Sequencing.com and the author of Outsmart Your Genes.
Dr. Colby has performed extensive research pertaining to how coronavirus causes infection. Dr. Colby describes his COVID-19-related research in the article Your DNA and Coronavirus: How To Know If You’re At Risk.
Dr. Colby holds an MD from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and a degree in Genetics with Honors from the University of Michigan. He is an Affiliate Specialist of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), an Associate of the American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM), and a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC).
- Durie B. What Is Genealogy? Philosophy, Education, Motivations and Future Prospects. Genealogy. 2017; 1(1):4.↩
- Why does the Mormon Church want state records? And what do they do with them?. ABC News Australia. 4 July, 2018. Retrieved January 20, 2021. ↩
- Greytak, E. M., Moore, C., & Armentrout, S. L. (2019). Genetic genealogy for cold case and active investigations. Forensic science international, 299, 103–113. ↩
- Song, X., Campbell C.D. Genealogical Microdata and Their Significance for Social Science. Annual Review of Sociology 2017 43:1, 75-99.↩
- Mathieson, I., & Scally, A. (2020). What is ancestry?. PLoS genetics, 16(3), e1008624. ↩
- Genealogy vs. Family History: Is There a Difference? Price Genealogy. Retrieved January 20, 2021. ↩