When people ask me how to find out more about their ancestors, what they often really have in mind is researching their grandfathers on the paternal side of the family to discover how far back they can get with their surname.
We need to remember that our surname is a social convention, as ancient as the patriarchy itself, so that when we think about our ancestors we are influenced in a way that limits our perception because we tend to exclude all the female branches and, within these, all the male and female lines, too.
To clarify: what exactly is a pedigree or ancestry tree?
A pedigree stems from one person, which could be us or one of our parents, for example. That person is the starting point on which our research and the graphical representation of the tree will be based.
Conventionally this person will be identified by the number 1 (Sosa-Stradonitz Numbering System). According to this useful numbering system, the number of a person’s father is twice their own number, and the number of a person’s mother is twice their own, plus one. Likewise number 1’s paternal grandparents will have numbers 4 and 4+1 (5), while the maternal grandparents will have 6 and 6+1 (7), and so on. Therefore, if we focus on our paternal line alone, we will limit our knowledge exclusively to those ancestors represented by these even numbers: 2, 4, 8, 16, etc…
Another convention in genealogy is the way we calculate generations: these begin from our starting reference (i.e. number 1). So number 1 represents the first generation, his/her parents are the second generation, the grandparents the third generation, and so on…
It is clear that we are dealing with a total of 6 people, including ourselves, so 5 ancestors in all. If we also include the wives/mothers of each generation (numbers 3, 5, 9, 17 and 33), we come to a total of 10 people, plus ourselves.
So, how many ancestors are there in the sixth generation?
In theory (and in practice in 99% of cases) there are 32 people. In order to know the total number of ancestors we have, we need to sum all those of the preceding generations, that is the fifth, fourth, third and second generations… So the total number of our ancestors, from ourselves to the sixth generation, is: 32+16+8+4+2 = 62 people.
Earlier we talked about our paternal surname line, with our 5 direct ancestors (2, 4, 8, 16 and 32): in that case we really are only dealing with less than 10% of our ancestors (5 out of 62). In other words we are ignoring over 90% of our own family history due to the influence on our perception we mentioned above. That 90% includes most of the histories that connect with our own… and that 90% is determined by our female ancestors. Leaving out our female ancestors means reducing our knowledge by 50% for every generation we trace back. It also means that, by concentrating on just our own surname out of a possible 32 in 6 generations, we lose all the others.
Conclusion: in order to fully understand our family history, we cannot, and must not, ignore the history of our female ancestors.
A word of advice: there is no need to feel overwhelmed by this unexpected number of people. Family research can be divided into parts or branches, each of which can be explored over time if you do not want to deal with them all at once. There is one great certainty in genealogical research: each person we find and each bit of information we add, clearly no longer needs to be searched for. Our family tree can be reconstructed step by step, each branch unfolded over time, to gradually reveal that immense wealth of histories, people, places, times and mysteries that have combined to make us who we are.
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[this article was originally published in Italian on our facebook page]