Your family tree is important to you. It links you to your past and helps you to understand your place in the future. It helps you to understand who you are.
The practice of keeping family trees dates back thousands of years. Early genealogies, of course, were only kept by the wealthy and powerful. Few written records survive from this time period, so our knowledge of early ancestry comes from the monumental stone carvings left behind by ancient kings and emperors. Some of the world's oldest pedigrees include:
- The genealogy of the fourth dynasty in Egypt, circa 2500 B.C., which includes the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, Khufu.
- The lineage of Chinese philosopher Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 B.C. This is now the longest recorded pedigree in the world.
- The ancestry of ancient Roman emperors from Augustus to Commodus, 27 B.C. to 192 A.D.
Some of the best-known genealogies are from the Bible, which sets forth the ancestry of many prominent Biblical figures, including Christ and David. In fact, it is from the Bible that we derive our concept of a tree as a symbol for genealogy. This idea originated in the Book of Isaiah, where the "stem of Jesse" prophecy is used to illustrate the genealogy of Christ.
There are two types of family trees: ascendancies and descendencies. An ascendancy starts with an individual and works backward to his or her ancestors. A descendency starts with an ancestor and works forward to his or her descendents. Both structures commonly employ tree imagery.
One of the most effective family tree systems is the Ahnentafel numbering system, which was developed by German historian Michael Eytzinger in 1590. In this ascendancy structure, each person in the pedigree is assigned a number.
The starting individual is listed as number 1. His or her father is listed as number 2, his or her mother is listed as number 3, and his or her grandparents are listed as numbers 4 through 7.
This system is useful because the numerical value of any person's father is double that of their own. And the numerical value of any person's mother is double their own, plus one. Except for the individual in the number 1 spot, who can be male or female, all the even-numbered individuals are male and all the odd-numbered individuals are female. Using this system, you can gather a lot of information about the people on the family tree and the relationships between them without having to study the entire tree.
Today's genealogists are no longer interested in just routinely collecting the names and birth dates of ancestors. A new movement in the field of genealogy is emerging, in which researchers seek to uncover their family history. Using county histories, photographs, and oral histories, researchers study how people lived in the past, and they use that knowledge to bring their ancestors to life.