DNA genealogy and ancestry services have become increasingly popular in recent times, partly because the technology has become much more accessible and widespread, and also perhaps partly because greater and greater numbers of people these days find themselves feeling detached from their roots, and hungry to re-establish a connection with their ancestors and heritage.
The thing is, however, there are some meaningful critiques that can be made of DNA ancestry services. Firstly, there’s the potential data security issue, but there’s also the fact that tracking your ancestry through a DNA company may be both somewhat unreliable, and somewhat deceptive.
By the very nature of these DNA ancestry services, there’s a certain degree of overlap and interpretation involved regarding different data, and it’s also the case that on a long enough timeline, everyone’s ancestors begin to converge. If a DNA ancestry service tells you that you're partly, distantly, related to Charlemagne, what does that really tell you about yourself, or your heritage that’s distinct from that of every European?
Tracking your ancestry the “old-fashioned” way – that is, via investigating your family tree and all the rest – is still likely to be the most informative and fulfilling way of going about things.
So, without further ado, here are some tips on how to get started with tracing your ancestry.
Begin tracing your family tree, by speaking to relatives, joining dedicated groups, et cetera
If you live in an area where your family and community have been established for a long period of time (think a good few centuries), and that area hasn’t been wracked by war or major social upheaval, there’s a good chance that simply researching records stored with local municipal bodies can go a long way to helping you uncover your family tree.
If, however, your family moved around a lot over the years, your ancestors went through major upheaval, or the society you live in was completely decimated in a conflict such as World War I or II, this process may not be so clear-cut.
To begin tracing your family tree, the first place to start is obviously by speaking to relatives. Ask your parents what they know about the generations that came before them, and if possible, speak to your grandparents as well. It may well be that another relative has already done the legwork of mapping out the family tree. At the very least, they may be able to give you some names to begin exploring.
There are also dedicated genealogy groups out there, focused on techniques and strategies for uncovering family tree data. Many of these groups are now online, and by signing up to them, you may be able to benefit from information collected by other people, and might even uncover distant cousins you never knew about.
Investigate the etymology of your surname
Your surname tells a story all of its own. Although it’s obviously possible that you had a single male relative somewhere back in the mists of time who gave his surname to the family, but whose name doesn’t represent the ethnic, regional, or cultural ancestry of the majority of your relatives, it is nonetheless worth exploring what your surname may have to tell you.
People with the last name of Duggan, for example, can trace their heritage back to the British Isles – and Ireland in particular – at some point or another. The name Duggan, itself, has connotations of “darkness” and has been tentatively linked to certain bodies of water in Ireland that certain clans lived on the banks of.
Simply by investigating your last name, you can often find out quite a lot about the location, migrations, and cultural origins of some of your ancestors, that you would not otherwise have known about.
Spend more time talking with your relatives, and learning their stories
Your ancestors aren’t just people who lived centuries and millennia ago. Your parents and grandparents are also your “ancestors,” and what’s more, they are those who are most closely and immediately connected to you by blood, emotion, life experience, and so on.
If you want to learn more about your roots, and also identify new snippets of information that you might be able to use to research the past, make a point of spending more time talking with your existing relatives, and learning their stories.
Sure, it’s one thing to know that a distant relative, hundreds of years ago, fought in a particular battle. But how about the crazy experiences that your parents might have had growing up, that you never thought to ask about?