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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Is Technology Helping Us Discover Our Ancestors?

Guest post by Jocelyn Brown

In his book, Ancestral Journeys, Jean Manco of Plymouth University in the UK traced humanity’s migrations and movements through Europe using DNA. It is a sign of how much the technology has come along in the last few decades that such a book can be written and a proper analysis of how modern humans and neanderthals might have interbred to produce a 4% of our current DNA. However, for the family historian, there has never been as much technology available to us to source our own ancestors. For example, we have online platforms containing vast records, we have cloud devices for communicating and sharing results, and we have the fast developing DNA ancestry tests. However, are they all useful and applicable?

Access to Information
Prior to the rise of the Internet, family history research meant first speaking to older family members to work out a current family tree and to gain recollections from them, then going to various records offices and painstakingly trying to work out using surnames a family tree. However, over the last two decades records are being digitized as they are released, which is making tracing family histories easier. The main problems faced by those using platforms hosting this information is working out which one is the best and most comprehensive and whether it is worth paying for one just to access a single document you cannot gain elsewhere.

Making Family History Collaborative
The above platforms are partly fueled by the rise of cloud technology and storage. Families and photographers, for example, have found the latter particularly useful for storing images and data on one service, but accessible from many devices. It’s also allowed families to quickly share information and form a collaborative approach to sharing both genealogy discoveries and ancestral photos and documents gleaned from the above sites or through over methods. This means distant families can work together still. That being said, some believe the technology and social media make it more difficult for families to actually communicate. So with all tools, it’s about how families use them which makes the difference.

DNA Ancestries

Tracing the DNA journeys of our ancestors is fascinating. They can confirm or discount ideas brought about through purely studying the historical or archaeological record. For example, did the people move or did their goods and cultures move? However, for you or me, the question is have our ancestors always been from where we are now and where were they before our oldest, traceable ancestor? Testing services such as 23andMe claim to be able to trace a person’s ancestors down the ages. Many people have seen the adverts of shocked people finding out their ancestry is quite different to what they suspected, however, it is worth remembering that even a few generations past, most unique DNA is lost in a vast soup of the world’s ancestors, so it is difficult to firmly discover our real past this way. It’s fun, but don’t believe it too much - our ancestors will always be more varied than the results suggest.

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