Monday, May 25, 2009

DNA and the Genealogical Time Frame


We Taylor administrator team members have discussed moving this blog, and I was holding off on posting. But so far, it looks like the blog will remain here! This is a submission from one of the administrators, Ralph Taylor. Ralph has a keen interest in the statistical side to genetic DNA and he has submitted several other pieces which I'll post in the coming days.


Sometimes, Y-DNA matches point to a common ancestor who might have lived thousands of years in the past. Finding a name or other information about this man can be an almost insurmountable task; the range of time exceeds the"genealogical time frame".

While it's fun to imagine our Taylor ancestors fighting alongside King Arthur against the Saxons (or, fighting with the Saxons against Arthur) it's not genealogy unless we can link a line of descent with specific people. The International Society for Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) defines "Genealogical Time Frame: A time frame within the last 500 up to 1000 years since the adoption of surnames and written family records..." Though extending to the present, the genealogical time frame (GTF) has no definite & universal beginning point. It depends on the practices and record availability of the specific area in which we want to look. But, we can make some general observations. Genealogy, linking individuals into a pedigree, depends on: 1. Surnames, to identify one John from another in the same place and time and suggest kinship; & 2. Written records naming most people in a community.

Surnames: If you've struggled with too many men of the same name in the same time and place, you know how important surnames are to genealogy. Without surnames, it gets even more confusing. The practice of surnames passing from father to children came into common use only as far back as the mid-14th century (about 650 years ago) in England and even more recently in other places. We believe it traces to a 1353 edict on the issue by King Edward III. With few exceptions, the occupationally-based Taylor surname dates from this time. Earlier ancestors would not have had a surname.

The Scandinavian patronymic system -- in which Carl, the son of Peter, was named Carl Peterson & Peter's grandson became Hans Carlson -- persisted into the 19th century. The Germanic practice of men "marrying the farm" and taking the farm's name lasted about as long.

Written records: In Europe, the practice of recording baptisms, marriages & funerals of parishioners began with the slow spread of the Christian Church. Written records were then adopted by secular authorities for other purposes such as taxes, military conscription and worker control. Written records are, of course, dependent on a written language and a minimum level of literacy. Many ancient languages had no written form, so monks & priests wrote in Latin. Even kings, whose first job was warrioring,were often illiterate.

The Bubonic Plague (also mid-14th century) indirectly stimulated record-keeping on previously-ignored ordinary folk. The plague killed two-thirds of Europe's population and the rigid feudal society as well. As serfs - whose masters had died - fled and masters - whose serfs had died -sought replacement workers, unprecedented movements of people & resulting paranoia were created. Suddenly, it was important to write down who was living in your town or county. Previous records (such as the Domesday Book of 1086) named only taxpayers, the aristocracy. Histories named only the major players -- the "stars", not the supporting casts. We are familiar the effects time has on written records. Courthouses burn, churches and archives are bombed, paper molders.

All these and more conspire to make records which once existed no longer available. The more time that has transpired since a record was created, the less likely it still exists.

Conclusion: I believe ISOGG is being generous with its "up to 1000 years", at least so far as Great Britain & Ireland (from which many Taylor families came) are concerned. I'd peg our GTF as beginning about 1350 AD. Genealogy isn't alchemy; we can't turn lead into gold. We can only work with what there is. Most of us have limits on the time, money and effort we can devote to family history; we have to set priorities. A DNA match pointing to a 90% probability of an ancestor who may have lived before 1350 may not be worth making a high research priority.