Back in February, I wrote about how, in my pre-Internet teens, my curiosity about my family history sent me to the genealogy room at the New York Public Library – where, though I failed to find anything about my father’s forebears (his parents had been poor Polish Catholic immigrants), I managed to trace some of my WASP mother’s lines to colonial-era settlers from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France. Late last year a family member picked up where I’d left off, and, using today’s extraordinary online resources, soon discovered – as I noted in February – that we’re part American Indian. Soon afterwards, she ascertained that we had Italian and Dutch antecedents. Then she had me spit in a vial, and the DNA results – which I got a couple of weeks ago – informed me that I’m also part Baltic, Swedish, and Jewish.
Swedish? Jewish? Okay, I was hooked. As Al Pacino put it in Godfather III, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. Putting aside my most recent online distractions (geography quizzes and Scrabble in Norwegian), I clambered once again up my family tree, and within a few days I’d traced some of my distaff lines back to the early Middle Ages, locating progenitors in Spain, Hungary, and pretty much everywhere in between.
Of course, I was fully aware that once you get to medieval times, you’ve left behind researching your very own family tree, in the sense of cobbling together something that’s unique to you, and are instead poking around in the lives of people from whom untold millions of us are descended. This past weekend, wondering about the numbers on this, I tracked down a 1998 study by Yale statistician Joseph Chang, who concluded that sometime in the late thirteenth century, there lived a European man or woman who – get this – is a direct ancestor of every white person currently alive.