It isn’t uncommon to hear people say that they are related to a famous historical figure.
Some will claim that they can trace their lineage back to Emperor Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, only leaving us to wonder how far back someone could actually trace their ancestry.
The consensus among genealogists is that you can reliably and accurately trace a family tree back to the 1600s, but it varies depending on the specifics of your family.
A DNA test can trace your lineage back as far as a thousand years but won’t tell you much about who your relatives actually were.
There are, however, numerous factors that go into tracing family lineages.
Things like where you’re from and if you have an important figure in your family can play a huge role in how successful you will be (along with a little luck).
Continue reading as we explore some of the finer points and find out how far back you can trace your ancestry.
How Far Back Can We Trace Our Ancestry
This is a question that haunts many of us all for the same reasons.
There’s no person alive who doesn’t want to know where they came from and who their ancestors were.
It’s a part of human nature to wonder who and where you came from.
Tracing back people’s family trees can be tricky, and it isn’t just as easy as licking a mouth swab and putting it in a machine.
That’s the part we all see, but it gets much more involved.
Genealogists’ have two main tools when building family trees:
- DNA tests
- Legal records from the Census Departments of countries
It’s the records that make ancestral timelines so varied.
Take, for example, the United States.
Each state governed its own records, so some states didn’t start keeping track until 1915 while others have records dating to the colonial days.
DNA Testing and Genealogy Scope
Many people have this idea that DNA testing is the answer to the riddles of our ancestral histories, but it’s really not.
Through DNA, you can go 1000 years back and find where your family came from.
However, you can’t find out who your ancestral family actually was, only that they were Scottish or Nigerian or any number of ethnicities.
DNA can answer vague questions about our past both as individuals and as a species, but it has somewhat limited applications in genealogy.
It’s used more for building a solid foundation for your family’s history.
Current genealogical DNA testing can’t go back any further than eight generations.
While that isn’t the longest history ever, the ability to verify your most recent family members is a great start to getting a complete picture of your family history.
Census Records Provide More Accurate Data
The physical investigation is the largest and most important part of building a family tree—especially when we’re talking about further back in history.
To get a good, detailed look at past family relatives, we have to have a paper trail.
Here is where hard work and luck come into play.
It takes time and effort to go through census records, and many factors will determine just how far back your family history goes.
Factors like these will play a role and be lucky enough for the records to survive then found:
- Social status
- Past wealth
If you’re lucky, someone in your family’s distant past was someone important and wealthy.
If you’re not lucky, then maybe birth records were destroyed or misplaced.
Any number of things could have happened over the years to cause them to go missing.
On average most people will be able to trace their ancestry back to the 1600s with decent accuracy.
Few will be able to go much farther than that.
Once we start getting that old, the information starts to get unreliable and family trees that go that far back are met with skepticism by most genealogists.
What is the Oldest Traceable Family Tree?
Many countries have been around for a thousand years, some even longer.
For example, Switzerland has records that stretch back for 715 years, but they don’t even come close to China.
China’s lineage record goes back centuries.
The oldest traceable family tree is the Chinese Kang clan which stretches back 5,200 years; it’s quite literally older than Rome.
The lineage spans over 80 generations and contains over 2 million individuals, including Confucius, a great philosopher and statesman.
The family lineage has been recorded since the death of Confucius and is at its 83rd generation.
There are some biblical contenders like King Solomon and King David, but there is some debate as to their actual identity and there simply isn’t enough of a paper trail to verify those claims.
As it stands, many of the oldest traceable lineages come from China due to the exceptional recordkeeping by ancient citizens in that area.
Key Factors That Will affect How Far Back Your Lineage is Traceable
There are a couple of key factors that can appear when it comes to tracing family ancestry.
These things will ultimately decide how long your family tree will be, at least with any level of accuracy:
- The country of origin makes a difference as not all countries kept records.
For example, the United States didn’t universally start keeping lineage records until around 1910. Compare that to China who has been keeping records for over 2000 years. You have a much better chance at getting a complete picture of your lineage if you are a citizen of China.
- Non-paternal events: it’s estimated that 1 in 100 families have a father who either unknowingly or knowingly raises a child that isn’t biologically related to them.
- The culture that you come from can play a huge part in the accuracy of the lineage.
For example, many cultures had oral histories and didn’t record anything in a written language.
- Religion can play a factor in tracing your lineage. In some cases, it’s the religious institutes that kept track of family lineages, especially the further back in time we go. If your family has been the long time members of a certain church or organization, then their records may help supplement your own.
These aren’t all the factors that could get in the way of tracing back your lineage.
Other things can play huge roles as well wars, accidents, natural disasters, and just plain incompetence of record keepers can stop you in your tracks.
That’s where luck comes in; with any luck, you’ll be able to trace your family back to around 1600.
If you’re wondering how far back someone can trace their ancestry in the hopes of tracing your roots back to Adam and Eve, it isn’t going to happen.
Tracing one’s genealogy is an investigative endeavor and requires a paper trail to really get a full and accurate picture of past relatives.
There are a few factors that can make your family lineage easier to track.
Things like wealth, notoriety, culture, religion, country of origin, race, and luck all play a pivotal role in just how far back you’ll be able to trace your ancestry.
The furthest back that most people can trace their families with any real level of accuracy is back to the 1600s.
That, of course, depends on how lucky you are and your family’s circumstances.
Genealogy trees that stretch back past the 1400s are very likely to be met with a level of skepticism by genealogists.
The records get very inaccurate for numerous reasons, such as language differences even within the same language.
Read next: Can Ancestry DNA Be Wrong?