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Hey, Cousin!

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Don’t you just hate it when someone else takes your idea for a column? I started this one after reading an article in the AJC, but then I noticed the same subject in an out-of-town paper as we were traveling.

In hopes that local readers stayed home that day, I posit the following – breathlessly, perhaps, because I am neither mathematician nor statistician.
Fact #1: All of us earthlings are more closely related than we thought we were, and,
Fact #2: We have a better chance of being descended from royalty than we thought we had.
A detour first, just for the mental exercise. Remember that challenge you may have tossed to your kids, the one that goes like this: If someone offered you a job for a month, which of the following pay schedules should you accept?
$100 a day?

Or just a penny the first day, twice that on the second, and so on, with each day’s pay doubling the preceding?
Now I actually did the first calculation in my head. At $100 per day, the kid makes $3,000 in 30 days. Period.
On the second scheme – well, I bet there’s a quick formula to calculate his earnings, but (see the above disclaimer) I reckoned it by hand and calculator, and wrote each day’s pay on a calendar.
June 1: 1 cent.
June 2: 2 cents.
June 3: 4 cents, 8 cents on June 4, 16 cents on June 5.

The kid works a week before he makes over a dollar for the day, and nearly halfway into the month before he even gets close to the $100 option. By now, he’s feeling like a real loser.
But if I’ve punched my calculator correctly, on the last day of June his boss will pay him $5,368,709.12. And that was just June 30. On June 29, he made $2,684,354.56 and on June 28, $1,342,177.28, since he was being paid double the previous day’s pay, each day. His total for the month would be – oh, I don’t know, but a real lot of money. (Remember. I’m not a mathematician.)

Okay, shift gears. Have you ever considered how many ancestors it took to produce one single little bitty you? Regardless of today’s all-too-shifty familial sands, it took one male and one female parent to bring you and every other human being into existence.
So. You had two parents. They each had two, your four grandparents. Each of them had two, and that generation of eight was preceded by 16, which was preceded by 32….

Genealogists vary in their definition of a “generation.” My sources range from 22 to 30 years to grow up and produce children. Let’s call a generation 25 years, a nice easy figure to work with. In a century, therefore, there are about four generations.
If little Etta was born in 2000, her parents were probably born about 1975. Their parents (Etta’s four grandparents) came along about 1950, their eight parents in 1925, and theirs about 1900. That’s 30 ancestors just in the 20th century.

Go on back. Sixteen progenitors, born about 1900 and destined to produce little Etta in 2000, had 32 parents of their own (born about 1875), who had 64 (c. 1850), whose 128 (c. 1825)…. By about 1800, we’re eight generations back and have already toted up 510 human beings directly responsible for Etta.
Talk about a pyramid scheme. An inverted pyramid scheme?

An old genealogy column in the Sunday AJC alluded some years back to the work of L.G. Pine, who apparently was a mathematician as well as a genealogist. I didn’t check his math, but assuming he got it right, he concluded (hold on tight now) that in a mere 25 generations, or 625 years, the total number of one person’s ancestors exceeds 16 million.
If you go on back 40 generations, or 1,000 years, you had just about 500 billion ancestors.
The problem, however, is that in the first millennium, there weren’t anywhere near 500 billion people on earth. In fact, all the people ever born on Planet Earth, including those living now, are estimated at around 50 billion.
As Pine writes, “Where have all the ancestors gone?”

Anyone who has dabbled in family history does not go far before discovering that cousins married cousins, intentionally or otherwise. And since first cousins share grandparents, there’s a halving of numbers right there.
And think of the myriad of tiny isolated villages that held vast portions of the earth’s population until relatively recently. Relatives married simply because there was no contact with other groups of people, at least not enough to promote intermarriage. Even when conscious efforts to widen the gene pool developed taboos against marrying cousins, record-keeping was virtually nonexistent and the only means of tracking family lines was anecdotal at best.
Contrary to Pine’s article, by the way, research shows it less likely that first cousins will produce genetically inferior offspring than previously believed. Odds of cousins bearing children with congenital defects are increased by a percentage that is statistically meaningless.

But Pine’s tantalizing thesis that we all have a drop or two of royal blood is probably valid.
In early times, as you may know, a society’s chief or king had dibs on each marriageable lass, and doubtless begat at least one child later attributed to the poor peasant who actually wed her. Pine calculates that North Americans who descend from colonial lines are most likely to have regal DNA – to the tune of perhaps 10 million living today.

Makes me want to drop my search for proof that Annie Oakley was in our family and go for someone classier.
On reflection, maybe I should just try to negotiate a contract that begins with a penny a column….Cal?
[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Her email is]

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