In 2016, the British tabloids were abuzz with the news that one of the country’s biggest celebrities, the cheeky, rakish, gallivanting cockney called Danny Dyer, was related to royalty. How could this be, Danny grew up on the mean streets of East London and speaks the argot of a true working class “geezer.” Well, we might all be surprised where our genealogy – family history – leads to. In 2015, a man from Maryland, USA, claimed he was the rightful King of the Isle of Man – located in the Irish Sea between England and Scotland. This revelation came after he was contacted by a genealogist who told him the throne was his. The Queen wasn’t keen on the idea.
As you’ll know from our show on names, surnames originated in a complex manner and it differs from country to country. If we take England in the Middle Ages, people were often given surnames based on what they did as an occupation, where they came from, or simply whose son they were. Smith was of course from “blacksmith” and Williams was the “son of William.” The Romans were keen on having surnames, but other European cultures were not. Certain surnames were also unusual. Researchers at the University of California and the London School of Economics actually looked into some unusual surnames to see which ones often had aristocrat connections. The surnames Atthill, Bunduck, Balfour, Bramston, Cheslyn, and Conyngham were all said to be linked with nobility, more so than other last names. Indeed, they found that there was a corollary between certain names and wealth. But what does it mean if your name is Smith?
Well, imagine all the royals of Britain over the centuries and how many kids they had, including the many bastards born in the Middle Ages. That’s a lot, says one genealogy website, stating that “practically everyone alive with British ancestry will have a connection” with a king.” Can that be true. One website called Royal Family Tree let’s you search your surname and brings up a bunch of royals and landed gentry sharing that name. The name we used, one of our writers, is shared with some of these aristocratic persons. In fact, if you’ve got a British surname – there are plenty of those all over the world – one research agency cited in the Huffington Post in 2011 said there’s a good chance you are related to nobility or royalty. If you live in the UK, it said there is a 20 percent chance. In fact, thousands of people who posted their family tree on the website MyHeritage had King George III somewhere in that tree. Any number of these families could be related to you, never mind if you are in the UK, US or somewhere else.
You shouldn’t get too excited though, as Gizmodo wrote in 2015. Having royal blood might not be as special as you think. Let’s just forget about names and think about bloodline. People can test their DNA these days, and if they do they might be surprised to find they come from royalty. How is this? In an article in The Guardian in 2015 geneticist Adam Rutherford explained that if you are of European extraction, which means a hell of a lot of you watching this show, then you are related by blood to the famous King Charlemagne. He had 18 kids with lots of women during his lifetime from 742 to 814.
You see, you know you have two parents, and you know you have four grandparents. They had parents and grandparents, too. If you kept adding that up by the time you went back a thousand years you would have had more relations than people were alive back then. What this means, explain genealogists, is that the further you go back the smaller the web is. Rutherford explained, “Basically, everyone alive in the ninth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today.” He says, if you are white you have a bit of everything in you, meaning you’ll be part Viking, part Celt, part Anglo-Saxon, etc.
Now we can take this a little further. How related to you is another person watching this video at the same time? The answer is you are related because we all share common ancestors. In fact, it’s said that everyone alive on the planet today will have a common ancestor that lived around 2000 years ago. We are all inbred to some extent. The question is, can we find out who are common ancestor is?
This question is a subject that is studied, called the Most Recent Common Ancestor, or MRCA. Is there a single person from the past that can be connected to everyone alive today? Was there one little group of the first humans that led to the explosion of mankind. In the bible that could be said to be Adam and Eve and their kids Cain, Able, and Seth. It’s thought they had daughters, too, and perhaps incestually they had children of their own. The bible is a bit sketchy here. According to Bible.org there was indeed incest, but it was ok because Adam and Eve were created by the hand of God. Anyway, let’s now move back to the scientific point of view. Did we all come from a small group of people?
It seems so. We can trace our DNA back to one single female, she’s called the first matrilineal ancestor or the Mitochondrial Eve and is thought to have existed around 200,000 years ago, or thereabouts. At 10,000 years we have something called the identical ancestor point, which means anyone alive back then is the ancestor of everyone alive today. One scientist writing on Quora states, “Everyone alive today has at least one single ancestor in common with everyone else on Earth, and that person may have lived 200 – 300 generations ago.” That means, said the writer, that if that ancestor were to come back to life to have a big family reunion, we would all have to attend.
We could even accept that we are all made of stars as all elements were formed at the heart of a star. The brilliant Carl Sagan once famously said, “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.”
So, now you know. We are all related, and indeed, we share some royal DNA. But what does that matter? It’s nice to know we all basically came from the same place and in some sense, are connected.
Have you ever tried to trace your ancestry? What did you find out? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called This is How You Will Die!