Arts & Humanities
January 29, 2024

From Charlemagne to Obama: Unifying ancestries and Western European genealogy

What do Britain’s Prince George and former American President Barack Obama have in common? The answer: they are both descendants of Charlemagne, the 9th-century Holy Roman Emperor. Reagan W Moore, Emeritus Professor at the School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA is creating a genealogical history of the Western world. Based on the common ancestries of European royal families and people of historical note, Moore finds that Western Europeans share common progenitors and constructs a ‘unifying ancestry’ which extends back more than 50 generations.

Where do I come from? Whether we want to investigate a family tradition, discover links to a famous person, or trace relatives because of a hereditary medical condition, family history is one of the most searched-for topics on the internet. Prompted by the many resources available online, as well as the popularity of genealogy programmes on television, more people are now interested in their ancestry.

Every American president can be genealogically linked to the founding president, George Washington.

Data scientist Reagan W Moore, emeritus professor at the School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, has taken his interest a step further. In the 1990s, Moore’s research was fuelled by his interest in tracing his family history, when his grandmother claimed that she was a 23rd cousin of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Moore began by compiling a research genealogy of the Western world, adding 50 person references to his database every night for 30 years.

Photo Credit: Number 10, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Moore has so far identified more than 38,000 common ancestors of the kings of Spain, Belgium, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, and the Queen of Denmark. His research has led to fascinating discoveries. For example, Britain’s Prince George is not only a twelfth cousin nine removed of the French emperor Napoleon Buonaparte, but also a descendant of Charlemagne, the ninth century Holy Roman emperor. Closer to home, former US President Barack Obama is also a descendant of Charlemagne, as well as a third cousin eight removed of the first American president George Washington.

In genealogical terms, we are all ‘cousins’ of each other. ‘Removed’ signifies the number of generations which separate people, and the numbered cousin indicates whether people share a common grandparent (first cousin), great-grandparent (second cousin), or great-great-grandparent (third cousin), and so on. Moore has published his research in his latest book, Trustworthy communications and complete genealogies: Unifying ancestries for a genealogical history of the modern world.

Unifying ancestry

Genealogies can be constructed either by identifying a common ancestor or ‘progenitor’ and tracing their descendants or ‘descents’, or by choosing someone who is alive today and tracing back their ancestors or ‘ascents’. Instead, Moore argues that there is a root person to whom all members of a national community should be able to find their cousin relationship, and that every national community has a shared genealogy or ‘unifying ancestry’. Moore believes that if we can identify a unifying ancestry for Western Europeans, we can start building a genealogical history of the modern world.

Moore focused his research on the common ancestors of European royal families and noble houses.

Moore focused his research on the common ancestors of European royal families and noble houses. He chose royal families for three reasons: they are highly intermarried, their ancestry dates back at least 50 generations, and their history is more likely to be recorded reliably. After consulting in excess of 2,000 historical and genealogy sources, Moore now has records for more than 347,000 people.

Gathering the data was no mean feat. Historical sources can be both incomplete and inaccurate. For example, there can be errors in names, different spellings, transcription errors – children can even be assigned to the wrong person. As a result, multiple sources had to be compared for every database entry. To smoothen the process, Moore developed metrics to evaluate significant details, such as data consistency, correctness, closure, connectivity, coherence, and completeness. The data were subsequently analysed using the freely available genealogy analysis software tool, CoreGen3.

Properties of complete genealogies

Given that the number of potential ancestors doubles every generation, eventually lineages must link to a unifying ancestry and then to a progenitor. The best representation for the unifying ancestry will have the smallest number of generations to a progenitor, typically 50 generations for Western Europeans. Europe’s royal lineages can be traced back thousands of years to diverse cultural groups. These include Egyptian Pharaohs, Davidic Kings, and Roman emperors, as well as rulers of the Ostrogoths, Vandals, Anglo Saxons, Russians, Scandinavians, and Franks. The number and complexity of connections in such genealogies is demonstrated by the fact the present King Felipe VI of Spain is thought to have more than 14 billion ascents to Charlemagne.

The genealogical data were analysed using the freely available genealogy analysis software tool, CoreGen3.

Moore’s data gathering prompted many questions. For example, how many generations does it takes for someone to connect to the unifying ancestry? How large does the unifying ancestry have to be to enable all Western Europeans to connect to it? Can the unifying ancestry help identify progenitors for all Western Europeans?

Moore’s extensive analysis confirms his prediction that within 55 generations, ‘progenitors can be found that are ancestors of all persons of Western European descent alive today’.

Moore explores these using the example of the ancestry of Prince George of the United Kingdom. He finds that for someone born in the 20th century, the average year they connect to Prince George’s ancestors is 1622. Prince George’s unifying ancestry includes 56,324 persons from the noble houses of Europe, and someone wanting to connect to such a genealogy would typically have to trace their ancestry back about 12 generations.

Moore believes that if we can identify a unifying ancestry for Western Europeans, we can start building a genealogical history of the modern world.

Linking back to a progenitor for Western Europeans takes 45 to 55 generations. For example, the first progenitor Moore identifies is Aethelberht II of Kent, born in 696 CE. Going back 76 generations, Moore finds there would be connections to such historical figures as Darius I of Persia, born in 558 BCE. Linking back to 119 generations, Moore finds the plausibility of connections to the Egyptian Pharoah Tao I, born around 1650 BCE. By this time, the numbers become hard to envisage: Moore estimates that the potential number of ascents to Tao I is 400 quadrillion, which is 400 million billion!

Surprising connections

Moore’s extensive analysis confirms his prediction that within 55 generations, ‘progenitors can be found that are ancestors of all persons of Western European descent alive today’. Furthermore, if we go back far enough, all Western Europeans are related and many have royal blood. Moore’s favourite serendipitous discovery in his genealogical history of the modern world is related to the world’s wealthiest man, Elon Musk.

Thanks to a common ancestor, the 13th century King Stephen V of Hungary, Musk is the 24th cousin twice removed of Nikola Tesla. Whether Musk knew of this relation while naming his iconic automobile brand after the inventor, only he can tell.

Personal Response

Your research is impressive for its insights as well as the many years devoted to it. Have you been able to substantiate your grandmother’s assertion that she was the 23rd cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, and if so, who is the progenitor who links your genealogy to that of the British royal family?
Queen Elizabeth is my 10th cousin once removed through a Bowes-Lyon lineage. The common ancestor is Wolstone Child, born in 1572. The closest royal ancestor is King Edward IV (13th great-grandfather).
This feature article was created with the approval of the research team featured. This is a collaborative production, supported by those featured to aid free of charge, global distribution.

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