Closer than Close

Apparent when examining family groups, village life in past centuries inspired complex genetic interlinking. Difficult to chart are when siblings from one family marry siblings from another. We must see this to understand it best.

Double Relatives Explained

Captivated by “ancestor loss,” I search for those who can visually explain it, but I come up with very little. It is surprising to find a topic so unexplored, yet so pervasive.

I submit that anyone descended from villagers, anywhere in the world, will confront genealogical confusion. Since the world was primarily agricultural until about two hundred years ago, this does include everyone!

I discovered this phenomena of genetic narrowing by surprise. Knowing that my grandmother’s two grandmothers were first cousins was a hint—but it was simply a family amusement. Now I find that this was a major and common social/genetic phenomena that few have written about, maybe because it takes study of siblings to understand and most researchers concentrate only on direct-line ancestry.

Another problem with “ancestor loss” is that we do not have words for these relationships in English. Other than “double first cousins,” I have found little or nothing about how to approach such a tightly woven social fabric. (To research means wading through the information about when a sibling marries a sibling—a brother marries his sister—but that is rare. Not incest, what is studied here is pervasive in village life—two brothers marry two sisters.)

If species improve through diversity, the past was a problem. It appears that my grandparents’ genetics were not very diverse. With the scant photographs that come down to us, they also all looked similar. (The family has always been astounded how my brother looks EXACTLY like a paternal great-grandfather! Recently, a third cousin I have never met sent her photo and she looks more like my sister than I do! (I genetically favor a different branch)).

As a visual professional, I can’t tolerate a visual mess. Any charts I have found that express these complex relationships (most evident in royal families) look like a plate of spaghetti. Then the records apply a percentage to this phenomena, such as Frederick the Great had 68% ancestor loss. How do they determine this? And when I analyze my very messy family tree, how can I better understand this?

So here is my graphic attempt at the sibling to sibling relationship. (More common were cousins marrying cousins. But there are as many cases of siblings marrying siblings, and on this I focus here.)

sibling pairs by Liane Sebastian

This socio-genetic tendency ended in my family only with my parent’s generation. They were the first to marry out of choice and their families were not related. Therefore, I am much more genetically diverse than either of them, or anyone back on the family tree. Today arranged marriages have disappeared in my society, though it continues in the world.

Analyzing ancestor loss, this chart demonstrates 50% for the resulting offspring of sibling pairs: instead of four sets of grandparents, there are two. Further, the children of these unions are more than cousins, and are genetically like siblings. By making this visual, the effects are immediately obvious.

Anyone delving into past centuries will find this phenomena. It should not be glossed over just because it is complicated. The implications of such a different custom of marriages and relationships is background to understanding the challenges and decisions of that time.

With this awareness, I look into the relationships of my own family and discover many of these pairings. My calculations of multiplying backwards (4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, etc.) must be revised. I have less ancestors than I thought. And rather than a direct line so cleanly expressed in today’s analytics, I am related to clusters of tightly-woven relationships that I wonder if even they could sort out! The term “cousin” had more nuances of meaning and levels in the past.

When first discovering this genetic mess, the blog I posted got 1,000 hits in one day! Obviously I hit a nerve. It is universal, yet understudied. I have just scratched the surface of implications but am looking for those who understand this better.

Only two generations ago, societies possessed little genetic diversity. Yet, the new generations are becoming genetically international! Tight communities have loosened up through immigrations, evolving from my generation, a nationally-based “melting pot,” to an international one. Nature proves genetic diversity increases the quality of a species, so future generations should be smarter, more talented, and healthier. Fingers crossed! But, at the same time, we need to preserve the cultures of our past, respecting the differences as we all become more alike.

—Always inspired, Liane

Please enjoy these examples from my growing portfolio:

Immigration Map 1840-18606

Creating a Genealogical Chain

Unraveling a Genealogical Knot

Drawing Backwards in Time

Eras of Evolution in One Neighborhood

Visual Interfamily Intermingles


Liane Sebastian wears an editor’s hat, designer’s coat, and artist’s shoes.








10 Responses to Closer than Close

  1. I first came across this phenomena while researching my dad’s mother’s side of the family, where brothers from one family married the sisters of another, and the brothers in family B married the sisters in family A. And, in a few cases, I found where first cousins had married each other. Fortunately, America was growing at that time, so as immigrants came in, the choices became much more diverse. My direct line also moved away from the original state, thereby increasing the chance of diversifying our gene pool. I have not yet really searched overseas, to see how genetically intertwined our families were previously. But this is a great article and maybe one day, we will have the words in English to fully put the relationships into a context of some sort.

    • wisdomofwork says:

      It seems that you will be in for more fun when you do search more overseas, as the instances of “reciprocal marriages” grows as people didn’t travel much. Here, it was often due to ethnic familiarity, but in Europe, it was due to availability. It is exciting how much information is now available to us to explore these intricate relationships!

      • With the love of travelling within my family, I do find it hard to believe that their ancestors would stay put for any length of time! 🙂 but, in all seriousness, I suspect you’re right, that as I get deeper into European ancestry searches, I will find more of these reciprocal marriages. And then, YOWZA!

      • wisdomofwork says:

        Reading up on the 1600s, there were laws in feudallism that prevented people from moving, as they were bound to the land. It seems that the ruling families changed, but the populace was stable. Then, when more people could own land, people did start moving around more. However, the Thirty Years War put the halt on a lot of that too. I can’t imagine all they had to deal with!!! Maybe the comfort of knowing your spouse your whole life was important. Let me know how your search goes!!

  2. I will let you know how my search goes, quite happily! I do wonder how our initial immigrant forefathers managed to get here if they were bound to the land by feudal lords?

    • wisdomofwork says:

      I think it was after the 30 Years War that they were so released– 1648. That allowed some immigration to the colonies too. My earliest relative to come from Germany was in the 1760s to New Jersey. But those in Europe did start moving around a bit then. Happy hunting!!!

      • My earliest colonist ancestors were from England….. the latest immigrants from Prussia (1868), Norway (1885-86) and Denmark (1892-93). So, I will have fun locating those records! Happy hunting to you as well!

      • wisdomofwork says:

        Wow you have some real colonialists with the English. I went to a genealogy conference recently, and you are lucky to have Scandinavian ancestors. Apparently they kept good records and are sharing a lot digitally. The Prussians, not so much. I have Prussians too, and those are my brick walls. So we both need luck there!!!

      • Yeah, I do. I just wish I understood Norwegian and Danish! I have a friend, tho, that can translate if I need it and she has been giving me definitions of certain words to help my research.

      • wisdomofwork says:

        Google translators are pretty good. I use one to translate German. I am brushing off my German from childhood too which is nice. I am determined to get more Prussian information. I have a great grandfather from Gdansk. Looks like a fascinating place!

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