Constructing a family tree has been a popular pastime for many people eager to uncover the stories of their ancestors.

In the pre-internet days, genealogical research involved combing through archives, microfiche, and other sources to track down information about birth, death, and immigration. However, in recent years, the development of DNA sequencing and big data computing has revolutionised the field of genealogy, leading to the creation of the largest family tree ever made.

The project was led by researchers from the University of Oxford and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University. Using genome data from 3,609 modern and ancient humans across 215 populations, the team created a massive dataset that required an innovative algorithm to analyse. The algorithm analysed genetic variations and traced their origins, mapping the genetic lineage of 27 million ancestors across human evolution and migration over the course of one million years.

Anthony Wilder Wohns, a postdoc at MIT who led the study, emphasised the significance of the map, stating that the team was:

..reconstructing the genomes of our ancestors and using them to form a vast network of relationships. We can then estimate when and where these ancestors lived. The power of our approach is that it makes very few assumptions about the underlying data and can also include both modern and ancient DNA samples.

Anthony Wilder Wohns, postdoc at MIT

The results of the study were astounding. The earliest ancestors identified lived up to one million years ago in modern-day Sudan, which is much older than current estimates for the age of Homo sapiens. This means that some bits of our genome have been inherited from individuals who would not be recognised as modern humans.

Yan Wong, an evolutionary geneticist at the Big Data Institute and a principal author of the study, noted that the team had:

…built a huge family tree, a genealogy for all of humanity that models as exactly as we can the history that generated all the genetic variation we find in humans today. This genealogy allows us to see how every person’s genetic sequence relates to every other, along all the points of the genome.

Yan Wong, evolutionary geneticist

The success of this project could potentially be used to map the evolution of other species, including plants and animals. The accuracy of the model will continue to improve as technology advances, and the team hopes to update the tree as more genomes become available.

The largest family tree ever made is a significant milestone in the field of genealogy. Through the use of big data and genealogical mapping, scientists have created a detailed visualisation of human genetics and migration that spans one million years and 27 million ancestors. This project highlights the ways in which traditional historical approaches and cutting-edge science can combine to enhance our understanding of the human story.

Image Source:

  • Photo by Catherine Kay Greenup: instant images