The theory of evolution holds that all living things have common ancestors. But just how far back do humans need to go to find a common ancestor of their own: a person to whom all living people are related?
The answer, for people of European descent at least, is surprisingly recent: 600 years. The common ancestor for every single person alive on the planet today, no matter where, lived approximately 3,600 years ago. That means Confucius, Nefertiti, Socrates, and any figure from ancient history that had children, is in some way your ancestor.
This comes to light through a new book by Adam Rutherford titled A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, which explores efforts within mathematics and science to describe human ancestry on a grand scale.
“We are all special, which also means that none of us is,” writes Rutherford in the book. “This is merely a numbers game. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. Each generation back the number of ancestors you have doubles. But this ancestral expansion is not borne back ceaselessly into the past. If it were, your family tree when Charlemagne was Le Grand Fromage would harbor around 137,438,953,472 individuals on it—more people than were alive then, now, or in total.”
So how do we make sense of this numerical discrepancy? It helps to view our family lineage as an entangled web instead of a neat “family tree.”
“You can be, and in fact are, descended from the same individual many times over,” Rutherford writes. “Your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother might hold that position in your family tree twice, or many times, as her lines of descent branch out from her, but collapse onto you. The further back through time we go, the more these lines will coalesce on fewer individuals.”
The startling discovery that all Europeans might share a common ancestor who walked the Earth just 600 years ago was first proposed in 1999 by a Yale statistician named Joseph…
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