“People are looking for identity,” says Ben Mercer, content manager for the world’s biggest genealogist company, ancestry.com. “One way to get identity is to look back at your family history. It anchors you.”
When New Zealand first went online in the late 90s, genealogy enjoyed a serious resurgence. Rather than having to search through dusty paper archives, the world was at our fingertips – with more and more records digitised and made available via the world-wide web. But it was slow and difficult, and interest declined until recently. Now, fast internet, improved search tools, simpler user interfaces and the power of science is proving an irresistible combo. And it’s not only the method of searching that has moved on, the trend mirrors our more connected lifestyles, as Ben explains.
“More and more ancestry is about social context,” Ben says. “For a long time it was about people or person or place and time. Now it’s much more about social history.”
This means that as you discover long-lost aunts, fourth cousins and great-great-grandfathers, you can also quite easily find details about their lives and learn about the era, society and culture in which they lived. Ben says, because of the added layers of information, the process becomes addictive.
“It becomes an obsession, it really does. People start looking for stuff about themselves and end up as social historians. Very often it ends up they’ll travel back to where their ancestors came from. That’s a very common phenomenon.”
He also says, a little surprisingly, the fact that this country is socially young is an advantage for New Zealanders searching for ancestors who immigrated here.
“Young countries like New Zealand really benefit from the record keeping that developed over the last couple of hundred years. As people went from one country to another the record keeping was very good.
This allows you to track where people came from, how they travelled, where they travelled, and why they travelled, a whole lot easier.”
Alongside the ability to search birth, death, military, education and travel records is technology to identify your DNA.
“The combination of the science of the DNA with archival records is really powerful,” Ben says. “You’re able to trace back at a molecular level where you come from. With those results, the family trees and the archival records allow you to get a really accurate picture of where you’ve come from and who you are connected to.”
And it’s these connections, fascinating and sometimes unexpected, that lie at the heart of people’s journeys. You may have no idea who you will uncover as you go deeper into your roots, but whoever pops up, royalty or rogue, you wouldn’t be here without them.
Reported by Karl Puschmann for our AA Directions Summer 2017 issue