We know with absolute certainty that everyone alive today descends from people who lived in antiquity – the mission impossible is to prove it with verified genealogical records.
In the Western world, classical antiquity is usually taken to mean the period spanning the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome – around the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD. Most earliest surviving church records in Europe date from around the mid-16th century. Written records which survived the 1,000 year gap of war, natural disaster and ‘intellectual darkness’ are rare to non-existent.
A link to aristocracy may add a few hundreds years to a particular lineage, but the genealogical claims of the medieval aristocracy were often dubious. Many European royal dynasties manufactured lines of descent from figures such as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, even Jesus Christ, for propaganda purposes. Nevertheless, historical records do at least exist for royal and noble families.
Genealogists who have taken up the challenge of proving descent from antiquity concentrate on certain ‘nexus’ ancestors who may at least provide a link back to the dying days of the Roman Empire.
One such ancestor is Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, who was born in the 8th century AD. He is regarded as the ‘Father of Europe’ and a traceable ancestor for all of today’s European royal houses.
There have been attempts to trace Charlemagne’s descent from one of Imperial Rome’s well-documented senatorial families based in southern Gaul. Charlemagne’s earliest known ancestor, Arnulf of Metz (c. 582 – 640 AD), had a possible line of descent from the proconsul Flavius Afranius Syagrius (fl. 345 – 382 AD) – however the trail is obscured by a lack of records in the 5th and 6th centuries.
There have also been attempts to trace Charlemagne’s descent from Attila the Hun, ruler of the Hunnic Empire from 434 AD until his death in 453. Attila’s daughter was one of many wives of Ardaric, king of the Gepids. One of their supposed descendants – a Gepid princess named Austrigusa – married Wacho, king of the Lombards, in the early 6th century and may have generated a line of descent to either Charlemagne’s mother or his father. However, the details are again very hazy and would not satisfy the serious genealogist.
Similar problems proving descent from antiquity occur outside of Europe. Throughout Africa many ancient lineages are claimed by oral tradition. The former Imperial House of Ethiopia, which ruled until the last emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974, claims descent from King Solomon of Israel and his brief union with the Queen of Sheba around the 10th century BC. However, it is unverifiable due to a lack of written records before the 13th century AD.
The only descent from antiquity that may satisfy genealogists exists in China.
The family tree of Confucius (551–479 BC) is the longest extant pedigree in the world today, having been dutifully recorded since his death. It now runs to 83 generations. The current Duke of Yansheng (a noble title created for direct male-line descendants of Confucius) Kung Tsui-chang is the 79th generation descendant. According to the Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee, there are 2 million other known and registered descendants.
In 2013 a DNA test was performed on multiple different families whose male members claimed descent from Confucius. It found that they shared the same Y chromosome, which would indeed signify an unbroken father-to-son lineage, with slight mutations due to the passage of time. However, without a DNA sample from the man himself, it is not possible to say for certain they were descendants of Confucius.