Story: Genealogy and family history

Page 1. What is genealogy?

All images & media in this story

Genealogy and whakapapa

Genealogies are ‘family trees’, graphical or text representations of ancestors and their family relationships.

Pākehā genealogies share similar structural forms to Māori whakapapa. But there are significant differences.

  • Whakapapa are the basis of the traditional Māori world view. The human genealogy in whakapapa may be embedded in a broader context, including plants and animals, as well as human family relationships.
  • Whakapapa have traditionally been passed down through the generations orally, though many are now documented.
  • Pākehā genealogies are usually recorded on paper (such as charts or in family Bibles) or on computers in databases, though they may also include oral history.

Family histories

Genealogies are often accompanied by family histories – stories about the ancestors and their kinsfolk. The stories may be of migration or long settlement in a particular locality, of education and employment, of political and religious affiliations, of domestic life or involvement in dramatic historical events and periods.

Importance of genealogies

The values and attitudes of earlier generations, often embodied in their stories and their property and heirlooms, are typically passed down to their descendants. They can all help shape the descendants’ identities and lives, and how people make sense of them.

Genealogies give opportunities to construct identity. This may be as simple as recognising family likenesses, or as complex as adopting or rejecting a parent’s personal attributes. People use genealogies and family histories to locate themselves in the history of their country and in particular geographical regions. Stories about what their ancestors did, their religious faith and their travels across great distances can make people feel differently about themselves. New Zealand genealogies and family histories, like whakapapa, often begin with the great overlapping migrations of Māori, Pākehā, Pacific Island and Asian ancestors (not all of whom are remotely deceased).

Uses of genealogies

An important use of genealogies is for family reunions. The research identifies people to invite and provides a focus for reunion participants, so they can see where they fit in and can identify their kinship relationship to others at the reunion. Family histories are also often collected for events such as 80th birthdays.

Wider knowledge

Discoveries about ancestors give wider knowledge of ancestral links to different countries and ethnic groups, and lives different from our own, with high childhood mortality, often recorded by poignant gravestones. Family ancestors may have experienced poverty or criminal convictions, and displayed courage and determination in adverse circumstances, such as sailing ship journeys to the new colony, or family breakdown due to death, desertion or disease.

Two degrees of separation

Family histories are generally seen as either individual stories or raw materials for social histories. However a mathematician has calculated that for somebody with English ancestry on both sides and no cousin marriages, 86% of the population of England in 1066 would be their direct ancestors! The further back we go, the more ‘representative’ of whole populations are the ancestors in family histories.

Mega-family history

Individual genealogies and family histories make up thousands of published New Zealand works that collectively tell the story of British emigration and its New Zealand strand. Migration changes both source and destination societies. The earlier chapters of these published histories collectively tell the story of these changes.

How to cite this page:

David Swain, 'Genealogy and family history - What is genealogy?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/genealogy-and-family-history/page-1 (accessed 22 March 2019)

Story by David Swain, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018