We know it wasn’t because of budget discipline. Money was splashed around on all sorts of worthy causes. And the emergency funding to save film and magnetic tape recordings from disintegration was modest: A$67 million over seven years.
Nor was it because a scorn for history is in the Liberal Party’s DNA. The party’s founder, Robert Menzies, was a history buff. His library, which is the centrepiece of the newly established Robert Menzies Institute at the University of Melbourne, is full of books of history and biography.
Moreover, his government established the precursor of today’s institution, the Commonwealth Archives Office, in 1961 so the records of the past could help guide the future. Prominent Liberals like Paul Hasluck and David Kemp have written histories, as has John Howard in The Menzies Era.
There are plenty of distinguished Liberal-aligned historians, and historians across the political spectrum supported the open letter to the prime minister, spearheaded by journalist Gideon Haigh and academic Graeme Davison.
Some commentators have seen the failure to provide the archives with emergency funds as a skirmish in the culture wars against an intellectual and cultural left purported to be obsessed with identity politics. This, the argument goes, is of a piece with the government’s apparent hostility to universities, its increase in fees for humanities degrees and its parsimonious treatment of the arts.
But was it that deliberate? Perhaps it was just careless philistinism in a budget designed for a forthcoming election. It was a budget addressed primarily to groups of voters rather than to national problems, and the users of archives will never swing a marginal electorate. Last week, The Australian ran an editorial on the issue, which concluded: “Failure to fund the NAA properly is an oversight that must be corrected.”
The government is wrong to think it is only professional and academic historians who use the archives. So do family historians, as the archives include personal records of hundreds of thousands of Australians. They are especially relevant to those of non-Anglo descent who had to apply to government authorities for various exemptions and entry permits. These include Indigenous Australians, Chinese living in Australia or displaced persons wanting to immigrate.
Haigh has pointed out that Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s defence last year of his eligibility to sit in parliament depended on a document in the archives – the certificate of exemption from the provisions of the Immigration Act for his mother, then a seven-year-old girl deemed to be “stateless”.
The National Archives sit in the attorney-general’s department. Queensland Senator Amanda Stoker, who is assistant minister to the attorney-general as well as assistant minister for women and industrial relations, defended the government’s failure to provide the recommended emergency funding with the facile claim that “time marches on and all sources degrade over time”.
The government had nothing to be embarrassed about, she said, even when she was reminded Prince Charles had expressed his alarm at the threatened loss of records. Judging from her silly remarks, she seems to have given the subject little thought. The aim of the letter is to bring the archive’s budgetary neglect to the attention of the prime minister and his senior ministers.
While I do not think the neglect of the archives is a deliberate move in the culture wars, it is evidence of the Coalition’s truncated temporal imagination. This is in part an occupational hazard of politicians with their eyes on the electoral cycle. But it is also evident in the difficulty too many of the Coalition have in understanding what climate scientists have been telling them about the future, so they focus on present costs as if future costs will never arrive.
To understand the value of archives, we have to think not just about the past but about the future, when the present will be well and truly over. As the open letter says, the National Archives’ “most important users have not yet been born”, and we do not know what questions they will want to ask.
Thinking about time is difficult, wrenching oneself out of the dramas and routines of the present to fully imagine worlds that were and will be different, confronting our transience and our mortality.
Historians are experts in temporal imagining. They spend their days reading the words and examining the objects of the men and women who walked the world before us. We hope the prime minister will heed our words on the future’s desire for a memory bank of Australian life as full and rich as it can be.
The coming decades represent an era of uncertainty for Australia’s cemeteries. They also present an opportunity to reflect on what our public cemeteries could and should be.
Our cemeteries are running out of space, with more Australians dying than ever before. As a result of a growing and ageing population, the country’s annual death count has more than doubled since 1960. It will double again by around 2070.
Unlike other real estate, cemetery space is largely a non-renewable resource. Many European countries lease grave sites for a limited period, but most Australian states and territories stipulate that each burial must be preserved in perpetuity. New South Wales has introduced a system of opt-in 25-year leases.
Some intercity cemeteries have been closed to new burials for decades. Demands on cemeteries as green spaces for leisure and recreation, as well as commemorating the dead, are also growing.
This is what makes Victoria’s Harkness cemetery development, a 128-hectare site on the edge of Melbourne’s West Growth Corridor, so significant. It’s Victoria’s largest new cemetery development in 100 years.
Harkness will shape how Australians live and die for many generations to come. And it is an opportunity to imagine a new future for death in Australia.
We are investigating these issues as members of The Future Cemetery project team, in partnership with colleagues at the University of Melbourne, Oxford University and the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust. Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, we conducted two studies:
Changes in demography, religious affiliation and technology, among other factors, shape public attitudes to how the dead should be treated.
The demographic trend is reasonably clear. Australia’s population is projected to grow strongly in coming decades (despite the effects of the coronavirus). This growth is driven mainly by high net overseas migration.
Australia’s religious diversity will likely increase, too. Christianity is projected to become a minority religion by 2050 for the first time since European colonisation, and the population of religiously unaffiliated is growing. The preference for burial or cremation within Australia’s diverse communities has a particular marked impact on future cemetery design.
Technology could also revolutionise cemetery design. New methods for treating human remains, such as recomposition (“human composting”), alkaline hydrolysis (“water cremation”) and natural burial, could alter the volume and kinds of remains that end up in cemeteries. Other technologies could change how we see the cemetery, from augmented-reality historical tours to remote grave visits through 3D drone photography.
the nature park cemetery, which integrates burial grounds with native bushland to provide a space that is resource-neutral and open to the public for walking and picnics
the socially activated cemetery, which makes space available for a range of public uses, from educational activities such as birdwatching and botany to leisure activities such as playgrounds and cafés
the urban high-rise cemetery, which takes take the form of a centrally located urban building rather than a rolling open lawn, drawing inspiration from multi-storey columbaria in North-East Asia, to enable the deceased to be laid to rest close to their loved ones
the digital cemetery, which is the idea of a “technology layer” that will increasingly co-exist with, and perhaps one day even replace, the physical cemetery, where loved ones can share photographs, videos and stories about the deceased. In an age of pandemic lockdowns, this digital layer could even allow for people to visit graves remotely for memorial services.
Each of these models is a hypothetical – no cemetery in the near future is likely to follow a single model to the exclusion of all others. However, they point towards the differing options cemetery designers have to think about when planning for the next 100 years.
How do Australians see cemeteries?
Australians appear to be relatively open to considering new concepts for the cemetery.
In our national survey, two-thirds of respondents disagreed with the idea that “the cemetery should only be for the interment and memorialisation of the dead”. About a third of respondents supported the use of cemeteries as nature reserves to conserve plants and animals. Similar numbers agreed that a cemetery would be a good place to learn about historical and philosophical issues.
Leisure activities at the cemetery, such as exercise classes, picnics and concerts, attracted much less public support. And conspicuous technologies such as drones and virtual reality systems proved a bridge too far for most.
Most notable was a lack of strong feelings – positive or negative – about many of the proposals for the future cemetery. This suggests to us that, given taboos around death, Australians rarely have the chance to consider the cemetery and its potential uses. We are perhaps open to considering new technologies and ideas for the cemetery, as long as they are implemented respectfully and do not disrupt the fundamental need to mourn the dead.
As we reflect on the value and place of children, this gives us a chance to look at how birth registration and birth certificates operate in Australia today.
As the UN notes, “a name and nationality is every child’s right”. Australian academics have previously argued, the convention “implicitly includes the right to a birth certificate”.
Yet not every Australian child is registered or has a birth certificate.
When we think of children’s development and care, we don’t tend to think of the barriers to gaining such an important document. Or the appropriateness of an administrative process of birth notification and registration that hasn’t changed much in more than 160 years.
To reduce burdens on families and increase social engagement among the marginalised, we need seriously to consider alternatives to the traditional birth certificate.
With growing digital connectivity, are paper-based birth certificates still relevant?
Why do we need birth certificates?
All births in Australia are required to be registered by a parent or carer with the relevant state or territory registry office for births, deaths and marriages. This service is free.
Birth registration is also a fundamental human right — it provides a record of the name, birth details, and very existence of someone. It also provides a government administrative function, helping to determine population estimates.
Birth certificates, on the other hand, aren’t automatically issued in Australia – there’s a fee involved with gaining this crucial piece of identification, potentially violating human rights.
These paper-based certificates are vital documents, needed for a huge range of crucial life events, from enrolling in school to opening a bank account, getting a passport, applying for government benefits, learning to drive, holding a tax file number to work in paid employment — even getting into a sporting team.
There’s a cost
The cost of a birth certificate varies across states and territories, but they are not insignificant. The Australian Capital Territory has the highest fee at $65.00, Victoria has the lowest at $33.80 (plus an additional $10 for postage).
All registry offices in Australia with the exception of Queenslandcan waive the fee. But information about fee exemptions is near impossible to find. Birth, Deaths and Marriages in Victoria is the only jurisdiction to make such information available on its website, but the process appears complicated and eligibility very narrow.
Not everyone has a birth certificate — and this is a problem
Despite the importance of birth certificates, not everyone has one.
Experiencing financial difficulties, moving house, being wary of government, and having lower English proficiency are among the reasons people may not have a birth certificate.
Births still go unregistered in Australia, mostly among people from disadvantaged and minority groups, including First Nations Australians and children of parents born overseas and from non-English speaking backgrounds.
Estimates suggest about 3% of births are not registered by a child’s fifth birthday, but this declines as young people approach the age of 15. Milestone events, like starting school and applying for a tax file number or driver’s licence, are triggers for either the realisation a birth isn’t registered or a prompt for registration.
There are no data on how many people in Australia do not hold birth certificates. The Victorian registry office reports the “majority” of people apply for a birth certificate when a baby is registered, but even they don’t know the actual numbers.
Investments have been made to increase the completeness of birth registration, particularly among First Nations Australians and in Victoria, but this has not extended to increasing the accessibility of birth certificates.
If births are registered for free, it follows that birth certificates should (and could be easily) be part of the free registration process.
Not having a birth certificate can render people invisible, particularly for the already vulnerable. Without a birth certificate, full recognition and participation in society including through education and employment is hindered.
There are other ways
The birth registration and certification process has not kept up with contemporary expectations.
Australian birth certificates themselves, for example, have altered very little since the 1930s — they remain paper-based and include similar information.
There are other systems available to make identification processes easier, but these also rely on individuals having paper copies of their birth certificates. The Australian government’s documentation verification service (DVS) is a central database enabling interrogation and confirmation of identity documentation.
Banks can use the DVS system, for example, to confirm the identity of an individual without seeing a birth certificate, relying on the birth certificate number.
There are, of course, safety issues when it comes to maintaining the security of identity data. But with so much other sensitive information now digitised, these risks can be managed. It’s also doubtful they outweigh the practical and equity concerns about continuing to rely on paper-based birth certificates.
What about Sweden?
Other countries are doing this better. Babies born in Sweden are immediately registered and added to a population address register by the hospital or midwife responsible for delivering the child. The child’s name is then updated by their parents or carers, and important information relating to each Swede is maintained throughout their life.
Australia has a similar hospital and midwife notification system in the National Perinatal Data Collection(NPDC). The NPDC isn’t used to help register births – it’s health-focussed — but it (or a registry-based) notification system has the potential to assist in redressing the invisibility too many Australians experience.
A better process for babies
The costs associated with buying a birth certificate for a baby appear more of a revenue raising endeavour than a public good.
Australia holds a number of different data system capabilities that could replace the outdated paper-based scheme of birth registration and certification.
Yes, there are security and logistical concerns, but we can manage them. It is most important to create a system where every baby is granted their fundamental human rights of recognition.
From a demographic perspective, we will have a more accurate and timely picture of all Australians — no matter the socioeconomic circumstances they might be born into.
But heritage — collections, buildings, archaeological sites, cultural traditions and other intangible traces of the past — matters in different ways to different people.
New analysis shows public heritage — professionally run historic monuments, archaeological ruins, state memorials, national museums and grand homes — does not have broad appeal. Private family histories, meanwhile, have wide appeal.
The most recognised, visited and liked heritage site in Australia is the Australian War Memorial; the least liked is Port Arthur.
We surveyed 1461 Australians, including a main sample and “boost” samples for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and Italian, Lebanese, Chinese and Indian Australians. We asked about heritage visitation and memberships, and presented lists of types of heritage, so participants could nominate the ones they liked most and least.
Similarly, participants ranked a list of Australian and international places of heritage according to those they’d heard of, visited and/or liked.
We found Australians’ tastes are heavily influenced by demographic variables like education, occupation, age and location.
More than half of those surveyed were almost completely disengaged or lacking in knowledge about public history: they rarely used the internet to search for it, did not hold national park or museum memberships, and they visited very few, if any, places of heritage in the year prior.
Still, some 41% of Australians hold multiple memberships and subscriptions to heritage organisations. Some are connected to a local history or archaeology club (4%), the National Trust (3%), a local or national museum (14%), a national park (8%), the History Channel (17%) or an online family history website (13.4%). They also use the internet on a monthly (17%) or weekly (19%) basis to seek out heritage information.
Those with tertiary and postgraduate qualifications are much more likely to have an active interest in public heritage. The same is true of those employed in managerial and high-level professional roles.
Some 23% of heritage lovers will engage with some of Australia’s heritage but are most interested in international places, such as Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, the Vatican Museums and Te Papa Tongarewa in New Zealand. This group, largely urban dwellers aged mid-30s to mid-40s, express interest in Aboriginal and migrant heritage too.
Another group (21%) has a deep interest in local area heritage, as well as cultural landscapes, open-air museums and sites depicting colonial/settler heritage, such as Port Arthur, Sovereign Hill and Fremantle Prison. These Australians are highly engaged at the domestic level, but have only a mild interest in international heritage. They tend to be in their mid-40s to mid-60s and live in small towns, semi-rural and rural/remote locations.
Family history — under the banner of private heritage — is liked more than any other heritage genre, with 57% of the main sample and 46% of our boost samples liking it best, followed by “Australia’s national heritage” and “world heritage”.
Family history is a favourite for Australians who self-identify as working class (38%) and those who claim middle-class status (44%). Only 9% of those who said family history was their most-liked form of heritage identified as upper-middle and upper classes.
Family history is favoured by 61% of 18–24-year-olds, 57% of 25-39-year-olds, 55% of 40-59-year-olds and 57% of those over 60.
This popularity was confirmed in follow-up interviews, with almost half specifically mentioning their efforts to learn about and engage with their family’s heritage.
Many expressed deep pride in particular features of their genealogies, like lineage (number of generations traced), identified individuals (well-known historical figures and those associated with national narratives), and a sense of “pedigree”. As one interview put it:
… every one of our great grandparents were born in Australia. And most of our great, great grandparents … Yeah, no, most people can’t say that.
For another respondent, a source of great pride was traced through connections to Gallipoli:
Me, personally, my grandfather was in the first battalion that landed on Gallipoli … so I’ve grown up with that culture, that heritage.
Our data reveals family history is an area of heritage that appeals to broad swathes of the population (across ages, genders, a range of educational backgrounds and the working and middle classes) — and a few in the “upper classes” too.
Throughout our lifetimes we consume, collate, curate, host and produce a staggering quantity of data – some by our own hand, some by others on our behalf, and some without our knowledge or consent.
Collectively, our “digital footprints” represent who we are and who we were. Our digital legacies are immortal and can impact those we leave behind.
Many of us take steps to secure our privacy while we’re alive, but there’s mounting evidence that we should be equally concerned about the privacy and security risks of our “data after death”.
Reincarnation as data
It might be tempting to think of data after death as inconsequential – after all, we’ll no longer be around to worry about it. However, Facebook and Instagram both support static “memorial” accounts for the deceased. We also know memorial pages can play an important part of the grieving process.
what are platforms such as Facebook doing with the data after death they collect?
is it ever deleted?
could it be sold or otherwise monetised?
what assurances do we have our data will continue to be hosted by those providers after death?
if not, who will be able to access and manage our data in the future?
In 2012, a teenage girl died after being hit by a subway train in Berlin. Her parents had her Facebook credentials and wanted to access her account to determine whether she had committed suicide. After six years of legal battles, the parents were awarded a court order and finally given access to their child’s “memorial” Facebook account data.
We all have skeletons in the closet
COVID-19 has completely changed our internet use patterns. The unplanned transition to working from home has blurred the boundaries between our professional and personal lives.
Consequently, personal information is now more likely to be exchanged over services such as Microsoft Teams. Many users may choose to store confidential information on personal cloud services for the sake of convenience.
With these changes in behaviour, new vulnerabilities have emerged. When a user dies, it’s now more important than ever personal and otherwise sensitive information is automatically identified and secured.
Colleagues of the departed may forget to revoke access credentials, which can then be used to steal intellectual property. Embarrassing email exchanges that belonged to the dead can damage reputations, and sensitive information can negatively affect entire businesses and potentially ruin lives.
In 2016, a Twitter account belonging to the well-known US journalist David Carr was hacked by a sexting bot a year after his death. Earlier, in 2010, 16-year-old vlogger Esther Earl died of cancer before she could cancel a tweet she had scheduled for release that left friends and family in shock.
In collaboration with the Australian Information Security Association (AISA), we surveyed about 200 AISA members to assess their awareness of digital wills and associated Australian regulations that protect users’ security and privacy. Our survey results confirmed that even key decision makers in the field and cybersecurity thought leaders had not considered or prepared for posthumous data risks.
We need a solution that can resolve issues ranging from moral quandaries about posthumous medical data, to privacy concerns about accessing past digital correspondences.
To be effective, such a solution will require legal and policy recommendations, guidelines and technological adaptations for providers, decision-makers and users. Each aspect will need to be sensitive to context and accommodate for grief and mourning among individuals and organisations. For example, there is often a period of compassionate leave available for employees when members of their immediate family pass away.
Some processes meant to manage data after death already exist, but they need more development. Technological solutions for data after death proposed thus far fall into the category known as privacy-enhancing technologies – tools meant to protect users’ privacy.
Users have been reluctant and slow to adopt privacy enhancing technologies. In part, this is because they don’t allow individuals the ability to control how they manage their privacy risks.
In the past week, news has spread of a Florida judge’s decision to grant a warrant allowing police to search one of the world’s largest online DNA databases, for leads in a criminal case.
The warrant reportedly approved the search of open source genealogy database GEDMatch. An estimated 1.3 million users have uploaded their DNA data onto it, without knowing it would be accessible by law enforcement.
A decision of this kind raises concern and sets a new precedent for law enforcement’s access to online DNA databases. Should Australian users of online genealogy services be concerned?
Why is this a big deal?
GEDmatch lets users upload their raw genetic data, obtained from companies such as Ancestry or 23andMe, to be matched with relatives who have also uploaded their data.
Australians who wish to have ancestry DNA testing have to use US-based online companies. Thus, many Australians have data in databases such as Ancestry, 23andMe and GEDMatch. The granting of a warrant to search these databases by US courts means those searches could include Australian individuals’ data.
Ancestry and 23andMe both have policies saying they don’t provide access to their databases without valid court-mandated processes.
Each company produces a transparency report (see here and here) which includes all requests for customer data that have been received and complied with. Currently, that number is low. But it remains to be seen how each would respond to a court-ordered search warrant.
If Australia wants to remain internationally competitive, a national genetics project is a natural next step.
We need DNA privacy legislation
In Australia, courts can approve warrants that intrude into private information, and entities can only protect data to the extent that it’s protected by law.
Thus, the privacy policies of companies and organisations that hold genetic data (and other types of private data) usually include a statement saying the data will not be shared without consent “except as required by law”.
Although Australia has a patchwork of laws that protect citizens’ genetic data to an extent, we still have no specific genetic data protection legislation. A broader legal framework dealing directly with the protection of genetic information is now required.
With a population of around 1.3 million people, the biobank represents around 15% of the entire country’s population. And Estonian legislation currently prohibits the use of donor samples for law enforcement.
In contrast, the UK Biobank, doesn’t have specific legislation controlling its operation. It only allows law enforcement agencies access if forced to do so by the courts, leaving open the possibility of access under a court-ordered warrant.
In Australia, accessing DNA testing is now easier than ever. But those accessing it through US-based companies, or uploading their data to US-based databases, should be aware of the potential uses of their genetic information.
And as we moves into an era of genomic medicine, urgent policy attention is required from the Australian government to ensure public trust in genomics is maintained.
Have you ever wondered who you are or where you come from?
I think it’s a fundamental human desire to want to know this.
One way we’re seeing this curiosity play out is in the rise of the at-home DNA ancestry business. You’ve probably seen the ads for tests like 23andme and Ancestry DNA: you spit in a tube, and then receive a report breaking you down into neat little slices in a pie chart telling you that you’re, say, 30% German and 70% English. As a population geneticist, I find this fascinating.
But how does our collective interest in ancestry testing interact with our ideas and conversations about race?
Earlier this year, a Mexican airline, Aeromexico, ran a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign, called “DNA Discounts” with the slogan “there are no borders within us”. For the ad campaign they gathered a group of North Americans who were willing to take a DNA test and get their results on camera. This group contained some members with, let’s just say, a somewhat negative view of Mexico.
In the ad, the airline offered rewards to these people based on their DNA results, in the form of a discounted airline ticket to Mexico. The size of the discount depended on the amount of Mexican ancestry. If their test showed 15% Mexican ancestry, that meant a 15% discount.
The footage of people getting their results on camera is pretty funny, and some of them seemed somewhat surprised, and maybe even upset about their reported ancestry. More than half of those tested appeared to have Mexican ancestry, even though they weren’t aware of it.
The slogan “there are no borders within us” has an element of political commentary related to Donald Trump’s border wall. But the ad also teaches us two important things.
It shows how DNA testing can challenge not just our ideas of race and identity, but our notion of being. Your genetic ancestry might be completely different from your cultural identity. Just ask the folks in the ad.
Beyond this, it also highlights how mainstream this kind of science has become, and how much DNA ancestry testing has entered into pop culture.
I think we humans have always been interested in our ancestry, but it hasn’t always been a healthy interest – sometimes it’s been much darker and more sinister. And we don’t even have to look too far into the past to see that.
The eugenics movement was part science and part social engineering, and based on the idea that certain things – such as being poor, lazy, “feeble-minded” or criminal – were actually traits that were inherited in families. These traits were often linked to certain ancestries or racial groups using biased methodology.
Eugenics was the idea that humanity could engineer a better future for itself by identifying and regulating these groups using science and technology.
In the United States in the early 20th century, eugenics became a recognised academic discipline at many prestigious universities – even Harvard. By 1928, almost 400 colleges and universities in America were teaching it.
In 1910 the Eugenics Record Office was set up to collect ancestry data, literally door to door. It then used this data to support racist agendas and influence things like the 1924 Immigration Act to curb immigration of southeastern Europeans, and ban most Asians and Arabs altogether.
Although we may think of eugenics as something linked with Nazi Germany in World War II, Hitler based some of his early ideas about eugenics on these academic programs in the US. There was a fear of “pollution” of the purebred genetic lineage, and that the “inferior” races would contaminate the “superior” race. Many Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials claimed there wasn’t much difference between the Nazi eugenics program and the ones in the US.
Racism with flawed science
The events of that time are still relevant now. More than seven decades have passed and we’re seeing the rise of far-right groups and ideologies – the world of Trump, and the return of restrictive immigration policies.
We’re seeing a mainstreaming of ideas about race that we rejected not long ago. We’re once again seeing the science of genetics being misappropriated to support racist agendas.
Late last year, the New York Times reported on a trend among white supremacists to drink milk. Most people of northern European ancestry have a version of a certain gene, called a lactase gene, that means they can fully digest milk as adults. This is due to a genetic mutation several thousand years ago, around the time of the first cattle herders in Europe.
The article described how people from the far right have taken this scientific result and run with it – producing bizarre YouTube videos in which people chug milk from 2-litre containers, swigging it and throwing it around in celebration of their supposed “genetic superiority” – and urging people who cannot digest milk to “go back”. Comedian Stephen Colbert even picked up on this story (in his words: “lactose is their only form of tolerance”).
The white supremacists took this bit of science and twisted it to suit their needs. But what they have ignored is research showing that a similar version of this gene evolved among cattle breeders in East Africa too.
DNA does not define culture
It’s not just popular culture: DNA ancestry has also entered political culture.
The right-wing Australian nationalist One Nation recently called for DNA ancestry tests as a requirement to prove Aboriginal identity to access “benefits”. I don’t want to give this dangerous idea any more oxygen, and as a geneticist I can tell you it won’t work.
Cultural identity is much more than simply what is in our DNA. Aboriginal communities are the ones who determine who is and who is not Indigenous. I think this episode highlights a worrying trend for genetic tests to be seen as the ultimate decider of race and identity in public debates.
So how does the marketing of the DNA companies themselves influence our thinking about ancestry?
These ancestry companies use the language of science in their marketing, and present their results as being highly scientific – which people interpret as meaning accurate and factual. The process of estimating ancestry from DNA is scientific, but people may not realise it can also be a bit of a blurry process, and actually more of an estimate.
When you look at your slice in the pie chart and it says 16% German, it is not a fact that you are 16% German. It’s an estimate, or an educated guess, of your ancestry based on statistical inference.
I think representation of our ancestries in pie charts is not helping our conversations.
Twins got different results
Recently, two identical twins put five DNA ancestry companies to the test, and this provides a really interesting look at how this process works.
The raw data for each twin was more than 99% identical, which shows that the way the companies produce the raw data is indeed quite accurate.
The shocking thing was that the companies provided each twin with noticeably different ancestry estimates.
From one company, the first twin got 25% Eastern European, and the second got 28%. Just to be clear, this shouldn’t happen with identical twins because they have the same DNA.
Even more surprising, one company said the twins were 27-29% Italian, but another said they were 19-20% Greek. A lot of this difference would be based on the size of the databases that the companies use as references and who is in the databases, and – very importantly – who has been left out of the databases. These factors would be different between the different companies, and change through time.
So the results you get now could be different to the results you might get in, say, six months when the databases are updated.
Estimating our ancestry is hard, and the main reason it is hard is because our ancestry is much more mixed up than some people might have thought. It’s not really so clear-cut as a pie chart might suggest. The statistics are blurry because our populations are blurry.
The bigger picture that’s emerging from DNA ancestry testing is that we’ve underestimated the extent of mixing between ancestral groups throughout human history.
Looking at the pie chart might give you the impression that there are discrete borders within you and boundaries between your different ancestries, but as Aeromexico so eloquently put it, “there are no borders within us”.
This article is an edited version of a story presented on ABC’s Ockham’s Razor and delivered at the World Science Festival, Brisbane in March 2019.
Let me take you for a stroll down the high street of 12th-century Winchester – one of the great cities of medieval England – and introduce you to a few of the locals. Here’s Alberic Coquus, the cook, and over there is Ainulf Parcheminus, the parchment-maker. They are chatting to Luuing Scalarius (he builds ladders). Godric Softebred, who has his shop just down the road, is a baker – but his neighbours giggle behind his back and give his wife pitying glances.
You can’t miss Robert Crassus (“big, fat”), but I would hesitate to introduce you to Alfred Taddebelloc (“Toadbollock”) and you probably won’t want to stand too close to Radulf Scitliure (“shit-liver”, evidently cursed with chronic diarrhoea or some other stomach complaint). And perhaps we should simply cross the street to avoid me having to mention Godwin Clawecuncte (use your imagination) at all.
We know these names – with the intriguing clues they give about the people who carried them – from the two 12th-century surveys of Winchester property collectively known as the Winton Domesday. So, what’s in a medieval name? What can they tell historians about long-forgotten lives and individuals in the past? And why won’t you find anyone with the surname Toadbollock today?
These names don’t work in quite the same way as modern surnames. These (usually non-hereditary) medieval bynames add further detail to personal names, noting where someone was from, what job they did and even what they looked like or how they behaved.
Bynames often reflect physical attributes, such as those of Winchester’s Alestan Hwit (“white”), who probably had a fair complexion, or Alimer Longus (“tall”). You wouldn’t want to see Winchester’s Peter Agnell (“little lamb”) get into a fight with Godwin Bar (“boar”).
Many medieval historians have their own favourite names they’ve discovered during their research: Professor Anthony Bale of Birkbeck, University of London, mentions Tom Dustiberd (“dusty beard”) and the likely somewhat dishevelled Adam Charrecrowe (“scarecrow”), as well as Walter Boltuprith (“bolt-upright”).
Other bynames indicate trades and occupations. Richard Farrier was keeper of the king’s horses at Chester in the summer of 1283. Records show that he purchased cut grass for 20 horses, including that of the queen, and also for ten “great” horses arriving from Caernafon. He bought horseshoes, bridles, long ropes of hemp to make reins, as well as plenty of horse salve.
Other occupational bynames hint at less happy vocations. John Pynchware and his son worked as shoemakers in 15th-century Chester. But with a byname like that, how well did their shoes fit? Professor Matthew Davies of Birkbeck points to an apprentice tailor in London, 1486, named Rowland Lytillskyll. He doesn’t seem to have made it in his chosen career.
Bynames can also tell us about ethnic identities. Several people in 12th-century Winchester were called “Iudeius” – members of what would become the city’s thriving medieval Jewish community. Godwin Francigena, with his English personal name and byname meaning “Frenchman”, reminds us what a cosmopolitan, multicultural European city this was.
But sometimes bynames point to political and social tensions. Dr Adam Chapman, at the Institute for Historical Research, shares the example of the 14th-century Welshman known as Madog Drwgwrthgymro: literally “bad to Welshmen”, but translated by the historian Robert Rees Davies more provocatively as “Saxon-lover” – a smear based on perceived disloyalty and ethnic betrayal.
Another Welshman, William Cragh, features in medieval records as an outlaw –- or freedom fighter, depending on your viewpoint – who rebelled against Norman rule and was hanged, but came back to life (that’s another story. He cuts less of a romantic, heroic figure when we translate his Welsh byname – perhaps “Scabby William” had suffered some kind of disfiguring disease as a child. Still, he was more likely known by his fellow Welshmen by the patronymic “ap Rhys” (“son of Rhys”).
Somewhere in my own ancestry, someone probably worked as a clerk. Adam Chapman’s forebears possibly worked in a shop (“ceap-man” meant merchant, from the Old English “ceapan” meaning to sell or buy). Some bynames just stick around: Delia Smith doesn’t work in a forge, and Mary Beard doesn’t have one. But others, unsurprisingly, don’t outlast their original owners.
We see similar revisions when it comes to less appealing place names: just as William Cragh probably preferred being called William ap Rhys, the place where he was hanged in Swansea was renamed, in the late 19th century, from Gibbet Hill Road to the more estate agent-friendly North Hill Road.
So, why are medieval bynames so useful and engaging? For a start, some of them are hilarious – and they give us a humorous way into a seemingly remote and distant historical past. But, more than that, they offer a sense of connection with a real individual and a characteristic which defined them within their own, contemporary local community.
These medieval names also give us glimpses into something the big chronicles, charters and official history books often don’t tell us much about: ordinary people and their ordinary, colourful lives.