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According to this article in The Atlantic back in May 2002,

The mathematical study of genealogy indicates that everyone in the world is descended from Nefertiti and Confucius, and everyone of European ancestry is descended from Muhammad and Charlemagne

The article further states (in paragraph 8):

The idea that virtually anyone with a European ancestor descends from English royalty seems bizarre, but it accords perfectly with some recent research done by Joseph Chang, a statistician at Yale University. The mathematics of our ancestry is exceedingly complex, because the number of our ancestors increases exponentially, not linearly.

and in paragraph 9:

In other words, all Europeans alive today have among their ancestors the same man or woman who lived around 1400.

and in paragraph 12:

This constant churning of people makes it possible to apply Chang's analysis to the world as a whole. For example, almost everyone in the New World must be descended from English royalty—even people of predominantly African or Native American ancestry, because of the long history of intermarriage in the Americas. Similarly, everyone of European ancestry must descend from Muhammad. The line of descent for which records exist is through the daughter of the Emir of Seville, who is reported to have converted from Islam to Catholicism in about 1200. But many other, unrecorded descents must also exist.

and in paragraph 13:

Chang's model has even more dramatic implications. Because people are always migrating from continent to continent, networks of descent quickly interconnect. This means that the most recent common ancestor of all six billion people on earth today probably lived just a couple of thousand years ago. And not long before that the majority of the people on the planet were the direct ancestors of everyone alive today. Confucius, Nefertiti, and just about any other ancient historical figure who was even moderately prolific must today be counted among everyone's ancestors.

Has this study or reasoning since been rejected?

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  • 1
    What about European Jews, aka Ashkenazim? Are they descended from Charlemagne and Muhammad too? I think the answer is pretty obvious.
    – user6136
    Jul 5, 2017 at 3:47
  • 4
    It's a statistical argument with unfounded assertions that cannot be backed up by research. Sure there's a lot of ancestors in my tree but unless we can measure the degree of mixing, a statistical trick is all it is. I don't need to refute the argument. These guys need to prove it - that's how science works. Probability is not proof.
    – AdrianB38
    Jul 6, 2017 at 10:07
  • 4
    This is a statistical argument based upon the fact that you cannot double the number of your ancestors every generation without rapidly exceeding the population of the planet. While statistics is not proof, it is not disproof either. A paper from 2004 discusses this and has further links to various arguments: dept.dawsoncollege.qc.ca/finearts/Faculty/AManniste/…
    – Chenmunka
    Jul 6, 2017 at 12:13
  • Minor point: depending on your choice of science theory, there is no way to prove this, you can only fail to prove this false with a reasonable amount of certainty, so that it most probably is not false. Given that the correctness of historical documents is problematic in general, for question like this the process becomes very challenging.
    – jadepx
    Jun 8, 2022 at 6:21
  • In these arguments, there is also considerable bias towards people with a certain "public awareness". I think one could easily argue the same way that all Europeans descend from some arbitray man/woman somewhere in the plains of France or Poland (possible, people where not that immobile in the "Middle Ages"), but no-one knows who that person is, so we don't care. But once some famous figure is involved, it gets emotional very fast, including interesting theories on how people change social groups on a large timescale.
    – jadepx
    Jun 8, 2022 at 6:30

4 Answers 4

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A very easy way to challenge the article is to highlight that there are still races in the world and not a single mixed race.

What the article tries to demonstrate is that, the more generations moving in the back, the more ancestors and the more likely 2 random persons will have a common ancestor. This is a plausible argument, for example, 10 generations back means 1024 ancestors, which is a significant amount of people, how likely is that those 1024 are not from the same city. Actually pretty likely.

But... one thing is arguing that statistically those 1024 persons are not from the same location and another is saying that one is Asian, 10 of them egyptians, 3 australians...

We are living today in a situation that has not happen before in the world, the transportation means are accesible to the population and the developed countries are having strong connections and not in war constantly. Today the probability that a person mates somebody from a different country is relatively high.

What was the probability that an egyptian was mating a hitite during Ramses II war period? Extremly unlikely.

So, although the number of ancestors will be high, also the chances of those ancestors were mating others based in distant cities was also reducing. There was only one Marco Polo, and I do not know if left descendants in China.

That's essentially why have races. Saying that, biologically is demonstrated that we all have common ancestors, which is basically called mithocondrial Eve and Y-Adan.

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  • Depends heavily on your definition of "race". Different phenotypes of a species (to keep this closer to biology than to social constructs) can emerge even after such bottleneck events as having only a very limited number of ancestors.
    – jadepx
    Jun 8, 2022 at 6:24
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It is trivially easy to dispute the assertion that EVERYONE on the planet is descended from Nefertiti and Confucius. The key error is that the argument fails to account for long-term genetic isolation. For example, there are small isolated uncontacted groups in the Amazon as well as on North Sentinel Island that are almost certainly not descended from either of these individuals since their genetic isolation from contact with the rest of the world almost certainly predates the birth of either person. That is the entire problem with this type of mathematical argument since it assumes that genetic isolation does not exist when, in fact, it very much does even though it is exceedingly rare. Now that does not negate the fact that we are all (including our genetically isolated kin) ultimately descended from SOME common ancestor but the idea that we all come from someone who was around a couple thousand years ago simply does not stand up to proper scrutiny. Instead we MUST be descended from someone whose interaction predates the genetic isolation of these groups.

This does not mean that the vast majority of us are somehow not linked to a common ancestor that lived a thousand years ago because the argument is quite sound provided genetic isolation is off the table. So the proper way to phrase this is “everyone who can read this is a direct descendant of Nefertiti and Confucius,” assuming the lineages of both Confucius and Nefertiti did not die out somehow, but you get the point. However, if the group was genetically isolated prior to the birth of someone, no members of that group today could possibly be descended from the person you are naming. That is a simple fact that follows directly from this genetic isolation. It is a VERY SMALL group of people we are talking about (and I can pretty much guarantee that these individuals are also so isolated that they are unable to read this comment because they have never been exposed to electricity, let alone the Internet) but even a very small group that is not descended from the person you are proposing means that not everyone in the world is a direct descendant of the person you are naming and no amount of argument based on genetic samples (none of which will contain examples from uncontscted peoples, by definition) or mathematical argument can overcome this basic Fact of biology, that you cannot possibly be descended from someone if you and your ancestors never had an opportunity to hook up with one of their descendants.

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This does not account for inbreeding.

Seriously, there are many sections of my ancestry tree, particularly around Robert De Bruce and the Scandinavian Kings, that literally are linear.

And with the Royal houses of Europe, many of them intermarried, causing a very wide, yet linear ancestry tree.

I can trace my ancestry back to Charlemagne about a 100 different ways, though the amount of ancestry lines from Charlemagne is debatable because- inbreeding. This means although there are several different paths to Charlemagne, all the lines overlap eachother, making it hard to determine.

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Monogenism, or sometimes monogenesis, is the theory of human origins that posits a common descent for all human races. The negation of monogenism is polygenism.

This issue was hotly debated in the Western world in the nineteenth century, as the assumptions of scientific racism came under scrutiny from religious groups and in the light of developments in the life sciences and human science. It was integral to the early conceptions of ethnology.

Modern scientific views favor this theory, with the most widely accepted model for human origins being the "Out of Africa" theory.

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    Welcome to G&FH:SE. This doesn't actually answer the question that was asked. Oct 6, 2023 at 6:25
  • I have deleted the portion of your post that was in all caps. Please do not use all caps. It is unfriendly to users who may be using screen readers.
    – Jan Murphy
    Oct 6, 2023 at 21:47

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