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Genealogy & DNA Studies

Hunter-Gatherer Instincts
and Genealogy Research Styles

By Roger Arrick
Here's my take on how human hunting/gathering instincts manifest themselves in modern genealogy researchers. It's based solely on a casual browsing of the various genealogy forums and family tree web pages.

Any given individual is typically strong in either hunting or gathering skills, but not usually both. Generally, but not universally, males have a strong hunting nature, and females a gathering nature.

Gathering instincts focus on selecting, collecting, and presenting. In pre-modern life, these skills were used to return to a safe area known to posses the resource of interest, carefully selecting items, transporting them back to the home, then presenting them for use. Obviously, the items in question would typically be food - nuts, berries, fruit. Post preparation of these items is also given great attention by the gatherer - peeling, cooking, storing. In modern life, gathering instincts lead to similar actions, but in a different setting - store shopping, collecting, photo albums, etc. For hunters, modern examples might include car sales or oil exploration.

Hunting instincts focus on discovery, tracking, capturing or killing, returning home with the booty, and maybe even hanging a trophy on the wall. In pre-modern life this obviously describes the hunting of animals for food, and secondarily, the hunting of predators who pose a danger to them. Other important components of the hunting instinct are an affinity for fear, danger and urgency. This tends to drive the hunter to unknown, and possibly unsafe, areas in search of new game and new opportunities.

With these traits in mind, it becomes apparent that genealogy researchers tend to fall into one of two distinct categories.

In the first category - gatherers, we see researchers who are collectors of family trees, connecting them and presenting them. They tend to have very large trees, sometimes over 100,000 individuals. And, since quality of the data is usually inversely proportional to the quantity of data, accuracy can suffer. However, without this style of research, broad connections can be made that might otherwise be overlooked.

Another strong point of the gathering instinct is presentation. They tend to spend more time documenting and presenting their research for others - books, photo albums, web sites. Gatherers are also more likely to seek others to share and exchange information with.

Hunters have their own distinct style too. These are the researchers who will spend hours in a courthouse basement looking for the deed to uncle John's farm. They are driven by mystery and get a charge out of the excitement of venturing into new territory, sometimes at the expense of comfort and safety.

Hunters have the ability to uncover secrets and break through brick walls that a gatherer never could. Hunters can also find themselves at the heart of controversy because their questioning research style tends to uncover flaws in existing data. Sometimes these flaws expose an entire branch of error, and to the dismay of many. I can think of at least one example where a substantial portion of a published book was disproven by such a researcher, and ultimately admitted to by the original author - to his credit.

The quantity of data a hunter collects is typically much smaller than a gatherer. Hunters are usually not the best at presenting and sharing the information they collect either. Often their results rest in a dusty filing cabinet only to be tossed out by the next generation, benefiting no one. It's not usually out of a desire to hoard or stake a claim, it's just not their interest and most will admit it.

There are exceptions of course. We've all encountered researchers who desire complete ownership and control of their finds, and sharing data for the benefit of others is of little priority. Thankfully, they are in the minority because most researchers realize that they would be nowhere without the exhaustive work of others.

I hope this discussion has opened your thinking a bit on how our built-in instincts are used to define and drive our genealogy research styles. Maybe it will even encourage hunters to spend more effort publishing and sharing their finds, and to appreciate the connecting and collecting talents of gatherers. And maybe it will encourage gatherers to double check that tree before they click the Connect button, and to appreciate the nuggets of detail, however small, offered by the hunters.

It's important for us to realize we need both types of personalities working together in order to unravel the mysteries of our family trees, connect to our distant ancestors, and understand where we came from.

Roger Arrick
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