Do you want to learn how last names got their start? In this post, you will learn the many different ways people got surnames and when the trend began.
Surnames, last names, family names. There are a lot of different words, at least in English, to describe the name that comes after our first name, or given name.
Or, before your first name, depending on where you come from.
I always find myself thinking a lot about surnames when I’m working on my family tree. As I work further back in time, research on ancestors becomes more difficult, and sometimes even impossible.
Is there a point at which we can expect to not be able to trace our ancestors by their surnames, or those of their parents? And when did people start using surnames, anyway?
There is a lot that you can learn about your family tree based on your surname. It begins with understanding exactly how your family may have gotten its last name.
When did humans start having last names?
The earliest known use of surnames among people occurred during the 3rd millennium BC , most likely under the rule of the “Yellow Empire“, also known as Huangdi. In fact, Huangdi is often cited as the original source of the idea of surnames in China, although some experts suggest that it was really the Emperor Fu Xi who should receive credit.
This means that people in some parts of the world, specifically China, were using surnames at least as far back as about 4,500 years ago.
In Europe, North and South America, and Africa, we know less about ancient use of surnames. There is some evidence that certain cultures and clans may have used family names or clan names as a sort of “last name”, as we understand them in a modern sense.
For example, the Amorite and Aramean tribes, whose homelands covered parts of modern-day Syria and the Arabian Peninsula, used nisbas, which were forms of surnames that were generally based on the person’s clan, tribe, or geographic origins. This occurred as far back as 1800 BC.
European cultures began to see a growth in the use of last names around 1100 CE (also known as AD), with most of Europeans families having last names by the end of the 1400s. However, Europe, like everywhere else, is made up of many different cultures with diverse traditions.
Some European societies adopted surnames earlier than others. Last names or family names that were hereditary and passed down from parents to their children were not a legal requirement in the Netherlands until 1811, for example, when they were required by Napoleon Bonaparte.
In addition, the use of surnames was more common earlier on among people of higher socioeconomic status due to the economic or social benefit in using a last name.
More relevant to the topic of family tree research is this question: When did our family begin using last names? As you can see, the answer is complicated, and will depend a great deal on which part of the world your ancestors called home.
How did people get surnames?
The surnames that people use today are usually family names that were passed down from either their mother or father, depending on the traditions and laws that govern where they live. The origins of the surnames of their parents were acquired, usually many generations ago, by their ancestors.
Surnames were often derived from the town or village where someone lived, their occupation, or a characteristic that described them. They may have taken a surname that noted being descended from their mother or father, such as is the case with the name Johnson (i.e. son of John) or Magnussdottir (daughter of Magnus).
Other times, a last name might have been given to a larger group of people, such as a clan or tribe of distantly related people. My MacDonald ancestors may have members of the historic Scottish Donald clan, as an example.
We do also see many instances surnames having been chosen by people, such as is the case with some people who were freed from the cruelty of slavery. A close friend of mine who is African-American related to me that his father explained to him that their family name was one that his great-grandfather, a formerly enslaved person, saw on the side of a railroad car.
He liked the name, and his descendants still carry that name to this day. As it turns out, it was very common for those who were newly free to choose their own surname, or change their name from what it had been before slavery was outlawed, which sometimes was the last name of someone who had enslaved them.
In Mexico, as well as in Central and South America, new names were given upon baptism to members of indigenous communities to override their previous names, which were often appellative versions of a first name to distinguish them from other people with a similar name. These names were usually not changed after independence from European countries , which is why we almost everyone from Latin America with a name that is Spanish or Portuguese in origin.
Other cultures have adapted their traditional names to take the form of a formal surname. For example, many North American Native American groups were pressured to adopt legal surnames that were derived from names that were chosen or assigned to them through ancient cultural and spiritual practices.
I hope that this post has helped you understand more about how surnames were developed, why they became common, and whether there are cultures who do not use family names today.
The origins of our surnames are almost sure to surprise us.
If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you want to share your own experience discovering when your family started using surnames, I would love for you to join us in the discussion below.
Thanks for reading today!