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What is the Genealogical Time Frame?

Have you heard the phrase “genealogical time frame” mentioned? In this post, find out exactly what this means as well as why it is important in family tree and genetic genealogy research.

This is a key term that will help build your foundational knowledge of genealogy.

What is the Genealogical Time Frame

I did a quick search on one of the most popular family tree building sites and found that “Adam and Eve” are listed in more than two hundred public family trees on the site. Most people probably agree that this is taking family tree research a bit too far, as proving a definite connection between someone living today to individuals thousands of years ago is just about impossible.

This does bring up a very good question: just how far back is the genealogical time frame?

What does “within the genealogical time frame” mean?

We generally view the genealogical time frame as the period of time in which you realistically may be able to locate genealogy documents and records to trace your family tree. As a general rule, this period of time is no longer than 500 years before today.

Even though not everyone can trace all lines of their family tree back 500 years ago, there are a few reasons that 500 years is the “rule of thumb” number for the maximum length the genealogical time frame:

  • Surnames became more common beginning about 500 years ago
  • Written documents and records are rarely found for periods longer than about 500 years ago
  • People are generally more interested in their more recent ancestry

If you have some experience with family tree research, you may have already noticed that it is easier to research some lines of your family tree than others. It isn’t just your imagination.

The genealogical time frame will be different for each family

The actual genealogical time frame will be different for every family. In fact, family tree researchers might find that the genealogical time frame might be different for different lines of the same family tree.

Genealogy research can be difficult, or even impossible in certain parts of the world. In addition, there are some regions where the keeping of written records is a more recent tradition – meaning that the genealogical time frame for these areas might be shorter.

In other parts of the world, the genealogical time frame might be longer than in other regions.

For example, traditional Hawaiian culture emphasizes a focus on genealogy, or moʻokūʻauhau, because it is an important part of how an individual connects with their greater community.

How many generations are in the genealogical time frame?

The number of generations included in the genealogical time frame are 15. This is assuming a “new” generation occurs every 30 years, approximately.

Some people also like to use the phrase “recent genealogical time frame”. The number of generations included in this time frame are five – about 150 years.

In other words, your great-great-great grandparents are included in your recent genealogical time frame.

Why is the genealogical time frame important?

A good understanding of the genealogical time frame is important in helping us form our expectations of what we can accomplish through family tree research. In other words, realizing the limits of the genealogical time frame can help us understand how far back we can really go with genealogy.

For family tree research

As tempting as it might be to try to build a family line back as far as possible, we should always strive for accuracy above anything else. In almost every case, it is not possible to build an accurate family tree further back than the generally accepted genealogical time frame.

On many family tree research sites, you might find family trees that trace the ancestry of some members of the tree very far back. I have seen hundreds of instances where family trees go back to the year 1300, or even further.

I have even seen Charlemagne, born more than 1000 years ago, in someone’s family tree. While it’s true that many people are descended from Charlemagne, only a handful of people would have any type of evidence that they themselves are descended from him.

One thing that you might notice, if you happen to find entries in family trees from this far back into history, is that there is usually little to no evidence to document the entry. Often, the only “evidence” is another family tree that listed the individual as the parent of another.

I always encourage people to focus on their recent genealogical time frame (about 5 generations) as they build their family tree research skills. As they gain experience, they will realize the limitations of genealogy and be able to spot where they can accurately research further back.

And at the end of the day, we can relate more to our more recent ancestors. A more limited group of people, they played a large role into making us who we are today.

For DNA research (genetic genealogy)

The way we apply the genealogical time frame to genetic genealogy, or the use of DNA with genealogy, will be vary depending on the type of DNA testing involved in the research.

For example, autosomal DNA, the most popular type of DNA testing, is very useful for understanding our more recent family tree. In fact, it is very accurate for finding family connections from common ancestors who lived 100-200 years ago, which is well-within the definition of the genealogical time frame for most families.

Other DNA tests, such as Y-DNA or mtDNA tests, can trace direct paternal and maternal lines going back thousands of years. This is beyond every definition of genealogical time frame.

Only the most sensitive (and expensive) Y-DNA and mtDNA tests can identify more recent mutations that can help in genealogy research.


I hope that this post has helped you understand more about the genealogical time frame, as well as why it is important in family tree (genealogy) research and even genetic genealogy.

If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you would like to comment about what “genealogical time frame” means to you, please feel free to join us in the discussion below.

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