person from whom another person is descended

An ancestor is a person (or another organism or thing) from whom (or which) another is descended.[1][2] Usually, it refers to a person far in the past, rather than the parents or grandparents in the close family.[3] A very similar word is forebear. A female ancestor may be called an ancestress.[4] The line of ancestors from which an organism descends is referred to as its ancestry.

Boris Barvinok (the boy in the foreground) with three generations of his ancestors.

A second meaning relates to evolution. There, it is used of a species or group of species of animals or plants from which others have evolved.[3][5] In a similar way, the word ancestor can be used for an early prototype or forerunner of a later device.[3]

In law an ancestor can mean the person from whom an estate is lawfully obtained.[6] No blood relationship is necessarily implied.[6] More commonly, however, it is the person from whom an estate is obtained based on law and blood.[6]

Two people have a genetic relationship if one is the ancestor of the other, or if they share a common ancestor. Each of someone's ancestors will have contributed to their DNA.[7] In evolution, species that have evolved from the same ancestor are said to be of common descent. However, this concept of ancestry does not apply to some bacteria and other organisms capable of horizontal gene transfer. DNA testing is used in determining ancestry. This can be for paternity testing, to determine the parents of a child for legal purposes.[8] DNA is also used to better understand the ancestry and history of all humans over the last 50,000 years.[9] This was one of the benefits of the Human genome project.[10]

In some cultures ancestors may have relatively little importance. Many today have no knowledge of their own great-great-grandparents.[11] China is an example of a culture that in general has a deep respect for ancestors.[12] Korea is an example of a culture that engages in ancestor worship where ancestors are revered.[13] But genealogy (the study of one's ancestors) is growing in popularity and includes both amateur and professional genealogists.[14]



  1. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, p63
  2. The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary, 9th ed, ed. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 29
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Concise Oxford Dictionary, p45, gives "esp. remote".
  4. Ancestry's Concise Genealogical Dictionary, ed. Maurine Harris; Glen Harris (Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry Publishing, 1989), p. 18
  5. Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale: a pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), p. 48
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Judicial and Statutory Definitions of Words and Phrases, Vol. 1 (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1902), p. 381
  7. Bryan Sykes, The Seven Daughters of Eve: the science that reveals our genetic ancestry (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), p. 186
  8. Genetic Ties and the Family: the impact of paternity testing on parents and children, ed. Mark A. Rothstein (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), p. 34
  9. Spencer Wells, Deep Ancestry: inside the genographic project (Washington, DC: National Geographic; Enfield: Publishers Group UK, 2007), p. 2
  10. Necia Grant Cooper, The Human Genome Project: Deciphering the Blueprint of Heredity (Mill Valley, CA: University Science Books, 1994), p. 166
  11. Carl Sagan; Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), p. 5
  12. Priscilla Wegars; Sue Fawn Chung, Chinese American death rituals: respecting the ancestors (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004), p. 31
  13. Seung Gyu Moon, 'Ancestor worship in Korea: tradition and transition', Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Autumn, 1974), p. 72
  14. Donald Lines Jacobus, Genealogy as pastime and profession (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1986), p. 42