First names have likely existed since possibly soon after humans evolved into their modern forms. However, the origin and development of surnames (or last names) is far less known and is likely a more recent phenomenon. People were often designated by their larger kinship groups, often through a male line but sometimes female, as part of their identification in more ancient periods. Distinguishing by a specific surname for a person is still not universal throughout the world, although it is now widespread.
Surnames, of sorts, are known from ancient periods. However, these surnames often had to do with clan names or names of places used to distinguish a person. For instance, in ancient Greece, it would be common to refer to a person from an ancient city. Another way people were distinguished, which is still used, such as in tribal groups in the Middle East today, refers to the name of the father for the son or daughter as the person’s second name. In Japan, surnames never existed in the modern sense, but they were used to reflect roles people served in society, including how they served the government they belonged to. In Africa and Asia, clan names have been used as something similar to a fixed surname, as clan names tend to be more static.
However, these could change over a long period. In the Roman Empire, family names were sometimes used, but often this had links to clans, or if other systems were used, family names would often drop or not be carried from generation to generation. In other words, there was no fixed system of using surname designations. Ancient China may have one of the oldest traditions in using a type of surname. It seems a matrilineal, and later a patrilineal system emerged where the child would take on a fixed surname that would designate the person’s lineage. However, it is possible these names could have changed after multiple generations.
Categories: Social History