Genetic genealogy is becoming increasingly important to contemporary family history research. When a paper trail fails us, a DNA test may provide the missing piece to the puzzle of an illegitimacy, unofficial adoption, or unclear ethnic origins. Recently there have been well-publicized accounts of foundlings discovering a parent and of others finding biological ancestors previously unidentifiable in historical documents.
Paper documents are essential to family history research. The birth/marriage/death certificates, censuses, wills, church records, newspaper reports and so on tell us (or give us clues about) the identities of our ancestors. But where the “wrong” father’s name is given on a birth certificate, or no clue exists as to parental identity, genealogists can become stuck.
With improved accessibility and competitive pricing of family history DNA tests over the past five years, the potential of genealogy has been transformed. You may not know the identity of your father, for example, but through DNA testing you could discover a relative of his, or establish his ethnic origin. To this end, AncestryDNA launched its tests in the UK early this year. I received the results of my tests this week and have analyzed them below.
There are three main types of DNA test for family history research:-
- Y-chromosome (Y-DNA)
- Mitrochondrial DNA (MtDNA)
Y-DNA is used to research the paternal line. The test can be taken by males only. The MtDNA test can be taken by men or women but is used to research the maternal line only. The autosomal test can be taken by men or women and tests the DNA inherited from autosomal chromosomes. In a nutshell, this is DNA inherited from all of our ancestors back to our 3rd great grandparents and some of the DNA inherited from ancestors up to the 10th great grandparents. For a detailed account of autosomal DNA see this ISOGG Wiki.
In family history, we can use autosomal DNA primarily for three aims:
- to find matches with our genetic cousins
- to identify our recent ethnic origins
- to find information on our health.
The largest companies that provide tests for the first two of the above aims are Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), AncestryDNA, and 23&Me. I tested with FTDNA in 2012. FTDNA provides Y-DNA and MtDNA tests alongside their autosomal test, which is known as Family Finder.
The third of these aims, health information, is provided commercially by the company 23&Me. Otherwise, raw data from Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA tests can be uploaded for free to Promethease, but care should be taken with this as no analysis of results is provided.
AncestryDNA tests only for autosomal DNA. Currently, the company does not offer any Y-DNA or MtDNA testing.
The AncestryDNA Test
Taking the test was relatively straightforward. I did have to activate the kit by using Ancestry in Chrome rather than my usual Firefox browser, but other than that there were few problems. Unlike FTDNA, which requires a cheek swab, for the AncestryDNA test I had to spit several times into a vial. I then had to fasten the lid tightly without breaking it – which I found quite tricky. Eventually I managed it and then posted off to Ireland.
A few weeks later, I found my AncestryDNA results by checking on the DNA tab on the Ancestry website. Below is the page showing my results. For privacy reasons, I have removed the images of my genetic cousins which sit below the “DNA Matches” heading.
The results are all summarized on this one page. On the left is a pie chart showing a broad estimate of my ethnic origins. By clicking on this option the full breakdown is revealed.
On the right in the screenshot above is the section revealing my DNA matches. The last point on the far right suggests that I have 19 4th cousins or closer. In fact, when I click on these cousins, they are all suggested “4th-6th cousins”. The confidence of these cousins being within this range is only “Extremely High” for one match but “Very High” for the other 18. I have 37 pages of matches. Most are in the 5th-8th range, and are thus difficult to match with my known ancestors.
DNA tests for family history do not tell you how you are related to a match. You have to work that out for yourself. The test can be used to confirm a relationship with a second cousin, for example, whom you may have found through your family history research or from a shaking leaf on your Ancestry tree. A second cousin should almost always (99% probability) show up as a match in an autosomal DNA test. There is a 90% chance that a 3rd cousin will show up, but far less probability for a 4th cousin. This is because while the two 4th cousins could inherit DNA from their shared ancestor, this may be from different parts of distinct chromosomes. For this reason, care should be taken when using the test to match with those cousins who match distantly on paper. On the other hand, you could find that you share DNA with someone who shares a far more distant ancestor, like a 10th great grandparent. For these reasons, it is helpful to ask as many of your known cousins to test: it is difficult to predict beyond 2nd cousins who will show up in your autosomal DNA matches.
One of the benefits of AncestryDNA is that, in theory, you can correspond the ancestry of your matches with your own ancestry using the Ancestry Family Trees. Unfortunately, this only works if both you and your match have uploaded a detailed family tree . . . and if the corresponding ancestor has been added. Of my “close” 19 genetic cousins, only 12 have added a family tree. Of those 12, 6 have added less than 100 ancestors to their tree. I have contacted 4 of these matches to see if we can find a common link, but have received only one reply so far. This can be one of the frustrating aspects of genetic genealogy.
On the FTDNA website, you can use phasing to work out the possible branches on which you match your relative. Below is a screenshot from my Family Finder matches showing the option to click on “In Common With”. After clicking this, a list of all the cousins who match with this relative (in this example, it is my father) will appear. Family Finder also includes details of the amount of shared centimorgans (cM) and a chromosome browser which reveals on which chromosome(s) you are connected to each cousin.
In contrast, AncestryDNA has a “Most Recent Common Ancestor” feature. When you review your matches you will see whether some of the proposed cousin matches have trees attached to their results. Once you click into this (provided they have made their tree public), you will be able to see a list of common surnames across both your tree and theirs.
Linked to this, Ancestry has a “DNA Circles” section to identify another user who is a DNA match and has the same ancestor in his/her tree. Using the circles you can add a third person who also has matching DNA, or a fourth. The idea behind this is that it is more likely that you’re all related because you’re descendants of a particular ancestor. However, as you can see from the screenshot of my Ancestry results above, I am yet to be included in any circles.
Another feature for finding common ancestors is the maps and locations tab which allows you to find matches using a location perspective (i.e comparing the people in your tree versus your potential matches).
So far, it seems that AncestryDNA has good potential for identifying my genetic cousins. One oddity I have found concerns a match who appears in both my Family Finder and my AncestryDNA matches lists. He is clearly the same person as not only does he have the same name, he has exactly the same photograph. For privacy reasons, he shall remain anonymous here, but what is notable is that on Family Finder he is identified as a 2nd-4th cousin, whereas on AncestryDNA he is only a suggested 5th-8th cousin. There is a big difference between the two. I have been in email contact with this cousin but we are yet to prove the link between us. Until then, it is uncertain whether Family Finder or AncestryDNA is the more accurate in measuring our cousin relationship.
Family Finder estimates that my ethnic origin is 87% European. This is broken down into 72% “British Isles”, 10% Eastern European, and 5% “Western and Central Europe”. What it did not identify was any Indian ancestry. For my mother, however, the test identified 2% “Central South Asian” which includes some of the area covered by India during the period of British rule. This was an interesting discovery for us as we had no suggestion from paper research or from family rumour that we had any Indian ancestry.
On Ancestry, the test has picked up Indian origins in my test. “Asia South” is recognised as providing less than 1% of my DNA and the Caucasus of West Asia also provides less than 1%. This fits with me having half of my mother’s 2% Indian ancestry and I was impressed that the Ancestry test had identified this from my personal DNA.
Regarding my European origins, Ancestry identifies me as having 85% from “Great Britain”. Separately from those, 5% is “Irish”. In the Ancestry test, “Irish” is regarded as separate from British ancestry. From Y-DNA testing we know there is some Irish ancestry on my Scottish JOLLY branch. However, contrasting this with the paper trail suggests that 5% may be too great an estimate. Nevertheless more work needs to be done on this and it is possible that there is Irish ancestry on one or more other branches of my tree.
For DNA tests to be useful for family history research, more people are needed to test. The larger the pool of testers, the more likely it is that those of us who have taken tests will find matches. As shown by both Family Finder and AncestryDNA, most of my ancestors in the past 15 generations are from Great Britain. It is probable, therefore, that I will match with more testers if they or most of their ancestors originate in Britain. That AncestryDNA has only recently launched in the UK is exciting for users like myself. I am looking forward to finding more matches over time as more Britons take the test. I just hope that when they do, they take the opportunity to add as many ancestors as they can to their Ancestry trees and that they respond to online messages.
On that note, if anyone reading this blog recognizes me in their matches on either Ancestry or FTDNA, I would be very delighted to hear from you!
In this post I have touched only briefly on the very complex science of genetic genealogy. For a clear and comprehensive account of family history tests and the genetics behind them, I recommend Debbie Kennett’s DNA and Social Networking (The History Press, 2011).
UPDATE APRIL 2016
Since I posted this, I have received two Ancestry DNA “hints”. These are indicated in the DNA section of my Ancestry profile by the shaking leaf symbol. In the examples on my profile (see screengrab below) the two matches were suggested to be a 4th cousin and a “distant cousin”. Ancestry user names have been removed from the screengrab below to protect privacy.
Both of these Ancestry users have proved to be identifiable cousins thanks to the information in their (and my) online trees. As you can see in the above image, both of my newly-found cousins have high numbers of people in their online Ancestry trees. I also have several thousand people recorded in my Ancestry tree. Using the information we have inputted, the Ancestry DNA technology was able to identify our mutual ancestors (as shown in the screengrabs below).
This screengrab shows that my match here was correctly identified by Ancestry as my 4th cousin. We share Norfolk ancestors, Clark Pymer and Ann Oxborough.
The second screeengrab shows that this ancestor, Emanuel Billingham (1750-1837), is further removed from my cousin and myself. Here Ancestry is able to identify that my match is my 5th cousin 1x removed.
I was hoping that there would be a way of confirming that these two Ancestry users were my cousins, as there is on FTDNA. Unfortunately, the only method appears to be through the Ancestry DNA Circles I mentioned above. In order to create an Ancestry DNA Circle (or for one to be created for you), there need to be three confirmed matches. So far, I only have two for each ancestor.
Thanks to Debbie Kennett for pointing me to this Ancestry DNA blog which explains in detail the requirements for Ancestry DNA Circles: http://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2014/11/20/new-ancestrydna-technology-powers-new-kinds-of-discoveries/