Your DNA Test Results: Fact or Fiction

DNA test kits seem to be a popular gift idea. The testing companies have filled our TV screens with ads promising to unlock the locations of our ancestral homes and magically fill out our family tree. Can submitting a DNA sample fulfill these promises?

DNA testing is a powerful tool in genealogical research, but it is one of many tools that help us fill in the blanks of our family history. However, we also have to be careful as to when you take a DNA test. Submitting a sample as your first step in your family history research will usually produce confusing results. Basic document research should be the starting point in doing family history research.

Also, have a specific goal in taking the test. Are you genuinely interested in researching your family history, or do you just want to know your ethnicity? In both cases, please delay submitting your DNA sample until you know more about the origins of your family. Your DNA test results will not magically show you the answers and will probably be confusing unless you have done other research.

One reason many people seem to be taking the test is to reveal their ethnicity. Am I Polish or German or Russian? I see many matches in my DNA results with no attached trees and this makes me believe the test taker only wants to see their ethnicity and not do the family history research. However, their ethnicity results will probably be too general to answer people’s questions. In fact, this is one of the many complaints I hear from people when talking about their results.

DNA testing for genealogy is a relatively new science. Determining your ethnicity is based on the use of algorithms (complicated formulas) and comparing your DNA to base populations. Each testing company has a set of algorithms and base populations that are different. So, each company may give you a different set of ethnic percentages. Also, the base populations extend across broad geographical boundaries, that have seen vast back and forth migrations of the different groups of ethnic people. So, it is difficult to differentiate the DNA of many ethnic groups from their neighbors. Intermarriage has mixed their DNA over the centuries. For example, the DNA of Germans is similar to the DNA of the French. Also, most people living along the Mediterranean Sea coast have similar DNA. Likewise, the Poles have mixed their DNA with their German, Russian, Austrian, and Scandinavian neighbors for many centuries. Remember, the use of DNA is a developing science, and the accuracy of the results will improve in the future. Can you wait?

If you just want to submit your sample to see the origins of your ancestors, this may not be the time to take the test for you. If you want to start researching your family history, your DNA test results may give you clues on where to look. However, I would recommend waiting until you have found some of the basic documents such as census records or birth, marriage, and death records, and completed three to four generations of your family tree.

Doing basic genealogical research will give your family history a better foundation, and your DNA results may not be as confusing.

If you do not want to do the research and your children gave you a test kit, submit your sample. However, be patient when looking at your test results. Do not be frustrated with your ethnicity percentages. You may have to wait a few years before it makes sense. Doing basic genealogical research (such as census records, naturalization papers, passenger lists, and a basic family tree) will always help you understand the results faster.

If you do not want to immerse yourself in the details of doing research, make it a project with your children if they gave you the kit. Make them do the research, and you fill in the stories you remember. That strategy could be a fun family project and a great way to pass along your memories to your children and grandchildren.

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