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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DNA Testing and Your Ethnicity

TV ads are making DNA test kits a favorite gift idea for adults. These are autosomal (atDNA) kits that give two types of results: ethnicity percentages and individual matches. Most of the test-takers of these gift test kits seem to be only interested in the ethnicity percentages. I feel this is true because I see that over half of my individual matches have no family trees and a reluctance to respond to my contacts. No one has responded when a family tree is not attached.

However, the ethnicity estimates that test companies supply may be confusing due to limitations in the way the testing companies calculate the ethnicity estimates. In fact, the projected ethnicities are not foolproof; they are estimates based on the comparison of the test sample to a reference population used by the testing company. The companies then used their algorithms to determine the percentage of each ethnic group you belong to you.

Are these projections reliable? Initially, some people complained that their ethnic estimates were inaccurate. Each test company has different reference populations, and these numbers cause more confusion because the ethnic percentages will differ from different companies. However, this is a relatively new science, and companies are revising their methods and base data regularly.

The testing companies regularly add DNA from new individuals and more population segments to the reference panels. Recently, they changed many ethnic estimates that now seem more accurate. The results from companies still vary when compared to other companies, and will likely continue to improve as they add more individual samples from more comprehensive geographical locations and sources. Eventually, I believe the projected ethnicities from each company will become closer to being similar.

The size and the populations in the reference panel are substantial factors determining the accuracy of an ethnicity projection. If the reference population does not include a segment of the world’s population such as Native Hawaiians, the ethnicity estimate cannot have that as one of the results, even if the test-taker has significant ancestry from that part of the world. Each testing company describes their reference populations in the help or information sections of their websites.

There are limitations as to how much detail the projected ethnicities can show due to the widespread migrations of different people across the different continents. One example of this is the population of central and western Europe. DNA between Germany and France to predict which country your ancestors left accurately. Another example is the populations in southern Europe along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. There are no significant differences in the

The estimated ethnicity for broad categories such as Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas are generally accurate, but the accuracy decreases when the projection tries to be more specific as to location or country.

Another limitation in determining a person’s ethnicity arises from the fact that the person may not have received any DNA from their ancestors from a particular region. We lose portions of DNA for older generations as each generation gets DNA from their parents. The amount of DNA from each ancestor in older generations until the piece left is so small that it may not be passed along to the next generation. This scenario may completely eliminate DNA from a geographic location.

Ethnicity seems to be one of the top reasons why people are submitting DNA samples. They want to know where are their roots. However, the results are only an estimate and have severe limitations. Be cautious when evaluating and using your ethnicity results, especially if you are looking for clues to specific locations or countries. Use the results as clues and be patient because the results will be revised many times in the future.

My New Book – DNA and Genealogy Research: Simplified

My new book, “DNA and Genealogy Research: Simplified,” is now available. If you want to unlock your DNA results, my book will be a great starting point.

Even though I am not a genetic scientist or an M.D., I felt I had to write about the method I used to solve some of the mysteries in my family tree. I am one of the many who find it challenging to educate myself with the science of DNA and just wanted to work on our family history. The book explains my methods using non-scientific terms and does not discuss Chromosome browsers, haplogroups, or SNPs.

I had a brick wall, and I used my genealogical skills and traditional sources with my DNA results to solve the mystery. DNA is a powerful tool, and I learned to combine it with other genealogical sources without becoming a genetic scientist.

DNA and Dark Secrets – expanded comments

If your DNA results do not make sense, ask yourself these questions before you try to uncover the answers:

  • Do you need to know the answer?
  • Are you prepared to deal with a dark secret that may upset the family?
  • What will you do with the information once you know the answer?

Be prepared for bad news and dark secrets!

Finding answers to your DNA test results can change known relationships by uncovering the existence of previously unknown biological parents. You may immediately think of adoption as the cause for unknown parents, but researchers have also identified unwed mothers and infidelity as significant sources of DNA surprises. Another frequent reason for unknown parents would be the remarriage of a spouse after the other spouse dies young, leaving children. The new relationships may affect your parents, grandparents, or with earlier generations. Please remember, genealogists must respect the privacy of family members when uncovering “secrets” in documents and now DNA testing makes privacy issues even more critical because of the nature of the information revealed.

Suddenly finding out we have an unknown biological parent or grandparent in our family history will probably cause immediate emotional issues.

  • If they were not due to adoption, how did it occur?
  • How can I find the name of my unknown parent or ancestor?
  • Should I find out?

The search for the answers will be challenging if the problem was in an older generation because the documents probably do not exist, and people who knew may be dead.

Before you take a DNA test, try to understand the possible outcomes of a DNA test. After you submit your sample, be prepared for unexpected issues. Once you have your results, handle problematic information responsibly by responding discreetly.

Be sensitive to your family members. Please consider that some family members do not have to know, but some family members need to know. Everyone will react differently and be careful with who you tell and how you say it.

The only way to prevent the disclosure of problematic genealogical information is to avoid all genealogical research and DNA testing.

Lettin‘ the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier ‘n puttin‘ it back in.

 

by Will Rogers

How DNA Can Help Your Genealogy

DNA testing has become a popular topic at genealogy meetings, and the growth in the number of DNA tests has been fueled by numerous promotional sales and promises to unlock secrets in your genealogy research. In some cases, DNA results have been powerful in producing clues and knocking down brick walls, but in many other cases, the results have been confusing.

Genealogists, who I talked to, gave me the following list of reasons why they submitted DNA samples:

  • They were curious about what the results would
  • They were curious about their origins and ancient ancestry.
  • They were hoping to find matches and possible distant relatives to exchange information.
  • They doubted their paper trail and wanted to prove or disprove their oral history.
  • They wanted to test relationship theories.

I have heard many stories of successes in finding matches to lost branches of families that led to the addition of many stories and pictures to family histories. However, I have also heard many people asking for help in understanding their results. The testing companies are now adding tools that help family historians better analyze and utilize their test results. One step that helps significantly is the ability to attach your family tree to your DNA test results.  Some of the tools I find useful include:

  • Identifying Genetic Communities
  • Surname searches
  • Identifying Shared Matches
  • Adding surnames and other comments in the attached notes for matches

These tools led me to a secret portion of my ancestry that one of my ancestors took to her grave. However, I opened this new side of my ancestry by identifying a dark secret. So be prepared. If you have to unlock secrets, there may be a dark side that you may regret discovering.

In summary, I would recommend taking the Autosomal test offered by Ancestry.com or FamilyTreeDNA.com. Take Y-DNA and mtDNA tests only if you need to explore specific relationship theories. Your results will probably be very generic and match your paper trail. If your DNA results do not match your paper trail, you may have some secrets to uncover. If your results have matches that project as first or second cousins, contact them because you may have an exciting new source for family stories and pictures of common ancestors.

Just have fun exploring your family history and heritage. Remember to save and pass along what you find to your children, grandchildren, and future generations.

AncestryDNA launches Genetic Communities

On March 27, AncestryDNA introduced Genetic Communities. It is very new, but I believe it will prove to be a useful tool to unlock some of the mysteries that we encounter in our genealogical research.

Using the DNA results from the users in Ancestry’s database, DNA profiles were identified for over 300 geographical areas. (Note AncestryDNA used only results from users who agreed to participate in the test). Individual results were then compared to the DNA profiles to determine if results fit any of the profiles.

My results matched one profile although I expected at least two. The Genetic Communities feature is new and is still being refined, so I hope that the second area that I was expecting will show up in my results later.

This tool may confirm the geographical areas that we have identified as our origins, but it may also point to a new area especially if we have mysteries or brick walls.

The Genetic Communities is a tool that should be considered when deciding which DNA testing company to select. If I need to order another DNA test, I will probably order from AncestryDNA. Another factor in my decision is the ability to transfer the raw data from an AncestryDNA test to FamilytreeDNA. In the past, I have used the tools of both companies to resolve one of my brick walls, and the Genetic Communities should make this task easier.

What I have learned in the past year about my DNA

Using DNA to make genealogy connections is becoming very important. However, understanding DNA results and matches can be very challenging. My results confused me, but I have made some progress. Here are some things that I have done and some light bulbs that have turned on:

  1. I found the reason why my DNA results show Irish/English origins when my paper research indicates this was impossible. I found this by having relatives in different branches take DNA tests and compare the results.
  2. The processing of the raw samples by the three major companies produce the same data.
  3. However, the Origins segment of DNA results varies greatly. Each company has different algorithms to calculate where our ancestors came from.
  4. The ISOGG (International Society of Genetic Genealogy) projects the Origins analysis by 23andme is more accurate than FamiytreeDNA and Ancestry.com.

My major takeaway from my DNA testing is to treat DNA results similar to other genealogical documents. Remember, all contradictions in data should be resolved.

Comparing My Autosmal DNA Test Results

Autosomal DNA tests differ from the Y-DNA and mtDNA because it analyzes all of our DNA and it can be taken by both males and females. The results will not be as specific as the Y-DNA and mtDNA but the results try to project the geographic origins of our ancestors and provide matches with possible cousins.

The projections for our origins are based on studies of DNA samples over large populations from all over the world. The research tries to find markers on specific DNA segments that are unique to people in specific parts of the world and ethnic populations. The ads marketing this test promise to scientifically identify our origins. I am very dissatisfied with the apparent inaccuracies in my results. This seems to be a developing science because the results for the origins of my ancestors differed significantly between the three companies – Ancestry, 23andme, and FamilytreeDNA.

Below is a chart showing my Autosomal DNA results from the three different companies.

  Ancestry 23andme FamilyTreeDNA Estimate from Family Tree Research
     European 99.9%        99.8 %     99.0% 100%
·     British & Irish 40.0%        12.7%       24.0% 0.0%
·     French & German 14.0%       10.4%         6.0% 12 to 20%
·    Northern European 9.0%        36.2%        31.0% 50.0%
·     Eastern European 35.0%        30.6%        38.0% 30 to 38%
·     Broadly European            9.9%   0.0%
      Other 2.0%           .2%         1.0% 0.0%
 

The composition shown above is difficult to interpret for my ancestry. The European lines (Northern, Eastern, and Broadly) seem to represent my Polish and Hungarian ancestors which should be about 75 percent.  FamilyTreeDNA at 69% and 23andMe at 77% seems to be more accurate than Ancestry at 58 percent. The French and German portion can be explained by my grandfather Erwin’s German father and this section should be from 10 to 15 percent and the results from Ancestry at 14% and 23andMe 10% fall within that range although FamilyTreeDNA at 6% is slightly out of this range.

However, the British and Irish portion of the chart is very difficult for me to understand. I have found no documents that identify any British or Irish ancestors. One explanation for the British and Irish section in my results may be due to mutations that were inherited from the Germanic peoples who migrated to Great Britain early in history and may be found in my ancestors due to marriages and migrations of Germanic people into Poland and Hungary. Although this explanation may sound probable, I’m disappointed with all three companies and their inability to properly classify these DNA markers. Also, the Ancestry.com results seem to be very questionable for my DNA, because at 40% for the British Isles, they are a significant portion of my DNA and point to an origin that should not be part of my DNA.

I downloaded and compared the raw data from each of the samples that I submitted to the three companies and they matched 100%. This means that the origins shown above were based on how each company interpreted the data and not differences in the samples. Each interpretation was based on historical data that the companies have collected from various studies and research. However, the variations in my results show me that the companies need to refine their reference databases to provide better accuracy of the results that companies sell to us.

 

Using DNA Matches to add to My Family History

I was brought up as a Catholic but my family history research has identified my great-grandfather was Jewish. Rabbinic records indicate that he and his parents were born in present day northeast Hungary. The lack of available records has prevented me from extending this branch of my family beyond 1838 but DNA tests have given me more hope.

History speculates that the Jews that populated Eastern Europe were Ashkenazi that had emigrated from the Rhineland area in Germany. It is believed that the term “Ashkenazi Jew” refers to Jews who originally settled in the Rhine Valley of Germany in the early middle Ages. Jews in Germany in the 1600s were alternately tolerated and then persecuted. Due to this persecution, some Ashkenazi immigrated eastward into Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, and eventually Russia, Ukraine, Romania. During one of these periods of persecution, I believe my Jewish ancestors probably decided to move eastward and this is how I think they settled in Hungary.

Y-DNA test results from FamilytreeDNA matched me with someone with German ancestry and whose ancestors originated near Landau, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. The results were matches on 35 of 37 markers with a distance of 2 which indicates a definite distant relationship. Since the Ashkenazi did not adopt the European surname system until they were forced by the European rulers about 1800, it will be impossible to find the common ancestor with my German cousins. I believe the DNA results give me the confirmation of the German origins of my Ashkenazi ancestors and add important roots to my family history.

The main point with the above example is that the match that the results gave me did not add any name to my family tree but the relationship gave me important information that my family had emigrated from Germany to Hungary.