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 or 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

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 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.