I first took a DNA test to help with my family research about eight years ago. Although I’d done a little reading and understood the basics, I had no idea how to make practical use of the DNA. In the absence of knowledge, tools and even significant tester databases my modus operandi was to contact my matches and ask if they would be prepared to work with me at trying to locate where, on our trees, we matched. Some never replied but even with the ones who did it wasn’t a success, resulting in zero confirmed matches. None of us really had any idea how to actually use the new information the DNA itself provided. Now, when I look back at the people I contacted I can ‘read’ the DNA info regarding our match better and I can see why we never found / in some cases never will find our common ancestors.
Since then, there have been lots of developments:
- Many more people have tested
- People have emerged as ‘authorities’, writing books, blogs, and producing helpful videos
- Facebook groups have formed where people help each other and again, some have emerged as leaders and experts
- Ancestry and MyHeritage have developed their own tests aimed specifically at genealogists, and working increasingly seamlessly with the tree-building functions of their websites
- Other people and companies have created tools for us to use alongside our DNA results to help us get the most from them
Eventually I decided to get on top of this DNA thing, challenging myself to see how far I could progress within one year. I tested again, this time with Ancestry (so I could access their large database), I read books, watched videos, learned how to use some of the new tools, and I joined Facebook groups, asking questions when stuck. More than two years have passed and I’m still learning, but these days I can usually work on a match without ever needing to contact the other person, just using information on the database. Of course there remains much to learn. I still read, seek out videos on specific learning points, and if I’m stuck on something specific there is always someone on the Facebook groups with apparently encyclopaedic knowledge on matters DNA.
Earlier this year I published five blogposts (starting here) about how we can use DNA to develop our trees. They were aimed at the complete beginner with no knowledge, and in particular at readers who hadn’t tested and didn’t trust or understand that DNA can provide a very useful additional string to your bow. I tried to cover a number of common objections and misunderstandings I see regularly in online discussions
I’ve now put together another little series of posts. This time the focus is more practical: how can we put the theory covered in those earlier posts into practice? These posts have grown out of many email exchanges with some of my own DNA matches in which I’ve tried to answer their questions or explain to them how we might be able to progress together. Again, this series focuses on known sticking points – often discovered in working with my own DNA matches. So if you’re reading this because we’re DNA cousins (Hello!) then this post, the next two, and others that will follow in spring 2021 are dedicated to you. My hope is that by writing it here instead of (repeatedly!) in emails, it will help other new – or even not-so-new – testers, who are still finding out how to make the DNA work.
Getting started: Looking at your results
I’m going to concentrate here on the two DNA testing providers mostly used by amateur genealogists: Ancestry and MyHeritage. These companies are increasingly integrating their DNA service with their online tree function. However, other testing companies will present the essential information in a similar way.
When you open up the DNA page on Ancestry or MyHeritage the options you’re presented with are pretty similar.
On Ancestry you’ll see:
- Your DNA Story, including ethnicities, and breaking these down further into regions, counties and smaller areas.
- DNA Matches
On MyHeritage you’ll see:
- An Overview, where you can scroll down to access all the other options but where you can also see your ethnicities at a glance
- Ethnicity estimate – the areas are broader (less focused) than Ancestry’s
- DNA Matches
EVERYONE looks at the ethnicities first!
Many people take a DNA test purely out of curiosity for the ethnicities. They have no knowledge of and no interest in their family tree. Often, the people listed as your DNA matches who have no tree attached will fall into this category. (The other possibility is that they have no tree because they don’t know who their parents are and have taken the test to try to find out.) Whatever your reason for taking the test, this is almost sure to be the place you look first, and on the surface it’s the easiest part to understand.
Ethnicities are, however, the least ‘accurate’ part of the whole DNA testing journey. They are based on a comparison of your DNA to that of selected people with deep regional roots and well-documented family trees from around the world. These people are referred to as the ‘reference panel’. Different testing companies arrange their panels in different geographical groupings. They also use different algorithms. What this means is that your ethnicities are only an estimate; and although of course your DNA doesn’t change, from time to time, based on all of the above, the testing companies will update their estimate of your ethnicities. It also means that the estimate of your ethnicity will differ according to which company provides it. Hence at the time of writing this my own ethnicity is estimated as follows (the largest area is first in each case):
Ancestry: England & NW Europe, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Germanic Europe, Wales
FTDNA: Scandinavia, West and Central Europe, British Isles and a dash of Siberia
MyHeritage: (The DNA data I put on here was uploaded from my original FTDNA test): Mostly North and West Europe with some East Europe and a little South Europe
That’s quite a range, although taken as a whole they are all European and all centre on the north and north-west of Europe if not actually the British Isles. (And of course like many people I cling to the hope of deep down, being a Viking. 🙂 ) It’s advised that tiny percentages (like my Siberia) be taken with a pinch of salt, but certainly as more people test, ethnicities are becoming more accurate. If something unexpected shows up at a high percentage it’s likely to be a reasonable guide.
Ancestry have taken ethnicities a step further with the integration of ‘Genetic Communities’ into their ‘DNA Story’. The smaller (regional, county, locality) groupings referred to above are in fact a combination of genetics and genealogy: they draw upon the family trees of your DNA matches. These are generally found to be very accurate and in my case have homed in on two very important areas of my ancestry.
The important bit: DNA matches
For genealogy and family history enthusiasts, this is the most important information. Whichever company you tested with, your DNA matches will be listed in descending order starting with those with whom you share the highest amount of DNA at the top, right down to the tiniest matches. You will have a LOT of matches but you should start at the top.
Your matches will be placed into categories. At MyHeritage matches are placed into ‘Close Family’, ‘Extended Family’ and ‘Distant Relatives’ with an ‘estimated relationship’ for each person. At Ancestry the divide is at ‘4th cousins or Closer’ and ‘All Matches’, with matches arranged as e.g. ‘Full Siblings’, ‘3rd cousins’, ‘4th cousins’, and a more specific estimate for each person.
For each individual match you’re given additional information.
- the person’s name (or pseudonym) and maybe a photo
- the amount of shared DNA, expressed as centiMorgans (cM)
- the number of individual segments these cM are arranged in, and the largest segment
- whether they have a tree, and whether it’s public or private
- whether you have already added any notes
Click on the person’s name for more information:
- links to your match’s tree(s) – there may be more than one tree, but only one can be linked to their DNA
- whether Ancestry’s algorithms have identified any common ancestors in your trees
- a link where you can compare your own ethnicity with your match’s
- a link to a list of shared matches – people who match both of you
- You will also see where you can add the notes mentioned above and where you can add the person to a group, using a coloured dot of your choice
- the person’s name (or pseudonym) and maybe a photo
- the amount of shared DNA, expressed as cM and also as a percentage of your total DNA
- the number of individual segments and the largest segment
- whether they have a tree and how many people are on it
- A ‘notepad’ icon where you can make notes (icon is red if you have already made notes for this match)
Click on ‘Review DNA Match’ for more information:
- lists of ancestral surnames in your trees, with any shared surnames highlighted
- lists of people who match both of you (shared matches)
- a comparison of your ethnicities
- and right at the bottom something called a chromosome browser, in which you can see exactly where, on your 22 chromosomes, you and this person match. (I’ll be looking at this in detail in a mini-series of posts about chromosome mapping early in 2021.)
For an explanation of centiMorgans see my earlier post on Using DNA to develop your family research. See also the Shared centiMorgan Project chart that sets out the possible relationships for any specific cM range. As a general rule, don’t spend too much time working on matches below 30 centiMorgans.
This is what you can do straight away
My advice is to take a while getting to know how the information is laid out, and to take note of anything that leaps out at you. I say this for two reasons. Firstly, there’s a huge amount of information there and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But secondly, it takes a while for the powerful computers to find all your matches and include them on your match list, along with their trees and lists of shared matches. The following action plan focuses on what you can do straight away while you find your way around the system.
- Look at your list of matches.
- For the closer matches (at the top of your list) do you already recognise them? Are they known cousins, second cousins, etc?
- For any closer matches (such as 2nd or 3rd cousin) that you don’t recognise but who have trees, can you compare your trees and find a common ancestor? Bear in mind that second cousins are descended from the same great grandparents; third cousins from the same great great grandparents. But be prepared to look a generation or so either side.
- When you can confirm your first match and have worked out your Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA) you can assign this match to a specific part of your tree. You now know your documentary research to this point is correct and there were no adoptions or unexpected paternity events along the way. Making immediate use of the notes box means you won’t waste time looking again for your match.
- If you’re using Ancestry you can assign this reasonably close match a coloured dot. How you organise your coloured dots is up to you. I have eight colours – one for each great grandparent. Whenever I can confirm a new match I give them the appropriate colour dot for the part of my tree they slot into.
- You now have the beginning of a guide for other matches for this part of your tree. For example, a first cousin match may help you to place any shared matches to your maternal or your paternal side; a second cousin may help you to home in on a specific grandparent. See my previous post on Asking other family members to test for more guidance on this.
- With this in mind, look now at the shared matches for you and your confirmed cousin match. Again, perhaps you already know some of these people. Perhaps you recognise their surname from your tree. If not, perhaps their own tree will guide you to the place where your trees merge: your MRCA.
- Join an online group. There are several groups on Facebook, but DNA Help for Genealogy run by Donna Rutherford is a good place to start. Gradually you’ll understand more and be able to make better use of more of this information.
My next DNA post, on 15th November, will look at Ancestry’s Thrulines and MyHeritage’s Theory of Family Relativity.
I’m deliberately releasing this information in manageable, bite-size chunks. However, if I’m going too slow for you, have a look at Donna Rutherford’s blogpost on Frequently Asked Questions about DNA.
My posts about DNA are aimed at complete beginners and aim to provide information in manageable chunks, each post building on previous ones. Click [here] to read all of them in order, or to dip in and out as you wish. You’ll also find lots of resources and useful links.