Beginners guide to DNA and genealogy
There’s no doubt that DNA and genealogy is huge, with millions of people all around the world having tested already and using it as a new tool in the genealogy research toolbox. But there are still millions more who haven’t. Some haven’t because they don’t want to or have no ‘need’ to, some haven’t because they haven’t discovered just how useful it can be as an add-on to the paper-trail, and others who might be interested are unsure of the process.
Much of what you read about genealogy and DNA is technical, and fair enough since DNA is a scientific process, and some of it takes a degree to understand. But we’ve cut through the jargon and hopefully, this list of Frequently Asked Questions will answer some of your queries in a plain, non-technical manner.
1. WHAT IS GENETIC GENEALOGY?
Genetic genealogy is the use of DNA testing in combination with traditional genealogy and traditional genealogical and historical records to infer relationships between individuals.
2. WHAT IS A DNA TEST?
Wikipedia words this better than I could … “A genealogical DNA test is a DNA-based test which looks at specific locations of a person’s genome in order to determine ancestral ethnicity and genealogical relationships. Results give information about ethnic groups the test subject may be descended from and about other individuals that they may be related to.”
3. HOW CAN DNA HELP ME WITH MY FAMILY HISTORY?
DNA can help you find and prove relationships when the paper trail doesn’t exist. It can help prove or disprove relationships, and it can help you connect with new family, or re-connect with long-lost family. Deep ancestry (thousands of years in the past) can be determined using Y-DNA (father’s line) or mtDNA (mother’s line). An autosomal (ethnicity) test can give you some clues as to where your roots lie, which countries your ancestors came from. And for those who were adopted, or don’t know their parents this is a way to be able to find your roots. For those doing a surname study, it can help with working out which branch of name each is from.
4. WHY TAKE A DNA TEST?
Lots of reasons. Some do it out of curiosity, to break down a brick wall, to confirm or disprove a relationship, and other do it to find family. Adoptees, donor conceived, foundling are all using DNA to find family. An autosomal test is a great cousin finder as it can pick up cousins back 6-8 generations, and these are people who might know more family stories, have the family bible or letters and photographs.
5. WHAT OR WHO WILL I FIND? AND WHAT WILL THE DNA TEST RESULTS TELL ME?
If you’re thinking that taking a DNA test will suddenly find your entire family history, I’m sorry but no it won’t! Each test does show different things, but in general taking a DNA test allows you to not only see your own heritage, the general regions where your ancestors came from, but will also then compare your DNA results to others who’ve already tested with that company and suggest ‘matches’ with others. It’s another way to find your extended family.
6. WHERE CAN I BUY A TEST FROM?
There are a number of DNA testing companies around: AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, Living DNA, MyHeritage DNA and 23andMe are the big name ones for genealogical purposes.
7. WHAT TEST IS RIGHT FOR ME?
This is where is can get tricky, as there are different tests which test for different things. There are three types of genealogical DNA tests:
Y-DNA – The Y chromosome DNA test (also known as a Y-DNA test) is a test which is you use to explore a man’s direct father’s-father’s-line. This is useful for males only to take this test.
mtDNA – The mitochondrial test shows the DNA that is passed down almost unchanged from a mother to her children, which allows you to trace your maternal ancestry, and to determine where your direct mother’s-mother’s-line came from. As a mother passes her DNA on to all of her children, both males and females can take this test.
Autosomal DNA – The autosomal test, which is also known as the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA, and is the only test offered by AncestryDNA use this test to estimate the ethnicity, give you approximate percentages to show which countries/regions you come from. This test is a great ‘cousin finder’ test as it can help connect you to others you didn’t know existed.
8. HOW MICH DOES A DNA TEST COST?
Note the prices below are the retail prices. From time to time these companies do have specials, and if you have a number of family you’d like to test, it’s useful to stock up at sale time.
AncestryDNA (AU$129.00 + freight $29.99)
Family Tree DNA (US$79.00 – US$449.00 + freight US$9.95)
Living DNA (AU$169.00 + freight AU$14.95)
MyHeritage DNA (AU$119.00 + freight $AU23.00)
23andMe (US$99.00 + freight US$39.99)
9. WHY WOULD I CHOOSE ONE TEST OVER THE OTHER?
There’s a range of reasons why you would choose one over the other. One can be price, another can be a recommendation from a friend or relative (when a friend or cousin says they’ve just tested with XXX you’re potentially likely to use them). Another reason might be how based on how many others have tested with them, with Ancestry it’s now over 4 million (as at May 2017), and expected to be over 5 million by the end of 2017, which then means more potential matches). And one more reason is simply that not all companies do all tests.
10. WHAT DOES TAKING A DNA TEST INVOLVE?
Once you have ordered a kit, it will be posted out to you (Note, the test can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to get to you). Once received you will find all the relevant ‘bits’ inside the bag or box, including the instructions. For Ancestry and Living DNA you need to activate the test online (on the website you bought it from). FTDNA doesn’t require this with their tests (at least at this stage).
Then you’re ready to do the test which is easy as there are no needles! Simply make sure you haven’t eaten or drunk anything for an hour or two beforehand (the tests vary on this, so read the instructions). Some tests require you to spit into a test tube, others have what looks like a little toothbrush that you use to scrape your cheek to collect cells. You pop the test tubes back in the return box or envelope included and post it back to the company.
11. HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GET MY DNA RESULTS?
AncestryDNA (6-8 weeks)
Family Tree DNA (Family Finder 4-6 weeks, Big Y 8-10 weeks, others 6-8 weeks)
Living DNA (12-14 weeks)
MyHeritage DNA (3-4 weeks)
23andMe (6-8 weeks)
Note: testing has been known to take longer if the company has recently had a sale and therefore received a large influx of tests to process.
INTERESTED IN LEARNING MORE? IF SO, HERES SOME USEFUL LINKS FOR YOU
DNA for Genealogists – Kerry Farmer
DNA for Genealogists (ebook edition) – Kerry Farmer
The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy – Blaine Bettinger
Genie1 by Louise Coakley
The Genetic Genealogist by Blaine Bettinger
The Legal Genealogist by Judy G. Russell (Judy does a DNA post each Sunday)
Your Genetic Genealogist by CeCe Moore
And these are just a few of the genetic genealogy bloggers. For even more genetic genealogy blogs the International Society of Genetic Genealogy has a long list.
Yes, there are Facebook groups and if you are on Facebook they are great groups to join.
Using DNA for Genealogy – Australia & NZ run by Louise Coakley
Genetic Genealogy Tips & Techniques run by Blaine Bettinger. The questions range from very beginner to quite advanced but join and you will learn a lot.
Websites & Societies
The International Society of Genetic Genealogy is a free online society that has a lot of educational material on their site. There’s even a special section for beginners and is a fantastic place to gain further knowledge of DNA testing and its applications in genealogical research. Also, many genealogical societies now have DNA Special Interest Groups which meet regularly, so check to see if your local groups has one.
This is a guest post by family historian Alona Tester from Gould Genealogy. Based in South Australia she has 25+ years experience in the genealogy industry, and is a genealogy educator and blogger. She is the author of the Genealogy & History News blog, as well her own personal genealogy blog, Lonetester HQ.