DNA: History revealed via technology

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By Schelly Talalay Dardashti

MyHeritage.com – US Genealogy Advisor

Genetic genealogy is perhaps the most exciting new tool for family history research.  It can prove or disprove family relationships, determine a time frame when two people shared a common ancestor, provide genetic matches and clues to ancestral origins.

While paper records may be inaccurate through accident or purpose – throughout history – blood doesn’t lie. If two men match genetically, they are related, and what needs to then be determined is when their most recent common ancestor (MRCA) lived.

Genetic genealogy technology can:

  • Provide information when there is no paper trail.
  • Confirm or disprove a relationship or story.
  • Cut across history/geography lines.
  • Results may point to better traditional methodology/resources by pinpointing geography or other details

What is important, however, is to understand how this new industry came about, and what it can and cannot do.

FamilyTreeDNA.com was founded by CEO/founder Bennett Greenspan in Houston, Texas in April 2000. He had discovered two branches of his mother’s family, one known in the US, the other a possible relation in Argentina. While he suspected the connection – because of the rare name – there was no paper trail of documents for the Argentine family. He convinced Dr. Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona to conduct a pilot project,

Bennett’s group included sets of identical twins; his own father, brother and sons, Bennett’s son, and other individuals, as well as males from those two branches of his mother’s family. As he suspected, the Y-DNA tests of the two branches matched, as did those of the identical twins with each other, and those of his father, brother and the next generation (albeit with small natural mutations).

What it meant was that people around the world – who lacked paper trails – could find genetic matches.

And the race was on!

Researchers created surname projects to see if everyone named “X”was related. They weren’t, but DNA testing could sort the individuals into branches or lines. Geographical projects are also popular and help answer the question of communities – that may no longer exist – and how the people who lived there were related, or not.

As of February 15, 2012, FamilyTreeDNA.com’s database – the largest in the industry – included 360,883 records: 6,807 surname projects; 109,501 unique surnames; 223,432 Y-DNA records; 137,451 mtDNA records, and 17,066 FGS records.

DNA Comparison

How it works, biologically: In the simplest of terms, children receive half their genetic material from each parent. A male child receives both Y-DNA from his father and mtDNA from his mother, while a female child receives only mtDNA from her mother. A male’s Y-DNA goes back to his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on, for thousands of years. A female’s mtDNA goes back to her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and so on, for thousands of years.

What it can do: Confirm or disprove if two individuals are related.

What it cannot do: The tests do not use material such as that used in forensic testing. Perhaps the closest it can come is to say a suspected individual might be of a certain line, but the individual could not be pinpointed.

What are the differences between Y-DNA (male) and mtDNA (female)?

Who can test for what tests? A male receives Y-DNA from his father and mtDNA from his mother, so a male can test both parental lines. A female receives only mtDNA from her mother and no Y-DNA, so a female can test only for her maternal line. However, the Family Finder autosomal test – for either gender – can find relatives on the paternal and maternal lines and going back several generations. That test is a good choice for women without male relatives to test.

Why testing against the largest available database is recommended?

Keep an open mind: If you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question. DNA testing may disprove what a family has always believed to be the truth. There may have been non-paternal events back in history – and the timing is hard to determine. There may have been blended families and adoptions that were not spoken about. So you need to be prepared for what you find, and to whom you match genetically.

In many countries, surnames are a relatively recent occurrence and were not cast in stone until recent times. Depending on circumstances, ethnicity, religion, politics, border changes, a family several hundred years ago might have had six sons, each adopting a different surname in contemporary times. Through time, this information was lost, but genetic genealogy can find those lost branches as the descendants of those six brothers share a common male ancestor and should match genetically with perhaps some naturally occurring minor mutations.

In some cases, people wandered around the world, far from their origins. Some families kept telling the stories of their origin in every generation, but paper trails didn’t always exist – only family “stories.” Genetic testing may answer those questions by matching your family with those who remain in ancestral lands or who know their history and may have documents.

It may prove a common origin and relationship among a group of people who – because of their modern ancestral origins and history – had no idea they were related.

While, even today, there are some genealogists who do not believe in genetic genealogy – for some strange reason – most researchers are enthusiastic proponents of this new tool.

Schelly Talalay Dardashti is the US Genealogy Advisor for MyHeritage.com, contributes to and edits the MyHeritage and WorldVitalRecords Blogs. She specializes in Jewish genealogy as journalist, blogger, instructor and international speaker. For more than 20 years, she has tracked her families across Spain, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Iran.

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15 Responses to “DNA: History revealed via technology”

  1. Patricia Scullion says:

    I have been searching my fathers relatives and I am getting nowhere fast. My mother’s we’ve traced back to 15th century. But my dad I get as far as his father’s name. Would DNA help me or does it work only on the mother’s line , as I have heard.

  2. Thanks a lot
    your blog is very informative

  3. I am iterested in finding out if my Great Grandfather has Indian blood in him. I have documented proof that Indians came to their homestead in Beaver County in Oklahoma Territorry.

  4. Mel says:

    Curious..any suggestions would be most helpful… I am a male trying to determine which of two possible 5th great grandfathers is my biological ancestor as one of them died before the 4th great grandfather was born and the other may have taken over parental responsiblities without actually being the biological father. The problem is, there is a line of males from him to me with one exception, my grandmother. In addition, there is a definite clear line on another branch of the family to one specific 5th Great Grandfather but I am not able to 100% confirm either as my ancestor despite knowing for sure who is my 4th great grandfather. Can DNA testing work to solve this even with a break in the male line on one branch of the tree? If so, what exactly can DNA testing do for me?

  5. marion sage says:

    i have the same problem both for my husband’s side of the family and my mothers side , i get as far as his grand parents and draw a blank . he is the last of his family line and no other family to compair with , as for my mothers side i can only get backas far as my great grand parents and draw blanks on both sides , i can’t afford the costs involved with the dna tests but would love any and all help to be able to proceed .

  6. marion sage says:

    and also would like to ask if you have any native american indian data bases that you can draw from?

  7. kay says:

    Have a question on DNA testing. My late father was adopted. We have his original name and both surnames from when he was made a ward of the courts in the 1920s. Also, have a brother so could he do the DNA testing and then could you see if it matches any surnames in your database?

  8. Martina Carpenter says:

    What can be done if someone submits the first DNA and a paper genealogy for a certain line and the paper genealogy has mistake(s) in it? If the person who made the mistake(s) won’t produce the sources for the information on their tree so it can be checked for accuracy? The DNA may be right but the genealogy paper trail will be questioned forever. A new person submitting DNA may think their paper tree is wrong when it might actually be right and the original submitter is wrong. Any comments on how to be sure we are dealing with accurate paper trails?

  9. Pat Woodard says:

    We have done the DNA testing what now? What to do with all the names and test results? How would you know if your test revieled you had native american? How could you find out about any of this? would you have to get someone to tell you what all the # mean.

  10. Mark Olsen says:

    From Schelly to Patricia – Absolutely. A Y-DNA test for your father (or if you have a brother) or even a brother of her father would very much help to make connections. While a 12-marker test may produce connections, it is only a screening device. Two men who do not match on a 12-marker test will not match on a test with more markers. But if the two men do match on that test, it would be best to do a higher-resolution (more markers). Once they match, and depending on the number of markers matching, the result is a matter of time – how far back did the most recent common ancestor of the two men live?

  11. Christie C. says:

    How much does the DNA testing cost? and where do I go to get it done in my town?

  12. Mark Olsen says:

    For information and pricing regarding the MyHeritage DNA tests please see this page. http://www.myheritage.com/dna-tests
    Thank you.

  13. Camper says:

    Thats quite impressive, it made me wonder if there is a possibilty to test DNA same way in Poland, shared on facebook, it may be interesting discussion about it, thank you for article.

  14. Joseph says:

    DNA test… Sometimes only way to know you are not adopted :)

  15. Brian Stevenson-Smith says:

    Is there currently any data base or organization tracking DNA records of historical ancestry. So that current DNA test info. of individuals can be compared to DNA info. of historical figures(e.g. the latest Richard III with a living relative in Canada)?

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