Sometimes I receive a question that just stops me in my tracks. This past week, when a very experienced genealogist ask me “Why do you guys DNA test anyway?,” I was so dumbstruck as to be almost speechless. Well, almost, but not quite, and I recovered quickly.
I did manage to stifle the urge to say “because we can,” but there would have been some truth in that statement.
For me, DNA testing is just a fact of life, ingrained into every molecule of my being, so I had to think a bit before answering.
Why do we do this anyway???
- Because we can! Ok, I just had to say it, to get it out of my system. But in reality, it’s true, because you don’t know what you don’t know. And it’s low hanging fruit. For between $49 and $99, at Family Tree DNA you can take a multitude of tests, but primarily Y DNA, mitochondrial DNA and autosomal. And with that, you can find out what it is that you don’t know. The story of “Finding Anne Marie” is the perfect example. In fact, it has been turned into a book.
- We test to discover if we are related paternally (Y-DNA) to others of the same or similar surnames. This also means that we can eliminate researching any lines that you don’t match. So we do it so we can stop barking up the wrong tree, and hopefully, bark up the right one. This article about Triangulation for Y DNA talks about surname matching. This paternal Y test was one of the first and is still probably the primary DNA genealogy test done today.
- We can test relationship theories. For example, let’s say that we don’t know who the father of our ancestor is, but there are 4 male candidates, all brothers, in the county at the time our ancestor was born. Certainly, being rabid genealogists, we’ve already done the genealogy work, like check tax records, census schedules, church records and anything local, but now we need big guns because those resources didn’t reveal parentage. This story about the Perez family in Guam and in Hawaii illustrates this beautifully and uses both Y DNA in combination with autosomal. In the case of the 4 brothers above, we can search for their wives surnames in our matches and see if we can identify which couple by using the wive’s lines’ DNA.
- We test to find out about our ancient ancestry. What “clan” or haplogroup did we come from? There are a number of tests we can take to discover if we are Native American, for example, or African. Some tests, like the autosomal tests, look back only a few generations, so they are broad, not deep, and some, like the Y and mitochondrial tests are very deep, going back hundreds of generations, but not broad at all, focusing like a laser beam on only that one specific direct line. This article about “Proving Native American Ancestry Using DNA” tells about the various kinds of tests and how they can help with genealogy.
- We test to create a DNA pedigree chart that parallels and integrates with our genealogy pedigree chart. Every ancestor and their DNA has an ancient story to tell that would be silenced without DNA. In essence, we recover ancestry otherwise lost to us. How else would you ever find out that you descend from Vikings or Niall of the 9 Hostages?
- We test to better understand our genesis. For example, we want to map our chromosomes to know which one came from which ancestor. Ok, maybe number 6 only applies to geeky genealogists – but there appear to be a lot of us out there. Kitty Cooper’s new mapping tool is quite popular.
- We test to find our family. Just today, I “met” a cousin I match autosomally and we discovered that we have some of the same “coureur du bois” stories in our Acadian families. The difference is that she knew what they were, and I didn’t. Click – that’s the sound of a puzzle piece falling into place.
- Some people test to prove paternity, or find biological parents or siblings. Over the past couple of years, several great adoption tools and groups have been formed as we’ve learned to work more effectively with autosomal DNA.
- We test because it’s fun. It adds another dimension and several more tools to the addiction we love, genealogy.
- Some test to discover more about their health traits. For some, this health information is just a side benefit, but you never know when that health information will have a profound influence on your life.
- Some people want to participate in scientific research. This is probably not a primary reason to test, but it does motivate a lot of people and this is one field where an individual can still actively participate and make a difference, sometimes a huge difference.
- Some people, like Lenny Trujillo, want to leave a legacy and what a legacy he has left. This is one of the most common reasons people order the Personalized DNA Reports. In some cases, their DNA line ends with them, but in others, it’s a way of leaving information for future generations. Many people have these reports bound and give them as family-wide gifts.
- We test because we want to find the location in Europe, or wherever “the old country” is for our family, that our immigrant ancestors came from. The Speaks family is a great example. The American group had tested and confirmed the DNA of the original immigrant, but we didn’t know where the Speaks family came from, although we believed they immigrated from England. Another Speaks family member, from Australia, tested, and matched the American group. The difference was that our Australian cousin knew exactly where his English ancestor was from. Through DNA testing, we found the home of our Speaks family in Gisburn, Lancashire, England. You can read about it in “The Speak Family – 3 Continents and a Dash of Luck.”
- We want to prove or disprove our oral history. In many cases, that history includes some type of minority admixture. By minority, I mean not our primary ethnicity. In the series, “The Autosomal Me,” I described in agonizing detail how to use tiny bits of DNA to do just that, and to identify which family lines contributed that minority admixture. In my case, both Native and African. Native had always been a part of our family’s oral history, but the African was initially a surprise.
- We test because we’re curious about where we came from, who we are related to, what they know about our ancestors that we might not. As I’ve said before, “It’s About the Journey.” Inquiring minds want to know…..
Now, aren’t you sorry you asked???