Testing Ancestry’s Amazing “New Ancestor” DNA Claim

ancestry new ancestor intro

On April 2, 2015, Ancestry rolled out its new ”New Ancestor Discoveries” feature.  The graphic above is now what greets me when I sign into Ancestry.com.

I wrote about my incorrect “new ancestor,” both of them actually, the day after the rollout. Contrary to what some people thought, this was not an April Fool joke – neither their release nor my article.

The software rollout was accompanied by a press release, in which Dr. Ken Chahine is quoted, among others, about Ancestry’s “New Ancestor” feature which claims to identify new ancestors for you by utilizing only your DNA, and not matching trees.  Their already implemented DNA Circles feature uses a combination of DNA matching and common ancestors found in trees between those matches – but this new feature uses only DNA.

“It is effectively a shortcut through time – you take the test today and we tell you who your ancestors were, for example, in the 1700s. You don’t need to research records or build a family tree – AncestryDNA now transports you to the past,” said Dr. Ken Chahine, SVP and GM of AncestryDNA.

Needless to say, if this is true, it holds unparalleled promised for genetic genealogists.  After all, that’s what we all want – that elusive brick wall ancestor delivered to us – and our DNA has the potential to do just that.  In fact, for those of us brick walled in colonial America, especially in counties with no records, our DNA is the only hope we have of ever solving that mystery.

However, I find the claim that “you don’t need to research records or build a family tree” quite astounding – bordering on the incredulous.  An amazing claim for a genealogy company to make.  In fact, I reread that several times in disbelief, actually, and it has been bothering me ever since.  Ken Chahine is by no means an unintelligent man.  He’s a lawyer and a Ph.D. in biochemistry, among other things – so fully aware of the weight of his words.  I sincerely doubt, however, that he is a genealogist.

The video in this Ancestry blog by Kenny Freestone provides additional information and says that about three fourths of the “new ancestors” given to people are actually ancestors and the other one fourth are people who lived at the “same time and place as your ancestors so could be helpful as clues to point you in the right direction.”  That’s a bit of a different statement than the claim in both the e-mail and on my Ancestry DNA home page, shown below, that “we found you new ancestors.”

new ancestors hype

new ancestor e-mail 2

Ignoring Ancestry’s obvious hype, and the fact that both of my new ancestors aren’t, maybe things aren’t as bad as they appear at first glance.  I’m trying to be generous here.  Maybe if you don’t have a large, developed tree, this new feature is more helpful. Maybe it’s a fluke that I received two new ancestors and they were both unquestionably wrong.

Clearly, I realize that I’m one of the outliers – I have decades worth of experience in genealogy research and 15 years in genetic genealogy spent confirming paper genealogy.  So, I have an advantage that newcomers don’t have in that I know my ancestry back several generations and it has been proven with traditional genealogy records and confirmed with genetics through the 6th generation in most cases, and further back in some.

I’m also Ancestry’s worst nightmare – I’ve already spent my money for the test.  I know what DNA can do, what’s not being done and, along with others in my boat, am constantly clamoring for more – usually a chromosome browser, but in this case, just accurate representation.  I’m also far from alone.

Ancestry, on the other hand, fully knows that the rabid genealogists have already spent their $99 for their DNA test, so there is no incremental revenue to be had from us, aside from our subscriptions which we’re going to renew anyway.  Ancestry is focused on making DNA (and genealogy) easy and on recruiting new people.  That’s certainly not a bad thing – until it crosses the line between fact and wishful thinking.

Because of the investment in time, money and DNA that I’ve made personally over the years, I was able to very quickly discount the two “new ancestors” that Ancestry “found” for me.  Yep, Ancestry’s worst nightmare.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

But Ken Chahine’s claim really made me wonder.  What if I was a new person?  That’s clearly who Ancestry is targeting – someone who has never worked with a tree.  Ancestry wants them to test as the doorway, the entry, to genealogy.  How effective would this test be for them?  Is there a way, short of testing a second time, to find out?

Indeed, there is.  So let’s see if Ancestry really can do what Ken Chahine said.  Let’s try to prove Ken right.

We’re going to do something called regression testing.  In the technology world, this is where you already know the answer, but you set the system up to see if it can find the correct answer through the software only.  Think of new calculator software and testing to make sure when you add 2 and 2 you don’t get anything other than 4.  We’re going to use what we know about my matches, trees and DNA Circles through my normal tree and then we’re going to start over from scratch with a bare-bones tree and see what Ancestry finds.

My Proven Tree

First, let’s look at where we stand today, with my regular tree at Ancestry.  I’ve been a well-behaved genealogist and have done everything I can to help myself find connections.  I’ve entered my ancestor information and attached relevant hints, discarding others.  I have entered my full direct line tree at Ancestry, so all of my ancestors are available, with appropriate source information attached.  My tree is public.  I’m not holding out.  You notice there are no shakey leaves on my tree – that’s because I follow up on every single one of them.

ancestry claim full tree

Based on that information, here is what my DNA landscape at Ancestry looks like, utilizing my full tree, today.  I am a member of 16 DNA circles,  have 135 shared ancestor hints .

ancestry claim matches

And, oh yes, those two “new ancestors” gifted to me by Ancestry who aren’t my ancestors.

ancestry claim wrong ancestors

Of my 16 DNA Circles, several are relatively robust with 14, 15, 17 and 18 members.  These would be the best candidates for “New Ancestors” because there are so many matches.  Those four are Henry Bolton and wife Nancy Mann along with Nicholas Speaks and wife Sarah Faires.  You can see the number of members in the Circle at the bottom of each Circle below.

ancestry claim circlesancestry claim circles 2

Recreating Myself as a Newbie

In order to become a newbie again, I created a new mini-tree showing only my parents.  That’s where many people start.  I made my robust tree “private” and my new tree “public,” which means that Ancestry will not use the private tree for DNA comparisons, and will instead use the public tree.  Then I linked my DNA to my new mini-tree (under the settings gear under the DNA tab.)

ancestry claim mini tree

Given that with the robust tree, I have 16 DNA Circles and my two “new ancestors” who are not my ancestors at all, I should receive at least a subset of those circles and probably those erroneous “new ancestors” with the new mini-tree.

Ancestry told us previously that they refresh their database every 4 hours or so.  Sure enough, in just a few minutes, my circles and shakey leaf hints had all disappeared, which they should because those ancestors don’t exist in the new mini-tree.  However, my two “new ancestors” who are not my ancestors at all both remained.

So, I waited, because I’m sure that some of the Circles I was a member of with my robust tree will be shown now as “New Ancestors” with my mini-tree.

Be aware that Ancestry does have some hiccups in this beta version of the software.  It took overnight for the “switch” to the new tree to be completely effective, and in the meantime, it seemed to have been reading from both the new and old trees.  I know this because, at one point, it gave me back my 16 circles, which, of course is impossible because my mini-tree doesn’t include any ancestors other than my parents.  So, if you’re going to try this experiment, give it at least 24 hours to completely switch.

By the next day this had sorted itself out and I showed the following “New Ancestors.”

ancestry claim new ancestors

In addition to the same two “New Ancestors” who aren’t, Ancestry also gave me three correct ancestors, based on DNA alone, two of which, Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann, were DNA Circles previously, and the other new ancestor is their son.

I wonder where the other 14 Circle ancestors are and why they weren’t discovered?  Perhaps I didn’t match enough DNA or enough people, but that’s odd, because in many of the circles I DNA match far more people, as many as 7, than the two matches used to “give me” Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte, incorrectly, as ancestors.

For a newbie who has no way to differentiate – meaning they don’t know who their ancestors are – this would be very exciting – and partially accurate.  However, there is no way to tell the difference between the accurate and inaccurate.  In fact, as a newbie, you have no way of knowing that some ARE or even might be inaccurate.  After all, Ancestry told you they are ancestors.  Why would you disbelieve them?  If someone finds that one of these ancestors is correct, they are likely to assume they are all correct, and probably vice versa.

I can’t tell you how ecstatic I was to receive two new ancestors, hoping they were brick wall ancestors, and then how horribly disappointed I was to discover that they weren’t.

Remember, for me to receive two new ancestors would mean a 30+ year brick wall would be falling that I have never been able to budge any other way.  Had these matches not been represented as “new ancestors,” I would have had an entirely different set of expectations.  Not only are they not ancestors, I can’t figure out how they are connected at all.  The best I can figure is that I match the two individuals who make up the New Ancestor “circle” on two different, unrelated, unidentified lines.  But let’s skip that for now and look at the three accurate ancestors as if I were a newbie.

Working With Results

Looking at my newbie results, Joseph Preston Bolton would be the easiest ancestor to find, as he shares a common surname with my grandmother and is her grandfather.  If I were an adoptee, of course, I wouldn’t know that, but if I know my grandmother’s surname, I would pick up on that commonality right away, as well as the locations shown in the story displayed for each new ancestor by clicking on the little leaf provided in the upper right hand corner.  Joseph’s is partially shown below.

ancestry claim joseph bolton

While the stories provided by Ancestry are all at least partially incorrect, because they are created from compiled trees – there are useful hints therein – if you know that’s how to interpret this information.  A warning, discussion or disclaimer about accuracy in the verbiage would be a nice touch – before the newbies make all of those novice mistakes and create even more incorrect trees by just accepting everything at face value.  We were all newbies once and did this – only to have to unravel it later.

The Good

The best part of this new feature is actually the new compiled “Facts” tab.

ancestry facts tab

It is a great tool to have the combined possible sources, possible facts and possible family members in one place.  I do really like this.  And Ancestry did the right thing and labeled them “possible.”  In this case, for Joseph Preston Bolton, these are from 188 combined family trees and I know beyond a doubt some of the information is wrong (like Joseph’s second wife’s Martin children from her first marriage are listed as Joseph’s children), but when I was sorting through Joseph initially, I would have loved to have had this repository of “possible facts” available in one place to sort through.

So, yes, I do think this tool could be very useful.  And I do think one day we will be able to tell people who their ancestors are, reliably, utilizing DNA alone.  But that day is not today.  So let’s say something more accurate, like “Your DNA suggests these people may be your ancestors or may be otherwise related to you.”

The Bad

My problem with this new feature isn’t what it does or doesn’t do, or even how well – it’s how it has been portrayed and the extremely inflated marketing hype that came along with it.

I applaud what Ancestry is trying to do.  I have a huge issue with how they are portraying DNA results – both directly and by inference.

It’s fine to give us “hints,” although what we really need is a chromosome browser.  But don’t give us a “hint” under the guise of something it isn’t – a new ancestor.  Call it what it is.  Don’t misset expectations.  This leads either to people who believe the hype and are wrong, seeding incorrect genealogies and trees, or people who discover they’ve been misled and then become disenchanted with both genealogy and genetic genealogy.

And Ken is right about not needing to build a family tree in order to take the test – even though that’s not exactly what he said.  However, receiving disarticulated ancestors, both correct and incorrect, means you absolutely must build a tree in order to figure out which ones actually ARE ancestors.  And then you’re disappointed to discover that some of your ancestors, aren’t, because they were represented as your “new ancestors.”  Of course, by the time you figure this out, you’ve already paid your DNA test money and you’re, hopefully, excited and motivated to find more.  I’m sure that’s the entire point, but saying that, “You don’t need to research records or build a family tree,” is a tad misleading.  Receiving 2 or 3 ancestors is not at all the same thing as knowing how you connect to them – and the only way to make that discovery is through research and by creating a tree.

So, in a way it’s better if you’re a newbie, because you’re more likely to receive a “new ancestor,” but it’s also worse because you have no tools or experience to judge whether your new ancestor actually is your ancestor – or how to connect to them.

Unfortunately, the newer or more naïve the tester, the more apt they are to accept Ancestry’s pronouncement of “new ancestor” at face value.  After all, Ancestry is a big genealogy company who deals with ancestors all of the time, and they are supposed to know what they are doing.  One would also presume they would not represent someone as an ancestor who isn’t, or who might not be, especially since Ancestry very clearly knows that some of these “new ancestors” aren’t.  I’m OK with them not being ancestors – just represent them appropriately.  “These MAY be your ancestors or you MAY be related to these people in another way,” might be a better way to present these results.

The Ugly

Playing fast and loose with the wording and over-representing what the product can do is going to give the entire industry a reputation for DNA being unreliable and testing companies as being smarmy.  Here’s an extract from a comment yesterday, “…the dna industry generally is not reliable.  So, while it may be fun to play with, none of this can be taken or should be taken seriously.”

Ouch, ouch, ouch.  While we know that’s not over-archingly true, it’s certainly the kind of commentary that Ancestry is inviting with its over-reaching and inaccurate marketing hype.  And that hurts all of us.

The Bottom Line

So I wouldn’t exactly say Ken is redeemed, but he wasn’t entirely wrong either – because by remaking myself as a newbie, I did receive three accurate ancestors along with the same two inaccurate ones.

By using my newbie results, Ken Chahine is 3/5th redeemed because 3 of my 5 new ancestors are in fact, ancestors, although we have no idea where my missing 14 ancestors who are circles with my robust tree have gone.  I have as many as 7 DNA matches to some of those circle ancestors who are absent, but only 2 DNA matches to the descendants of John Curnutte and Diedemia Lyons who are my incorrectly assigned “New Ancestors.”  So maybe Ken is really only 3/19th redeemed, depending on how you count.  Or, if you’re looking at my original results, my two “new ancestors” are still 100% wrong – so Ken is only partially redeemed if I’m a newbie with no prior info and no way to know my results are wrong.  So, I’m probably a very happy newbie camper (Wow – I got 5 new ancestors!) and a very unhappy experienced camper (I got 2 new ancestors and they are both wrong!)  Perception – it’s an amazing thing.

Regardless of how you count, If I were Ken, I’d still be going incognito to genealogy conferences where those experienced campers hang out wearing a wig and sunglasses for awhile.  Being 3/5th right about something as serious to genealogists as giving them incorrect ancestors is no saving grace, because it is still 2/5th wrong, especially when we know that given the tools we need, those of us who are so inclined could quickly eliminate the confusion.  It doesn’t have to be like this.

As a community we are beyond frustrated and exasperated, and exaggerated marketing claims are overshadowing the positive aspects of this new feature and making an already difficult situation worse.

What difficult situation, you ask?  The fact that people who don’t understand about genetic genealogy already claim that Circle membership “proves” ancestral descent (it doesn’t) and Ancestry consistently has refused to provide us with the chromosome browser tools we need to prove or disprove an ancestral connection.  Instead, we been given new ancestors who aren’t.  This is not a better mousetrap.  The only recourse we have is to beg our matches at Ancestry to download their results to either or both Family Tree DNA and www.gedmatch.com where we have tools.  That or blindly believe.

My Opinion

I hate hype, in particular untrue or misleading hype.  Out the gate, that colors my perspective of everything else and calls into question the credibility of the entity making the statements.

Setting that aside, I like the forward movement with technology and appreciate what Ancestry is trying to do.

This is indeed, the Holy Grail they are reaching for – being able to identify our ancestors based solely upon our DNA.  I said reaching for, because it’s certainly not here yet.  However, it’s not beyond reach either.  And I certainly want to encourage innovation – because, selfishly, I want to know who those elusive brick-wall ancestors are. I want new ancestors – real ones.

I am grateful for the information.  Ok, I would be grateful for the information were it accurate, or at least portrayed accurately – and it’s the portrayal that is really my issue here.

In my “real me” self, using the robust tree, I’m very irritated about receiving two incorrect ancestors, represented as my “new ancestors,” with no caveats, and no tools.  I am too wizened and seasoned to be a “trust me” kind of person.  I am not a blind believer.  I know better.  That combination of misrepresented and incorrect data is inexcusable because Ancestry knows better.  Not only that, they have the opportunity to provide the types of comparisons and tools that do represent proof, but have chosen not to.

In my “newbie” self that I recreated, I would have been excited to receive 5 new ancestors – and had no idea of what to do next – including no idea that two of them were entirely bogus.

The “real me” wants the novices to be successful – to come to love genealogy as many of us have over the decades.  To have the wonderful experiences we have had.  But to do that, they can’t be disenchanted by discovering that their ancestors gifted upon them aren’t true – after they’ve built that incorrect tree that is being copied.

The technology could be improved.  No doubt about that.  But first steps first and you have to crawl before you can walk.  I actually want to compliment the behind the scenes people for the work they have done.  Unfortunately, that effort is being overshadowed by the “in your face” marketing BS.

However, it takes no development effort to modify the way this test and results are portrayed to the consuming public.  And right now, that is what is needed most.

So, I’m happy that Ancestry is making this technology effort.  I’ll be excited when the methodology is perfected, a few years down the pike.  I’m glad to see Ancestry pushing the edge of the frontier.

I’m extremely unhappy with the combination of Ancestry’s overzealous marketing of this often incorrect new feature with the lack of the tools Ancestry clearly knows we need.

The most frustrating aspect is that the lack of tools holds our ancestors hostage just beyond our reach.  They could do so much.  Did Ancestry really think we would be appeased by Circles and “New Ancestors” that aren’t?

The Back Fence

You can see what others in the genetic genealogy community have to say about “New Ancestors,” below, and you can read the comments on my original article  and Ancestry’s blog postings as well.  Like I said, I’m far from alone.

Dr. David Dowell – Does Ancestry Think We are NOT OK?

Elizabeth Ballard – Ancestry DNA Has Now Thoroughly Lost Its Mind

Kathleen Carrow Ingram – New Ancestors You Tell Me?  No proof?  Is this an April fool trick?

Annette Kapple – New AncestryDNA Circles: You Need A Big Tree

Judy Russell – Still Waiting for the Holy Grail

John D. Reid – “New Ancestor Discoveries” through AncestryDNA and beyond

Ancestry Gave Me A New DNA Ancestor – And It’s Wrong

About six weeks ago, Ancestry had a meeting with a few bloggers and educators in the genetic genealogy community and brought us up to speed on a new feature that was upcoming.  Ancestry showed us their plans to expand the DNA Circles feature, although to be very clear, to the best of my knowledge, none of us were involved in any type of beta testing with Ancestry.

Today, Ancestry assigns you to DNA Circles based on a combination of your DNA results and your tree, based on common ancestors shown in trees of matching individuals.  I wrote about Circles and how they are calculated in the article, “Ancestry’s Better Mousetrap – DNA Circles.”

As an enhancement to DNA Circles, today Ancestry rolled out their new feature which is called “New Ancestor Discoveries” where Ancestry assigns ancestors to you based on DNA matching alone, without matching ancestors in your trees.

And, in my case, they are wrong.  Unquestionably wrong.  What I hate the most about this situation is if you’re not a genetic genealogist, and you haven’t done your homework, you’ll be thrilled with your new wrong ancestors, “proven,” of course, by DNA.

new ancestor discoveries

We received a quick glimpse of the pre-beta product – and truthfully – if this was accurately done and appropriately portrayed as a DNA match with people who shared common DNA and maybe a common ancestor – I could be excited.  In fact, I was excited.

I do believe this type of matching can be done accurately – but Ancestry has missed the mark – not just with me but from other early reports in the community as well – with lots of people.  Portraying this match as a “new ancestor” is wrong and it’s terribly misleading.

Here’s what Ancestry has to say about the New Ancestors matching.

new ancestors

new ancestor circles

Ok, what does Ancestry have to say about Diedamia Lyon, my New Ancestor who is not my ancestor?

New ancestor Diedamia Lyon

Clicking on the green “Learn About” button shows me the “facts” that ancestry has gleaned from their trees about Diedamia Lyon.

new ancestor Diedamia story

What this tells you that isn’t immediately evident is that Diedamia Lyon was married to John Curnutte, my second “New Ancestor.”  There is a “Facts” tab that shows you the sources that Ancestry used to create Diedamia’s story.  They have used compiled data from 215 trees.  I cant’ speak for Diedamia, but I know several of my Circle Ancestor’s stories are wrong – based on the compiled trees – substantially wrong in fact.  Because the trees are wrong.

new ancestor Diedamia sources

So, in essence, Ancestry is saying that I descend from both Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte, an ancestral couple.  This would be invaluable, if it were accurate.  Ok, how did Ancestry connect those dots to arrive at that conclusion?

Clicking on the “See Your Connection” button under the Circle icon shows you the members of the Diedamia Lyon Circle.

New ancestor Diedamia circle

I have DNA matches with Don and Michael who are members of the Diedamia Lyon circle.  Clicking on Don, I can see that he has DNA matches to Michael and three other individuals who I don’t have DNA matches with in the Diedama Lyon circle.  However, all of those individuals also share a pedigree chart and Diedamia Lyon is their shared ancestor.

New ancestor Diedamia circle 2

I can click on any of these people and see who they match in the circle, or I can see a list.

What I can’t see is how Ancestry drew those DNA conclusions.  There are no tools, no chromosome browser, and obviously, “trust me” isn’t working.

I want to share with you how I know, beyond any doubt, that Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte are NOT my ancestors.  I am a long-time meticulous researcher.  I would invite you to search for any of my ancestors’ names on this blog.  I have been writing about one ancestor per week now for more than a year in the 52 Ancestors series and, if I have written about them, you can see the types of information we have on each one.  I know which of my ancestors are proven and which are questionable.  So, let’s see why Diedamia and John cannot be my ancestors.

First, we can eliminate my mother’s line.  My mother’s ancestors are from Holland, Germany, Canada/Acadia and one line from Vermont/Connecticut.  They are all accounted for and I know where they were, shown below.

new ancestor mother tree

The 6th generation shown above is the generation into which Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte, both born about 1800, would fall.  Mother’s generation 6 ancestors, at the far right, were all born between 1766 and 1805, many in Europe.  You’ll note there are no blank spaces for missing ancestors and the geography is not southern – meaning no place near Wilkes County, NC where Diedamia was born in 1804.  So, my mother’s side is immediately eliminated.

My father’s side, however, does have several lines that come through Wilkes County, NC and many other southern lines. So the connection would be through my father’s side of the family.

new ancestor father tree

Again the 6th generation would be where Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte would have to fit if they are my ancestors, and there are no blank spaces here either.  All of these ancestors were born between 1759 and 1804.

Of the above generation 6 ancestors, the following have a Wilkes County connection:

  • Elijah Vannoy born in Wilkes County about 1784
  • Lois McNiel born in Wilkes County about 1786
  • William Herrell born about 1789 in NC, possibly Wilkes County where he married in 1809
  • Mary McDowell born 1785 NC, possibly Wilkes County where she married in 1809

New ancestor Herrell tree

Looking at the pedigree chart of William Herrell and Mary McDowell, you can see that indeed there are some unknown wives.  John Herrell was born in about 1760, possibly in Frederick Co., VA and Michael McDowell in 1747 in Bedford Co., VA.  While the connection may be through these lines, it’s clearly not from any two people born in 1800 and is at least in the 7th generation – IF the connection is through these lines.  At this point, this is the most likely connection because it’s in the right location and there are two unknown wives.  If I had triangulation tools, I could probably tell you immediately.

Now let’s look at the pedigree chart of Elijah Vannoy and Lois McNiel, also from Wilkes County.

New ancestor Vannoy tree

As you can see, this pedigree is even more complete than the Herrell/McDowell pedigree.  Not only is there no room for a couple born circa 1800, there are no unknown parents for another 3 generations prior, not until the 9th generation.  The only individual here through the 8th generation not proven via both paper and genetics, meaning triangulation, is Sarah Coates.

So, not only are Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte NOT my ancestors, it’s very unclear how they are related to me, IF they are related to me.  It’s obvious that the only way we are related is that someplace upstream, I do share a common ancestor with both Don and Mike who share the Lyon/Curnutte tree with each other and several others as well, but that does NOT mean that I descend from Diedamia and John, nor that I share a common ancestor with them.

Now, if I share the SAME DNA segment with Don and Mike that could be triangulated to the Curnutte/Lyon descendants, then that would mean we do all share a common ancestor someplace along the line.  But wait – Ancestry doesn’t use triangulation – nor do they give us the tools to do so.  So we have NO idea if we actually share the same DNA segments or not.

So, let’s take a look at the trees of both Don and Mike to see if we share any common surnames that might be linked.

Fortunately, Ancestry does provide an easy way to do this.  By clicking on your matches name to the right of the circle, and looking at their tree, Ancestry shows you the common surnames.

new ancestor match surnames

By clicking on the shared surname, you can see the people in both trees, theirs and yours, with that surname, side by side.

new ancestor surname list

All three of us have a dead end Moore line.  That is our only other surname in common, and Moore is very common.

So, it’s possible, given that we have no way to tell which segments are matching whom, that I match both Don and Mike through an entirely different ancestor, or ancestors, known or unknown. It’s also possible that someone upstream of Diedamia and John is a child of one of my unknown lines, and while Diedamia and John are not my ancestors, I do carry some of the same DNA as their descendants because we all share a common, unknown, ancestor.  But I have no way of knowing.

What I can do is to contact my two matches and see if they will download their DNA to GedMatch where I can get at the truth via triangulation.  It’s a shame we have to do that.

So, what is the net-net of this new tool?

  1. Ancestry missed, big time, especially by labeling the match as a “New Ancestor.”
  2. Ancestry can salvage the situation at least somewhat by renaming the “New Ancestor” something like “Common DNA Match.” This would alert people that there is some common ancestry someplace, but not mislead people into thinking that Ancestry really HAS discovered a new ancestor or ancestral couple. In some cases the named couple MAY be ancestors – but that’s certainly not always the case. And I don’t like the label “Potential Ancestor” either because I think it implies a much closer relationship than may be present. I remember how completely thrilled I was to see my “New Ancestors” names and without having enough experience to piece the puzzle together, both genealogically and genetically, I would never have known enough to be as disappointed as I am. I feel terribly sorry for the many people who will take this erroneous information as gospel – and the rest of us who will have to live with the incorrect fallout – forever. This amounts to a new way to create an incorrect ancestor and Heaven forbid, attach them to your tree.
  3. This would all be a moot point with a chromosome browser, but then again, Ancestry already knows that.

And I was so hopeful….

Fortunately, the New Ancestors feature is still in beta and changes can be made – and I hope they are.  I know Ancestry has already incorporated at least one the suggestions made as a result of the meeting a few weeks ago.

As I looked back over the new features and the information I received from Ancestry, I am especially concerned about the verbiage accompanying this information.

Here’s what greets me on my DNA page.

new ancestors hype

Here’s the e-mail I received.

new ancestor e-mail 2

The problem is – it’s just not true.  These matches may be valuable in some cases.  But they are not as represented.  This match is not my ancestor.

So yes, I do want Ancestry to “Show Me.”  Show me the chromosomes.  Show me how Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte are my ancestors.  Show me how you put 2 and 2 together and came up with this.  Show me.

Why Autosomal Response Rate REALLY DOES Matter

In my recent article “Autosomal DNA 2015 – Which Test is the Best?,” one of the comparison items between vendors I mentioned is response rate.  Specifically, I said, in reference to 23andMe, “Very low match response rate to inquiries.  Positive response is required to see matching DNA segments.”

This has generated some commentary, but based on the nature of the comments, both in terms of blog comments and private e-mails, I can tell that many people don’t understand why response rate matters at 23andMe.  On the other hand, some regular users of all 3 vendors felt I didn’t go far enough in explaining the difference and why response rate at 23andMe matters so much.

I’m going to see if I can make this issue a bit more clear.  Response rate really does matter and it’s not just whining!

apples oranges

At 23andMe YOU CAN’T SEE MATCH INFORMATION OR DO ANY DNA COMPARISON WITHOUT A POSITIVE RESPONSE FROM THOSE YOU MATCH.  In other words, they must reply in the affirmative – that they want to communicate with you AND that they want to share DNA results.  Otherwise, you can do nothing.

This is a process not required by either Family Tree DNA or Ancestry.  So, out the door, there is a very big difference.

At Family Tree DNA, you can see everything available WITHOUT additional correspondence, so while a response from a match would be nice, it’s not essential to being able to compare their DNA, see who you match in common, see their tree, if posted, find your common surnames, or perform any other function provided by the vendor.

At Ancestry.com, WITH a subscription, you can see your matches, their trees (if not private) and DNA Circles with no additional correspondence.  The only time you need to correspond with someone is if their tree is private or they don’t post a tree.

The operative words here are want and need.  At 23andMe, you absolutely positively NEED a positive response from each and every match (both authorization to communicate AND authorization to share DNA results) BEFORE you can DO anything.

So, comparatively speaking, a low response rate at 23andMe means that you’re only going to see a small fraction of your matches that are showing, while a low response rate at the other vendors is an irritant and comes after you’ve utilized the vendor’s tools and then asked your match for additional information.  In other words, no response at Family Tree DNA or Ancestry is not a barrier to playing.  At 23andMe, you’re dead in the water if your matches don’t respond.

In essence, 23andMe requires three authorizations to be able to see your matches DNA information: the original authorization to test, authorization to communicate and authorization to “share” DNA results.

With both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, one authorization, when you initially test, is all you need – although the tools and approach of these two vendors are very different as pointed out in the original article.

So, as you can see, the response rate at Family Tree DNA and Ancestry really isn’t essential to utilizing the tools, but it’s another matter entirely at 23andMe – so we’re not comparing apples to apples.

So, let’s look at the real effects of 23andMe’s authorization policy.

At 23andMe

At 23andMe, this is what you get, out of the box.  The person’s account I’m using for this first graphic tested for two purposes and is not interested in genealogical contact, so this is an “untouched” account, except that I’ve redacted the names, if showing, in blue to the left.  Looks good – all those matches, until you realize you can’t DO anything without contacting each and every single match.

23andme untouched

What isn’t obvious is that you can’t COMPARE your DNA or information with any of these people WITHOUT sending an introduction request.  In addition, they ALSO must authorizing DNA sharing.  And by the way, an introduction request and DNA sharing are NOT one and the same thing.  You can see the names of public matches, who have pre-authorized communications, but you cannot compare DNA with them.  You can’t even see the names of other (nonpublic) matches until you send an introduction request to them and they reply in the affirmative.  Those are the accounts above that just say “male” with no blue partially redacted name above them.

If you click on “Send an introduction,” here are your options.

23andMe intro request

You can request an intro and genome sharing in one message, but that doesn’t mean they’ll accept both nor does it mean that someone will send you a request for both.

This is what an introduction request looks like to the receiver.

23andMe contact request

Now, an introduction request only allows you to talk to your match.  If they do not ask for, or authorize genome sharing, next, you have to request to share your DNA results – and they also have to reply in the affirmative to that request too.

Not intuitively obvious you say?  Right!

Here’s the process to request to share genomes.

23andme dna share request

And here’s the reply step to authorize genome sharing.

23andme dna share authorization crop

Is it any wonder the response rate is low?

So, as you can see, just being able to see that you have a match is not the same thing as being able to utilize the information.  With Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, you can immediately utilize the information from all of your matches to the full extent of that vendor’s offerings.

At Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, here is what you see out the gate (full names redacted.)

Family Tree DNA out the gate

No contact request needed, no separate authorization to share DNA and no subscription required to see your matches, to compare DNA, to see who you match in common, to see their trees (if provided) or to see your matching surnames.  The little dropdown box under each person provides additional options.

You don’t NEED to contact your matches for anything.  You may WANT to contact them for genealogy information, especially if they have not uploaded or created trees.

At Ancestry – WITH Subscription

At Ancestry.com, to see all three available DNA related features, your matches, their trees (if provided and if public) and DNA Circles, you must have a subscription.  Ancestry offers a minimal subscription for $49, per year, for this purpose or a standard subscription covers DNA functionality as well.  You must have a subscription to see your matches trees and your DNA Circles.

Here is what your Ancestry match page looks like.

Ancestry with subscription

You don’t NEED to contact your matches to view results.  You may WANT to contact those you match and if their tree is private, you will have to contact them to request to see the tree or for the identity of your common ancestor if you have a shakey leaf.

Comparative Numbers

So, let’s look at this comparatively, for my accounts at the three vendors.

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry (with subscription)
Total Number of Matches 1373 2100 3950
Number of Matches I can see without special approvals (meaning a match response required) 0 (0%) 2100 (100%) 3950 (100%)
At 10% response rate, number of effective matches 137 (10%) 2100 (100%) 3950 (100%)
At 10% response rate, DNA accounts available to compare DNA 10% or 137  accounts 100% or 2100 accounts 0% (no chromosome browser)

This shows, in black and white, why a low response rate at 23andMe is so devastating.  The percent of people whose DNA you can see equals the response rate at 23andMe.  So if you have 1000 matches at 23andMe, but you only have a 10% response rate, it’s the same as having only 100 functional matches – because the rest are entirely unavailable to you – well except for the fact that they sit there and stare at you mockingly.

If one has a 10% response rate at 23andMe, and all of those responses are positive, and all authorize BOTH communication and DNA sharing, you are still only seeing 10% of the matches listed.  So, 1000 matches at 23andMe is not at all the same as 1000 matches at Family Tree DNA or Ancestry.

At Family Tree DNA, all of your match accounts are immediately available to you for viewing, communicating and comparison.

At Ancestry, you can see all of your matches (with a subscription), but you can’t compare the matching DNA because Ancestry offers no chromosome browser.

The Meat

The meat of genetic genealogy is comparing your actual segments to your matches.  So, let’s look at some real numbers.

I send a custom request to each of my matches at 23andMe and have been doing so since the product was introduced.

Looking at my top 100 matches, let’s see how many authorized sharing.

In a way, this is skewing the results, just so you know, because many of these matches are relatives who I recruited to test initially.  Plus I’ve worked on my closest matches at 23andMe much harder than my more distant matches, so this is an absolute BEST CASE scenario for the 23andMe numbers.  My actual response rate is about 10% for all matches.

At 23andMe, of my closest 100 matches, several of which are close family, 22 of my matches are sharing, one has declined and the rest are in limbo where I’ve sent an invitation and they have not responded. It’s interesting to note that of those 100, 23 are “public” which means that the intro step can be skipped, but they still have to be invited to share genomes.

Number of my 100 closest matches I can see:

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry
Number of 100 closest matches I can see 22 (22%) 100 (100%) 100 (100%)
Extrapolated by % to entire match total 302 of 1373 2100 of 2100 3950 of 3950

23andMe said that existing trees would be available until May 1, 2015, but I can find no trees attached to any of my matching 23andMe accounts now, although there never were many.

Number of trees I can see:

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry
Number of trees I can see 0 (0%) 33 (33%) 66 (66%)*
Extrapolated by % to match total 0 of 1373 693 of 2100 2607 of 3950

*The balance of Ancestry trees are 20 matches that have no trees and 14 that have private trees.  Twenty of the 66 have common ancestors, but of those, 6 are private trees.

Number of people with whom I can compare DNA segments in chromosome browser:

23andMe Family Tree DNA Ancestry
Number of people I can compare DNA 22 (22%) 100 (100%) 0 (0%) (no chromosome browser tool)
Extrapolated by % to match total 302 of 1373 2100 of 2100 0 of 3950

I hope these examples help make it clear why response rate really is an important factor – unfortunately – and why a response rate discussion about Family Tree DNA and Ancestry does not have the same meaning as a response rate discussion about 23andMe.

One of the best things 23andMe could do would be to get rid of the convoluted DNA authorization courtship Macarena dance.  There is no dance instructor, people don’t discover that they need to do it until after they test, and many people simply don’t understand, don’t bother or give up.  If 23andMe isn’t going to get rid of it, the LEAST they could do is to make it easy and step you through the process.  I don’t know who benefits from this, but I guarantee you, it’s not the genealogy consumer.


Autosomal DNA 2015 – Which Test is the Best?

One of the questions most often asked today is which autosomal DNA test, or testing company, is the best, meaning Ancestry, 23andMe or Family Tree DNA.

The answer is often that it varies depending on your goals, individual priorities and budget.  As with all things, circumstances with the vendors change over time.  They offer new products, change features and overall, sometimes their actions and choices make them more or less valuable and attractive to the consumer.

This article reflects my opinions about what is good, and bad, at each vendor, today, in February 2015, and what they do best and worst.  I am reviewing them in alphabetical order.


Best Feature

  • Ability to download matching information about who your matches match that you match as well, along with common matching DNA segments, allowing direct triangulation.

23andme best feature

In the example above, you can select the profile of any person you match and match  against the profile of anyone else you match, showing you the common DNA segments of all parties.

Good Features

  • Chromosome Browser
  • Ethnicity feature tends to report minority Native and African when other companies sometimes fail to do so.
  • Ethnicity painted on chromosome segments.
  • Matching names provided in order of frequency found – of course this assumes that the matches have entered a list of family surnames, which isn’t often the case.
  • Y and mitochondrial DNA haplogroup estimate provided.

Not So Good

  • Trees – were horrible before. 23andMe has recently partnered with MyHeritage which will require a subscription if your tree is larger than 250 individuals. The jury is still out on this but the initial release has been rocky and appears untested.
  • Most of their customers are not genealogists and are not interested or know little about their genealogy. Fortunately, serious genealogists often test with multiple companies so you’re likely to catch them at either Family Tree DNA or at Ancestry.
  • Very low match response rate to inquiries.  Positive response is required to see matching DNA segments.
  • Must communicate through internal message system.
  • Unfriendly website – difficult to find information.
  • Big Pharm alliances, contracts and medical patents – and your DNA is included one way or another, individually or aggregated, depending on the level of your authorization.
  • Corporate focus is on medical and not genealogical.
  • Customer support is poor, slow and often never replies.
  • Limit of roughly 1000 matches, at which point your matches begin to be trimmed. You can retain more if you have established communications with people. I have over 1200 matches today, but I don’t know how many I have lost. This can make your effective matching threshold much higher than their published number by virtue of the fact that your smallest matches are forever being trimmed after you reach the 1000 match threshold.
  • Spit kit versus swab kit.
  • Cannot adjust matching threshold.
  • V4 chip precludes data transfer to Family Tree DNA
  • Test not available worldwide, meaning data base is not worldwide.  Also not available in NY or MD.

Worst Feature

  • Horribly cumbersome and confusing multiple introductory and authorization/acceptance hurdles cause many people to not contact, communicate with and authorize sharing with most of their matches. I wrote about this here.



Best Feature

  • The shakey leaf hints that show you who, of your DNA matches, also share a common ancestor in your pedigree chart. This drastically reduces the amount of initial footwork you need to do.

shakey leaf

Good Features

  • The size of their data base increases likelihood of matching.
  • DNA Circles provides additional evidence of ancestral connection.
  • They are a genealogy, not a medically focused company.
  • Provides list and links to matching surnames on matches trees, even when no common ancestor is identified.
  • Clean, easy to use interface, although major changes have been announced and I have no idea whether that will be a positive or negative

Not So Good

  • Some people have private trees which means they can see your match information, including a common ancestor if there is one, but you cannot see theirs.
  • Ancestry ethnicity sometimes finds minority amounts of admixture, but can also be significantly incorrect on majority ancestry, so it’s difficult to have confidence in the consistency of results.
  • Subscription required (starting at $49) to see matches/circle members which may not be fully understood before testing by consumers. In my case, I have a full subscription, so it’s a moot point, but that is not the case with everyone and it can be an unwelcome surprise.
  • Ancestry’s consent allows them to sell anonymized results to buyers, including Big Pharm, should they choose to do so. As of October 2014 when I visited Ancestry as part of DNA Day, they stated that they had not sold any DNA data at that time.
  • Communication is only through internal message system.
  • Spit kit versus swab kit.
  • Customer service is often uneducated about genetic genealogy in general, although they are responsive.
  • Combination of matching and Circles leads people to believe that these are confirmed genetic matches to that particular line, even though Ancestry states otherwise, if one reads the text.
  • DNA is an auxiliary tool and not a primary or priority corporate focus.
  • Corporate history shows lack of commitment to DNA and to clients who tested – meaning their on-again-off-again DNA history the destruction of the Y and mtDNA data bases in October 2013.
  • Academic phasing may have trimmed real matches.
  • Test not available worldwide, meaning data base is not worldwide, although Ancestry has just announced availability in the UK and Ireland.
  • Y and mitochondrial DNA ignored.

Worst Feature

  • No chromosome browser or equivalent type of tool or tools. I can’t state this strongly enough and it is a HUGE negative and requires that you transfer your results to either Family Tree DNA or to Gedmatch where you do have tools.


Family Tree DNA

Best Feature

  • Full service genetic genealogy company – focused on genetic genealogy.

ftdna best feature

Good Features

  • Accepts transfers from Ancestry and V3 chip from 23andMe
  • Partnership with National Geographic for research.
  • Chromosome browser which includes in-common-with feature, search by surname and search by ancestral name.
  • Matching Matrix individually and within projects for administrators.
  • Projects and the ability within projects with advanced matching to see everyone you match autosomally within that project.
  • Match names and e-mails provided – not forced to utilize an internal messaging system.
  • Consent signed when ordering test is all that is needed for full matching and all features.
  • Does common surname matching with all matches – bolding the results.
  • Matching attempts to take highly endogamous populations into consideration.
  • Includes access to other genetic genealogy tools like various levels of Y and mtDNA tests.
  • Data base includes results for all tests, in one place, and resulting matches show Y and mtDNA haplogroups if that test has also been taken.
  • Searches can include multiple types of test results, like everyone who matches both the mtDNA and the Family Finder test.
  • Archives DNA for 25 years, allowing upgrades to be done on order without re-swabbing if DNA is adequate and viable.
  • Testing performed in in-house lab.
  • Project administrator liaison provided.
  • Educational webinars for general genetic genealogy education and new product/feature releases. Archived webinars available on demand.
  • Project administrator conference annually for the past decade.
  • New features regularly released.
  • Swab kit versus spit kit.
  • Responsive to customer and project administrator needs and requests.
  • Their customers more likely to be serious genealogists versus someone who tested initially for medical information (at 23andMe before December 2013) or impulse buyers.
  • They do not sell and do not request consent to sell your personal or aggregated data to outside buyers. If your DNA data is ever requested for an academic research project, you will be individually contacted for consent.
  • No subscription that increases actual cost of utilizing the test results.
  • Available worldwide (unless illegal in the location, like France.)

Not So Good

  • Cannot see if your matches also match each other on a specific segments, so cannot directly triangulate.
  • Cannot adjust matching threshold for initial match, but can after initial match.
  • Ethnicity often does not pick up small amounts of minority admixture found by other vendors and at Gedmatch.

Worst Feature

  • Trees are difficult to use.


1. In light of the above, my recommendation for autosomal DNA testing for genealogy if you can take only one test, order the Family Finder test with Family Tree DNA. They are unquestionably committed to genetic genealogy, have the most comprehensive set of tools, including a chromosome browser and other matching tools, and are overall the best company. The Family Finder test costs $99, unless you purchase when it’s on sale or have a coupon. (Current coupon code for $15 off is 15for15.)

2. If you can test with two companies, test with Family Tree DNA and Ancestry.com. You can do this by testing with Ancestry.com and transferring your results to Family Tree DNA,  This approach costs about $187 total: to test at Ancestry ($99), for the first year basic subscription at Ancestry to see all your matching results ($49) if you aren’t already a subscriber, then to transfer the results to Family Tree DNA (free) and unlock the results ($39) unless you find 4 more people to transfer and then the unlock is free.  Note that you will still need to swab to obtain the genealogy benefits of Y and mtDNA testing if you choose to take those tests in addition – and I hope you will because those are very valuable genealogy tools too and not available at the other vendors.

3. In my opinion, 23andMe has become a distant third in DNA testing due to their floundering and lack of commitment in the genealogy market-space, their prohibitively difficult introduction system that requires individual approvals for communicating and then for sharing of DNA (meaning matching) for each person you match, their recent alliance with Big Pharm, and their continuing lack of responsiveness to requests for genealogy enhancements. Lastly, you can no longer transfer your results from 23andMe to Family Tree DNA because 23andMe moved to the v4 chip (in December of 2013) which reduced the number of SNPs tested from about 900,000 to about 600,000, making the results incompatible with Family Tree DNA. However, just because they are third doesn’t mean you shouldn’t test there if you are really serious and want to fish in all of the ponds. It’s just the third choice if you can’t test at all three.

Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist just wrote an article, 2015, Most bang for the DNA buck, which I suggest you read as well.  She makes some very good points, although our approach is a bit different.  But then again, I’d expect that.  I’ve spent my life doing “analytical” types of things and she has spent her life doing “lawyery” types of things, and there is nothing better than two perspectives to draw from.

The Future

It will be interesting to see what the landscape looks like a year, 2 and 5 years from now.  I think the X-prize (pardon the pun) will go to the company or companies that provide comprehensive tools and make genetic genealogy as easy and productive as possible – for both the beginner and the advanced user.  No small feat – that’s for sure!

Getting the Most Out of AncestryDNA

If you’re going to swim in the pool, then by all means, get the most out of the experience!

In the genetic genealogy community, we have beaten Ancestry to death about what they don’t do (chromosome browser), and what they have and haven’t done (deleted the Y and mtDNA data bases), but there are some things that Ancestry does really well.  Records, for example, are one of those things, and I love those.  And hints.  Shakey leaves.

If I’m going to be an Ancestry customer, I want to get the most out of the combination of those tools as possible, so I’m going to walk through some tricks I learned for how to do that with AncestryDNA

Before I even start, let me say I’m fully aware of the shortcomings, some caused by Ancestry themselves, and some by the actions of their customers – meaning faulty trees, no trees and locked trees.  I’m not happy about those as a consumer, but the sheer size and magnitude of the Ancestry data base overcomes part of those shortcomings.  In other cases, we’re just going to work around the situation as best we can.  One thing is for sure, throwing the baby out with the bath water doesn’t benefit us one bit.  And I’ve already spent the money for the DNA test, and my subscription, so I want as much as I can possibly squeeze out of the experience.

Trees Matter… and So Does Size

Before Ancestry DNA, I was a no-tree person. Yep, I’m coming out of the closet.  The reason doesn’t really matter, because different people have different reasons and the bottom line is that they get to make their own decision regardless of whether the rest of us like it or not.

In my case, my reluctance to put a tree on Ancestry was because I did not want to upload the tree I have.  My tree has been “under construction” for, literally, decades now and I know there are things that are incorrect.  I would like to go in and work on every branch and “fix it”, but let’s face it, that’s just not going to happen.

However, DNA testing at Ancestry without having a tree is analogous to flying blind.  The best thing about the Ancestry DNA and tree matching is that they do the heavy lifting for you by showing you which people match your DNA AND have a common ancestor showing in a tree.  Those are the shakey leaf DNA hints.  Of course, that doesn’t automatically mean that your shared DNA comes from that ancestor, but it’s a great research starting point.

shakey leaf

Of my 3800 DNA matches at Ancestry, today I have 112 shakey leaf matches, or about 3%.

Of course, this dual DNA match and pedigree match suggests a line that may be a genetic match, but as we saw in the article, Secondary Genealogical and Genetic Lines, there may be a second line contributing to the DNA match or even entirely responsible for the match.  So, while this is a great “shakey leaf” hint, as Ancestry says, that’s all it is – a hint.

However, that’s really not so terribly different than the rest of Ancestry’s tools.  They show you shakey leafs for possible matching documents and trees and it’s up to you to use common sense and your knowledge of your family to figure out which hints are relevant to your situation, and which are not.

With no tree at Ancestry, I obviously had no shakey leafs, because Ancestry had nothing to compare too.

I wasn’t about to upload my entire file, so instead, I decided to create a bare bones tree at Ancestry, just for the DNA data base.  That’s actually not a bad idea, because it allows you to “touch” and fine tune each entry and utilize Ancestry’s matching strengths and avoid any problem areas.

So, I clicked on “Family Trees” on the toolbar and started a new tree with me, the tester, I added 4 generations.  That’s only 30 people.  Not too much to type and I only added the birth and death dates and locations.

Ancestry most tree

That is the total number of ancestors shown on Ancestry’s first page when your tree is displayed pedigree style, and I figured it would “catch” most of the DNA matches which I figured would be in the first few generations, especially since Ancestry’s rather harsh tree pruning.

Just so you know, I was wrong.

When I completed this tree, I waited until the next day and I checked my shakey leaves.  Ancestry told us when we visited in October 2014 that they run a data base update every 4 hours, but waiting until the next day assured that I had given them ample time.

I had a total of 41 shakey leaves.  I was pretty happy.  For awhile.  Until I started thinking, “what if?”

Ancestry provides matching shakey leaves up to 10 generations, with you counted as generation one, so I began to wonder what adding another few generations would provide.

I didn’t expect much, actually, since I figured that I had gathered the majority of what was to be gleaned already.

Again, I was wrong.  This is beginning to sound like a chorus from a Country song isn’t it!

I added another 4 generations, or at least as much as I could.

ancestry most tree 2

My shakey leaves jumped to 48 immediately, so they had increased by 7.  I was happy and that’s about what I expected, so imagine my surprise when the next morning I checked and noticed that I had 95 shakey leaf matches.

95 – Wow!

That’s double what I had before.

At first that didn’t make sense, because I thought surely most of those matches would be caught in earlier generations, until I actually looked at one of the “older” matches.

For example, Moses Estes – my match with Moses descends from Moses through a different child than my line – so there was no “common ancestor” in our trees before Moses.  And the further back you go in time, the longer they have had to have more descendants to test – so while the DNA segments become smaller as they are divided in each generation – there are also more people testing, so the odds of finding someone whom you match increases, up to a point.

So….you know what I did then….right???

I added two more generations where I had the information, and sure enough, the next day, I had 112 shakey leaves.

So, by going from 4 generations (plus me) to 10 generations (plus me) I also went from 41 shakey leaf matches to 112.  Granted, some of these are private trees and one has no tree, but 99 of the matches are visible to me.

Tree Hints

When creating your bare bones DNA tree, don’t overdo the bare bones part.  In order to actually help Ancestry help you, which is the goal here – you have to give them something to work with.

Ancestry uses a combination of matching factors, but here are a few dos and don’ts based on my experience and some experimenting.  Remember, this is not your life work….this is about making the tree most likely to catch fish – so don’t be terribly fussy.


  • Don’t use words in names other than names. Don’t say John “the Miller” Jones. The extraneous characters don’t allow matching. Same for parenthesis. In this case, just say John Jones. Ancestry will use other criteria to determine if it’s a match, like location, dates, spouse, etc.
  • Don’t add a string of pseudo names like “Sarah Sally Sary” Jones. That tends to confuse the software too, as do commas and other punctuation.
  • Don’t add two surname spellings like “Muncey or Munsey” or anything with a slash like “Muncey/Munsey”.
  • Don’t be too wordy with locations, like “Estes Holler, Claiborne County, TN” as a birth location. Stick with just “Claiborne County, TN.”


  • Provide locations, even if they are general, like a state. That helps in terms of matching and also helping people see if an alternate lineage might also match.
  • Provide dates as estimates, even if you’re not exactly sure. In cases where you have a date range, like 1840-1850, you can either enter that as a range or you can just use a date like 1845. The absolute date won’t disqualify the match, but I know Ancestry uses a variety of factors to see if it’s a viable match. In other words, you won’t be matched with Sarah Jones married to Jeff Smith born in the 1900s if yours was born in the 1600s.
  • Use the most common surname spelling. You can easily do a quick edit and change this from time to time to see if it makes a difference in who you “catch” in the net.

If you already have a tree at Ancestry that you are using, you might want to take a look at the first few generations with DNA matching in mind and perhaps groom it a bit.

DNA Circles

Ironically, nothing I did affected my circles or the number of circles I have.  DNA Circles and how they come and go mystifies me.  I have some circles that have been added since circles began, but I also have some circles that were present that are now gone.  Of course, it takes a minimum of 3 people to create a circle, and if one person in the group of 3 makes their tree private – poof – the entire Circle is gone.  The hint here is to check your Ancestry DNA page daily for new circles and new matches – because they may not be there tomorrow!

Ancestry creates DNA Circles back to 7 generations (with you counted as generation one1), not the 10 generations of tree matching, which may be why the addition of common ancestors, in my case, did not cause new circles to be created.  Ancestry does plan to expand the circles to 10 generation in the future.

Today, I have 13 circles.  Circles are a combination of people who match you on DNA and share an ancestor, and people who match each other, but not your DNA, and share that same ancestor creating a sort of human/pedigree/DNA chain to that ancestor, at least theoretically.

Even though DNA Circles aren’t proof of a genetic connection to that ancestor in question, they certainly provide some amount of evidence of common DNA and ancestry, especially if you and the other Circle members descend from different children from the same ancestor.

My circles have from 3 to 12 members, only some of which are shown below.

ancestry most circles

However, how I do or don’t match to people within the circles is vastly different.

ancestry most circle membersFor example, in the Jacob Lentz circle, I match the DNA of two individuals.  I do not match the DNA of the other two individuals, but they match the DNA of other circle members. Of course, we all share the same ancestor in our pedigree chart.

Again, without a chromosome browser this does not constitute proof, but it does constitute evidence.

When I look at the trees of my DNA matches, I noticed that we also descend through three different children of Jacob Lentz.  This is an important piece of evidence, because it means that we aren’t all three working from the same bad tree.

What I mean by this is that if one person published a bad tree that included my ancestral link to Jacob Lentz, and everyone copied it, then all of our trees would be “bad” in the same way and it could well appear like the DNA match confirms a “bad tree.”  Garbage in, garbage out.

So, descent from different children of a common ancestor is one of the things I look for in matches trees and DNA Circles to suggest that it might be a valid piece of evidence.

In one of my trees, Joel Vannoy, I am a DNA and tree match to every individual in the circle. In a different tree, Nicholas Speaks, I am only a DNA match directly to one person.  So, hopefully that one person doesn’t make their tree private or my link to that circle will be gone.

Ok, now that we’ve reviewed trees, matches and circles, let’s look at strategies to make Ancestry work harder for us.

Experimental Branches

I have to tell you, I’m just sure lightning is going to strike me for this one.  But darn, it works.

One of the main reasons I didn’t want to publish a tree on Ancestry originally was that I was concerned about the quality and accuracy of what was in my tree, especially since cut and paste seems to be a favorite mode of operation which makes wrong information “forever information” after it’s cut and pasted from the source tree.

So what I’m about to suggest runs against every fiber of my being.  And if it didn’t work so well, I wouldn’t even be telling you about it….but it does.  So the purist in me is just having to get over herself because the curious genealogist is winning out over the purist.

I have several situations where I’m just not positive about something in my tree, so let me tell you what I’ve done to help solve the mystery.

Sarah Hickerson

Let’s start with Sarah Hickerson.  I’ve written about this several times in various ways, but to summarize, we didn’t know the identity of the parents of Elijah Vannoy, born in 1786.  We did know they were one of 4 men in Wilkes County, all 4 the sons of one John Vannoy.  We also knew who all 4 sons married.

I decided to try an experiment and enter the most likely parents of Elijah Vannoy and see what happened.  I knew that the key to this mystery would be to prove the wife’s DNA, because the 4 Vannoy men were brothers.

Elijah’s most likely parents were Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson.  Furthermore, I knew the parents of Sarah Hickerson to be Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle (Little.)   I entered this information, not expecting much, when to my surprise, a DNA Circle appeared linking me with descendants of Charles Hickerson and Mary Lytle.  There was no DNA circle for Francis Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson.

I made contact with the people I matched at Ancestry and then found additional Hickerson matches at Family Tree DNA.  The rest, as they say, is history, but we proved the connection through triangulation techniques.

Without having entered the experimental couple of Daniel Vannoy and Sarah Hickerson, plus Sarah’s parents, we would never have been able to do this.  It wasn’t Sarah herself in the tree that made the difference, but the addition of her parents.

Nabby Hall

After that success, I noticed another “maybe” on my tree where I had the names of the potential ancestor’s parents as well.

I had Joseph Hill and his wife Nabby, with Nabby’s parents probably being Gershom Hall and Dorcas Richardson.  I entered Hall as Nabby’s surname, then entered her parents, and voila, next day, I had two matches to descendants of Gershom Hall and Dorcas Richardson through two different siblings.  So, between the three of us, we have matches through their 2 proven siblings and my suspected sibling.

There is no DNA Circle, so these are direct matches.  Unfortunately, my two matches have not downloaded their information to either GedMatch or Family Tree DNA.  I looked in the trees at Family Tree DNA, but I have been unable to find descendants of Gershom Hall and Dorcas Richardson, so I can’t prove this genetic connection just yet.

However, I know that it’s just a matter of time now until enough people test that someone will match and download their results to GedMatch or people from that family line will test at Family Tree DNA.

So, if you descend from this Hall line out of Tolland County, CT, please test at Family Tree DNA (where we have chromosome browser tools) or if you have tested at Ancestry, please transfer your results!!!  But mostly, please contact me!

Nancy Mann

I’ve been working with a cousin, Pam, for several months now to solve the mystery of the parents of Nancy Mann.  Our common ancestor is Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann, through different sons.

Through paper genealogy and mitochondrial DNA, we had narrowed Nancy’s line of descent to the Irish Mann family instead of the German Mann family in Botetourt County, VA.  However, the paper trail ran out for us, and I thought we were done.

Between Pam and I, we have more than 20 cousins who have tested.  Pam, noticed repeated matches in the cousins to specific surnames and she set about using those repeated names to reconstruct a tree.

She did, amazingly, and sent me an e-mail suggesting that I enter the tree as an experiment and see what happens.  Here is the experimental tree that Pam reconstructed which connects to Nancy Mann.

ancestry most experimental tree

I entered this tree as Nancy’s ancestors, feeling very guilty as it was unproven, and was utterly amazed at the results.

I have 9 shakey leaf matches within the group of potential ancestors: 1 to John Cantrell, 4 to John Cantrell and Hannah Brittain, 1 to Joseph Cantrell and Catherine Heath and 3 to Joseph Carpenter and Frances Dames.  You’ll notice that these are Nancy’s mother’s and father’s lines, both.  All but 2 are through different children.

I don’t match my cousin Pam, nor many of our other cousins, especially in her line, but when she looked at my matches compared to theirs, every match was in both of our lists except one.  Why don’t we have DNA Circles?  I have no idea.  We should have at least one even with the 7 generation limit.  Like I said, Circles and how they are created mystify me.

We are still in the process of confirming this at Family Tree DNA and/or Gedmatch.  Convincing this many people to download results is no trivial matter.

This possible tree growth spurt also needs to be worked backwards genealogically, via old-fashioned paper, if possible, to prove that Nancy Mann did in fact descend from James Mann and Mary Cantrell.  Sometimes if you know where to work “from to current” it’s much easier than trying to work backwards blindly.

Have I mentioned that my cousin is an amazing genealogist with an incredible eye for detail???

The Campbells

Encouraged by this apparent success, I decided to try another possible couple.  This one didn’t work nearly so well.

Based on deeds, we believe John and George Campbell of Claiborne County, TN to be the sons of Charles Campbell who died in 1825 in Hawkins County, TN.  Unfortunately, the Hawkins County records are incomplete and the proof documents we need are nonexistent or missing.  Oh, and there are no other known children so there is no one out there to match that knows they connect to Charles.

Family lore tells us a different story, that John and George are the sons of James Campbell, son of Robert Campbell and Letitia Crocket that also lived and died in Hawkins County, TN, albeit on the other end of the county in a different mountain range.  I have found no records to support that story, but also none to outright refute it.

I noticed that a couple of my matches on other surnames also had matches to this line, so I decided to remove Charles and enter James and his wife and parents.  No luck at all, not one match.  Now, I don’t know if this means that not enough people have tested or if I’m barking up the wrong tree.  We are not beyond the 10 generation matching limit.

It’s not like we can see how many other people have this individual in their tree AND have DNA tested that we don’t match.

Success Strategy

First, create a tree with the idea of making it useful for catching DNA matches.  This is not a masterpiece, but a tool for you.  You don’t need siblings or collateral lines.  The only thing Ancestry is going to look for are direct ancestors.

Think differently about experimenting with your tree than you did in the past. Allow yourself to experiment with different surname spellings, possible parents, reconstructing segments of trees based on multiple matches and anything else that might lead to a breakthrough.  Think outside the box.  Actually, throw the box away.

Keep in mind the 10 generation matching limit and the (current) 7 generation DNA Circles limit.  In both cases, you count as the first generation.

If you find information you think is useful to pursue genetically, then move, in whatever way you can, to a platform that has tools for you to use to triangulate your match, either at Family Tree DNA or at Gedmatch, or preferably both.

This “new tree strategy” is about finding evidence that you can use to further your paper genealogy or prove a genetic match.  It’s about utilizing Ancestry’s system to gather information in a bit of a different way to build an evidential case.  You may not be able to do everything at Ancestry, but utilize their strong points combined with your tree to increase the odds of finding your ancestors.

Those shakey leaves really are useful!  Make them dance for you.

Happy Hunting!!!

Secondary Genealogical and Genetic Lines

When we find an autosomal match in genetic genealogy, and we then discover that person shares a common ancestral line with us, we do our happy dance and  tend to forget that they might actually share a second line as well.

It’s easy to discount in the excitement of the moment, especially if you’re working in a situation where your match to that ancestral line on that segment has not been proven by triangulation.

But let’s face it, all genetic genealogy success stories, whether just one to one matches or triangulation begin with individual matches.

So, I was curious, just how many of our matches really do share a secondary genealogy line.

Now, let’s be very clear here about what a secondary line is, and is not.

This is my father’s pedigree chart.

father's pedigreeLet’s say that I find a match who shares the bottom center couple – Samuel Claxton and Elizabeth Speaks.

They automatically share the lines to the right of those ancestors in the pedigree chart – those who contribute to the DNA of Samuel and Elizabeth.  In this case, that would be Fairwick Claxton, Agnes Muncy, Charles Speak and Ann McKee.

As we move the pedigree chart out further in time – that list of common ancestors that we do share would include everyone on this chart including and beneath the blue cell, James Lee Claxton.  These are NOT secondary lines, just ancestors of the people in the original match that we would also expect to have received some amount of DNA contribution from.

father's pedigree 2

Now, let’s say we start looking at the tree of the person we match and we discover that they also share the top center ancestors, Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann.

father's pedigree 3

That is a secondary line, not connected genetically to the first line.

Obviously, if the person we match has ancestors living in the same geography as our ancestors, there’s a possibility that they will share a second (or even third) ancestral line.

How often does that actually happen?

I’ve been working with my shakey leaf matches at Ancestry.com.  Shakey leaf DNA matches are those with whom Ancestry has identified that you have a DNA match and a common ancestor in a tree.  I love shakey leaves!!!!  They save me so much work.

shakey leaf

Now, the easy assumption to make is that your DNA match is through the ancestor noted on the tree.  That’s certainly possible, and if that is your only common ancestor, it’s even probable – but without a chromosome browser and triangulation there is NO PROOF.

There is no way at Ancestry to prove a genetic relationship.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t gather evidence.

I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of matches at Ancestry, our common ancestor, which child they descend from and any other known common lines.

ancestry match spreadsheet

I have a total of 137 rows, each representing a shakey leaf match at Ancestry.com.

Of those, 16 disappeared with Ancestry’s new phasing rollout in November.  No, I am not “over that”…nor do I think it’s accurate because I match some of those same people elsewhere and triangulate with common ancestors.  Nuff said about that – no point in beating a dead horse.

Recently, Ancestry has added a feature that allows a hint to additional shared ancestors.  However, on mine, which is all I can really address, all of my multiple hints were to people in the same line where Ancestry appears to have been confused, perhaps by people’s trees.

For example, the three hints on the match below includes one, as shown, one to only the mother (Suzanna Berchtol) and one to their grandson’s wife’s mother (but not her father.)  But there was no match to the son and his wife.  These are not inaccurate, just confusing.

multiple hints

None of my multiple hints were actually to different lineages – although several matches’ trees do exist that include unquestionable matching to multiple lines.

Ancestry includes a great comparison feature.

If you view your shakey leaf match, they show you the common ancestor of both individuals in a tree, as show below with cousin Harold.

common surnames

If you scroll down, you will see the list of common surnames we share – in the green box on the left.

Because I know my own tree quite well, along with cousin Harold’s, I know by just looking at this list that all of these except one are from the same line as Joel Vannoy and Phoebe Crumley, our common ancestors.

But, for purposes of example, let’s say that I discover one that isn’t.

Let’s say Mercer isn’t a name from our known common line.

common surname compare

By clicking on Mercer, you can see that yes, indeed, we do share a common ancestor.  Hannah Mercer appears recognizably the same in both trees.

Looks like cousin Harold has more Mercers than I do, so I need to visit with cousin Harold about this.

Now let’s look at Webb, our name that is not from this common line.

common surname compare 2

Webb doesn’t match.  Furthermore, I haven’t entered anything about this person that even remotely identifies them, so I need to address that.  Even approximations are useful, and no information at all is not useful.

I went through this process for every single common surname for each tree that I match.  Of interest, there were only a few trees that didn’t have any surnames that I needed to check.

On top of the matches I lost through phasing, we need to subtract another 21 for private trees and one more because their tree won’t load due to a technical issue of some sort.  Of the 21 private trees, I have written to all 21, and 4 of the individuals answered me by telling me the name of our common ancestor.  However, that still does not provide me with the ability to see this page that shows our common matching surnames.

That leaves me with 99 shakey leaf matches whose trees I can see.

Of those, 52 do not have a common ancestor or a common line that makes me think we might have a common ancestor.  What the heck does that mean?

It means that roughly half of my matches either do or might have a secondary matching line.

Let me give you a couple of examples that make it difficult to decide.

Campbell – those darned Campbells.  First, I’m at a dead end with mine in Hawkins County, TN around 1800.  We do have a Y DNA representative from my line though, and we know that our Campbell line matches the Campbell clan line.  So, anyone where I see Campbell in their surname list, regardless of how far back in time that Campbell link goes – I categorize as “possibly Campbell.”  Because, frankly, we not only don’t know for sure how long that sticky DNA can stick together and I don’t know which line my Campbells descend from in 1700s Virginia, assuming that is where they came from.

Secondly, Hall.  My Hall family was from Tolland County, CT.  When I see someone else’s tree that shows a Hall ancestor from Tolland County, CT, even though they don’t connect with mine – I know darned good and well there is a very high likelihood that this is the same Hall family as mine.  So, I categorize that as “probably Hall.”

When I find a dead hit in terms of a common ancestor, I just enter their name in that column

I have 4 that I’ve categorized as “not recognizable” which means to me that it looks quite suspicious in terms of surname/geography, but no smoking gun like Hall in Tolland County.  I’m combining these with the “no” group for now, understanding that a “no” could turn into a “yes” with a breakthrough for anyone at any minute.

I have 13 labeled “possible.”

I have 7 labeled “probable” but ironically, two of those have two lines each that are not connected to each other.

I have 8 that are Acadian, meaning they descend from a large group of common surnames from the Acadian community.  This is a highly endogamous community and it’s nearly impossible to tell which DNA comes from where and originally belonged to whom.  This means that lines on my chart that appear to be disconnected probably are not.  I view these as all “yes” in terms of multiple lines.

I have 15 matches with positively confirmed secondary lines, and of those, another 5 possible third lines.

So how does this stack up:

No Possibly Probably Acadian Yes-Confirmed >2 lines
% Matches 56 13 7 8 15 10 + 8 Acadians

Truthfully, this is far more than I expected.  I thought it would be the rare match where I would have two disconnected genealogical lines.  In reality, it appears that it could be about half the time.  This certainly causes me to take a moment to pause and reflect – and makes triangulation even more important.

What this really means is that we cannot assume that DNA/Tree matches are connecting the dots between the right genetic lines and the right pedigree lines in a tree – because about half of the time, it could be the wrong line in our and their tree.  And this little experiment, by the way, cannot take into account the dead ends on either my tree or theirs that can’t be accounted for.

Let’s be very clear about this.  You DO share DNA with this person from a common genealogical line.  You MAY share DNA with this person from multiple lines.  The DNA may NOT have come down to you from both (or multiple) lines. From tools we have at Ancestry, we can’t tell which line or lines contributed the DNA.

The only way to prove a match is to a specific ancestral line is to triangulate the match, meaning that the same segment of DNA matches between a minimum of three people who share the same ancestor.  To do this, you need a chromosome browser, which Ancestry does not and says they won’t provide.

More and more Ancestry customers are transferring their results to Family Tree DNA and to GedMatch to take advantage multiple pools and tools.  So, you can’t prove a relationship at Ancestry, but there is still a lot of useful work that you can do based on your matches trees…so long as you don’t need proof.  In the next few days, we’ll be talking about how to maximize your AncestryDNA experience.

2014 Top Genetic Genealogy Happenings – A Baker’s Dozen +1

It’s that time again, to look over the year that has just passed and take stock of what has happened in the genetic genealogy world.  I wrote a review in both 2012 and 2013 as well.  Looking back, these momentous happenings seem quite “old hat” now.  For example, both www.GedMatch.com and www.DNAGedcom.com, once new, have become indispensable tools that we take for granted.  Please keep in mind that both of these tools (as well as others in the Tools section, below) depend on contributions, although GedMatch now has a tier 1 subscription offering for $10 per month as well.

So what was the big news in 2014?

Beyond the Tipping Point

Genetic genealogy has gone over the tipping point.  Genetic genealogy is now, unquestionably, mainstream and lots of people are taking part.  From the best I can figure, there are now approaching or have surpassed three million tests or test records, although certainly some of those are duplicates.

  • 500,000+ at 23andMe
  • 700,000+ at Ancestry
  • 700,000+ at Genographic

The organizations above represent “one-test” companies.  Family Tree DNA provides various kinds of genetic genealogy tests to the community and they have over 380,000 individuals with more than 700,000 test records.

In addition to the above mentioned mainstream firms, there are other companies that provide niche testing, often in addition to Family Tree DNA Y results.

In addition, there is what I would refer to as a secondary market for testing as well which certainly attracts people who are not necessarily genetic genealogists but who happen across their corporate information and decide the test looks interesting.  There is no way of knowing how many of those tests exist.

Additionally, there is still the Sorenson data base with Y and mtDNA tests which reportedly exceeded their 100,000 goal.

Spencer Wells spoke about the “viral spread threshold” in his talk in Houston at the International Genetic Genealogy Conference in October and terms 2013 as the year of infection.  I would certainly agree.

spencer near term

Autosomal Now the New Normal

Another change in the landscape is that now, autosomal DNA has become the “normal” test.  The big attraction to autosomal testing is that anyone can play and you get lots of matches.  Earlier in the year, one of my cousins was very disappointed in her brother’s Y DNA test because he only had a few matches, and couldn’t understand why anyone would test the Y instead of autosomal where you get lots and lots of matches.  Of course, she didn’t understand the difference in the tests or the goals of the tests – but I think as more and more people enter the playground – percentagewise – fewer and fewer do understand the differences.

Case in point is that someone contacted me about DNA and genealogy.  I asked them which tests they had taken and where and their answer was “the regular one.”  With a little more probing, I discovered that they took Ancestry’s autosomal test and had no clue there were any other types of tests available, what they could tell him about his ancestors or genetic history or that there were other vendors and pools to swim in as well.

A few years ago, we not only had to explain about DNA tests, but why the Y and mtDNA is important.  Today, we’ve come full circle in a sense – because now we don’t have to explain about DNA testing for genealogy in general but we still have to explain about those “unknown” tests, the Y and mtDNA.  One person recently asked me, “oh, are those new?”

Ancient DNA

This year has seen many ancient DNA specimens analyzed and sequenced at the full genomic level.

The year began with a paper titled, “When Populations Collide” which revealed that contemporary Europeans carry between 1-4% of Neanderthal DNA most often associated with hair and skin color, or keratin.  Africans, on the other hand, carry none or very little Neanderthal DNA.


A month later, a monumental paper was published that detailed the results of sequencing a 12,500 Clovis child, subsequently named Anzick or referred to as the Anzick Clovis child, in Montana.  That child is closely related to Native American people of today.


In June, another paper emerged where the authors had analyzed 8000 year old bones from the Fertile Crescent that shed light on the Neolithic area before the expansion from the Fertile Crescent into Europe.  These would be the farmers that assimilated with or replaced the hunter-gatherers already living in Europe.


Svante Paabo is the scientist who first sequenced the Neanderthal genome.  Here is a neanderthal mangreat interview and speech.  This man is so interesting.  If you have not read his book, “Neanderthal Man, In Search of Lost Genomes,” I strongly recommend it.


In the fall, yet another paper was released that contained extremely interesting information about the peopling and migration of humans across Europe and Asia.  This was just before Michael Hammer’s presentation at the Family Tree DNA conference, so I covered the paper along with Michael’s information about European ancestral populations in one article.  The take away messages from this are two-fold.  First, there was a previously undefined “ghost population” called Ancient North Eurasian (ANE) that is found in the northern portion of Asia that contributed to both Asian populations, including those that would become the Native Americans and European populations as well.  Secondarily, the people we thought were in Europe early may not have been, based on the ancient DNA remains we have to date.  Of course, that may change when more ancient DNA is fully sequenced which seems to be happening at an ever-increasing rate.


Lazaridis tree

Ancient DNA Available for Citizen Scientists

If I were to give a Citizen Scientist of the Year award, this year’s award would go unquestionably to Felix Chandrakumar for his work with the ancient genome files and making them accessible to the genetic genealogy world.  Felix obtained the full genome files from the scientists involved in full genome analysis of ancient remains, reduced the files to the SNPs utilized by the autosomal testing companies in the genetic genealogy community, and has made them available at GedMatch.


If this topic is of interest to you, I encourage you to visit his blog and read his many posts over the past several months.


The availability of these ancient results set off a sea of comparisons.  Many people with Native heritage matched Anzick’s file at some level, and many who are heavily Native American, particularly from Central and South America where there is less admixture match Anzick at what would statistically be considered within a genealogical timeframe.  Clearly, this isn’t possible, but it does speak to how endogamous populations affect DNA, even across thousands of years.


Because Anzick is matching so heavily with the Mexican, Central and South American populations, it gives us the opportunity to extract mitochondrial DNA haplogroups from the matches that either are or may be Native, if they have not been recorded before.


Needless to say, the matches of these ancient kits with contemporary people has left many people questioning how to interpret the results.  The answer is that we don’t really know yet, but there is a lot of study as well as speculation occurring.  In the citizen science community, this is how forward progress is made…eventually.



More ancient DNA samples for comparison:


A Siberian sample that also matches the Malta Child whose remains were analyzed in late 2013.


Felix has prepared a list of kits that he has processed, along with their GedMatch numbers and other relevant information, like gender, haplogroup(s), age and location of sample.


Furthermore, in a collaborative effort with Family Tree DNA, Felix formed an Ancient DNA project and uploaded the ancient autosomal files.  This is the first time that consumers can match with Ancient kits within the vendor’s data bases.


Recently, GedMatch added a composite Archaic DNA Match comparison tool where your kit number is compared against all of the ancient DNA kits available.  The output is a heat map showing which samples you match most closely.

gedmatch ancient heat map

Indeed, it has been a banner year for ancient DNA and making additional discoveries about DNA and our ancestors.  Thank you Felix.

Haplogroup Definition

That SNP tsunami that we discussed last year…well, it made landfall this year and it has been storming all year long…in a good way.  At least, ultimately, it will be a good thing.  If you asked the haplogroup administrators today about that, they would probably be too tired to answer – as they’ve been quite overwhelmed with results.

The Big Y testing has been fantastically successful.  This is not from a Family Tree DNA perspective, but from a genetic genealogy perspective.  Branches have been being added to and sawed off of the haplotree on a daily basis.  This forced the renaming of the haplogroups from the old traditional R1b1a2 to R-M269 in 2012.  While there was some whimpering then, it would be nothing like the outright wailing now that would be occurring as haplogroup named reached 20 or so digits.

Alice Fairhurst discussed the SNP tsunami at the DNA Conference in Houston in October and I’m sure that the pace hasn’t slowed any between now and then.  According to Alice, in early 2014, there were 4115 individual SNPs on the ISOGG Tree, and as of the conference, there were 14,238 SNPs, with the 2014 addition total at that time standing at 10,213.  That is over 1000 per month or about 35 per day, every day.

Yes, indeed, that is the definition of a tsunami.  Every one of those additions requires one of a number of volunteers, generally haplogroup project administrators to evaluate the various Big Y results, the SNPs and novel variants included, where they need to be inserted in the tree and if branches need to be rearranged.  In some cases, naming request for previously unknown SNPs also need to be submitted.  This is all done behind the scenes and it’s not trivial.

The project I’m closest to is the R1b L-21 project because my Estes males fall into that group.  We’ve tested several, and I’ll be writing an article as soon as the final test is back.

The tree has grown unbelievably in this past year just within the L21 group.  This project includes over 700 individuals who have taken the Big Y test and shared their results which has defined about 440 branches of the L21 tree.  Currently there are almost 800 kits available if you count the ones on order and the 20 or so from another vendor.

Here is the L21 tree in January of 2014

L21 Jan 2014 crop

Compare this with today’s tree, below.

L21 dec 2014

Michael Walsh, Richard Stevens, David Stedman need to be commended for their incredible work in the R-L21 project.  Other administrators are doing equivalent work in other haplogroup projects as well.  I big thank you to everyone.  We’d be lost without you!

One of the results of this onslaught of information is that there have been fewer and fewer academic papers about haplogroups in the past few years.  In essence, by the time a paper can make it through the peer review cycle and into publication, the data in the paper is often already outdated relative to the Y chromosome.  Recently a new paper was released about haplogroup C3*.  While the data is quite valid, the authors didn’t utilize the new SNP naming nomenclature.  Before writing about the topic, I had to translate into SNPese.  Fortunately, C3* has been relatively stable.


10th Annual International Conference on Genetic Genealogy

The Family Tree DNA International Conference on Genetic Genealogy for project administrators is always wonderful, but this year was special because it was the 10th annual.  And yes, it was my 10th year attending as well.  In all these years, I had never had a photo with both Max and Bennett.  Everyone is always so busy at the conferences.  Getting any 3 people, especially those two, in the same place at the same time takes something just short of a miracle.

roberta, max and bennett

Ten years ago, it was the first genetic genealogy conference ever held, and was the only place to obtain genetic genealogy education outside of the rootsweb genealogy DNA list, which is still in existence today.  Family Tree DNA always has a nice blend of sessions.  I always particularly appreciate the scientific sessions because those topics generally aren’t covered elsewhere.





Jennifer Zinck wrote great recaps of each session and the ISOGG meeting.




I thank Family Tree DNA for sponsoring all 10 conferences and continuing the tradition.  It’s really an amazing feat when you consider that 15 years ago, this industry didn’t exist at all and wouldn’t exist today if not for Max and Bennett.


Two educational venues offered classes for genetic genealogists and have made their presentations available either for free or very reasonably.  One of the problems with genetic genealogy is that the field is so fast moving that last year’s session, unless it’s the very basics, is probably out of date today.  That’s the good news and the bad news.



In addition, three books have been released in 2014.emily book

In January, Emily Aulicino released Genetic Genealogy, The Basics and Beyond.

richard hill book

In October, Richard Hill released “Guide to DNA Testing: How to Identify Ancestors, Confirm Relationships and Measure Ethnicity through DNA Testing.”

david dowell book

Most recently, David Dowell’s new book, NextGen Genealogy: The DNA Connection was released right after Thanksgiving.


Ancestor Reconstruction – Raising the Dead

This seems to be the year that genetic genealogists are beginning to reconstruct their ancestors (on paper, not in the flesh) based on the DNA that the ancestors passed on to various descendants.  Those segments are “gathered up” and reassembled in a virtual ancestor.

I utilized Kitty Cooper’s tool to do just that.


henry bolton probablyI know it doesn’t look like much yet but this is what I’ve been able to gather of Henry Bolton, my great-great-great-grandfather.

Kitty did it herself too.



Ancestry.com wrote a paper about the fact that they have figured out how to do this as well in a research environment.



GedMatch has created a tool called, appropriately, Lazarus that does the same thing, gathers up the DNA of your ancestor from their descendants and reassembles it into a DNA kit.

Blaine Bettinger has been working with and writing about his experiences with Lazarus.





Speaking of tools, we have some new tools that have been introduced this year as well.

Genome Mate is a desktop tool used to organize data collected by researching DNA comparsions and aids in identifying common ancestors.  I have not used this tool, but there are others who are quite satisfied.  It does require Microsoft Silverlight be installed on your desktop.

The Autosomal DNA Segment Analyzer is available through www.dnagedcom.com and is a tool that I have used and found very helpful.  It assists you by visually grouping your matches, by chromosome, and who you match in common with.

adsa cluster 1

Charting Companion from Progeny Software, another tool I use, allows you to colorize and print or create pdf files that includes X chromosome groupings.  This greatly facilitates seeing how the X is passed through your ancestors to you and your parents.

x fan

WikiTree is a free resource for genealogists to be able to sort through relationships involving pedigree charts.  In November, they announced Relationship Finder.

Probably the best example I can show of how WikiTree has utilized DNA is using the results of King Richard III.

wiki richard

By clicking on the DNA icon, you see the following:

wiki richard 2

And then Richard’s Y, mitochondrial and X chromosome paths.

wiki richard 3

Since Richard had no descendants, to see how descendants work, click on his mother, Cecily of York’s DNA descendants and you’re shown up to 10 generations.

wiki richard 4

While this isn’t terribly useful for Cecily of York who lived and died in the 1400s, it would be incredibly useful for finding mitochondrial descendants of my ancestor born in 1802 in Virginia.  I’d love to prove she is the daughter of a specific set of parents by comparing her DNA with that of a proven daughter of those parents!  Maybe I’ll see if I can find her parents at WikiTree.

Kitty Cooper’s blog talks about additional tools.  I have used Kitty’s Chromosome mapping tools as discussed in ancestor reconstruction.

Felix Chandrakumar has created a number of fun tools as well.  Take a look.  I have not used most of these tools, but there are several I’ll be playing with shortly.

Exits and Entrances

With very little fanfare, deCODEme discontinued their consumer testing and reminded people to download their date before year end.


I find this unfortunate because at one time, deCODEme seemed like a company full of promise for genetic genealogy.  They failed to take the rope and run.

On a sad note, Lucas Martin who founded DNA Tribes unexpectedly passed away in the fall.  DNA Tribes has been a long-time player in the ethnicity field of genetic genealogy.  I have often wondered if Lucas Martin was a pseudonym, as very little information about Lucas was available, even from Lucas himself.  Neither did I find an obituary.  Regardless, it’s sad to see someone with whom the community has worked for years pass away.  The website says that they expect to resume offering services in January 2015. I would be cautious about ordering until the structure of the new company is understood.


In the last month, a new offering has become available that may be trying to piggyback on the name and feel of DNA Tribes, but I’m very hesitant to provide a link until it can be determined if this is legitimate or bogus.  If it’s legitimate, I’ll be writing about it in the future.

However, the big news exit was Ancestry’s exit from the Y and mtDNA testing arena.  We suspected this would happen when they stopped selling kits, but we NEVER expected that they would destroy the existing data bases, especially since they maintain the Sorenson data base as part of their agreement when they obtained the Sorenson data.


The community is still hopeful that Ancestry may reverse that decision.

Ancestry – The Chromosome Browser War and DNA Circles

There has been an ongoing battle between Ancestry and the more seasoned or “hard-core” genetic genealogists for some time – actually for a long time.

The current and most long-standing issue is the lack of a chromosome browser, or any similar tools, that will allow genealogists to actually compare and confirm that their DNA match is genuine.  Ancestry maintains that we don’t need it, wouldn’t know how to use it, and that they have privacy concerns.

Other than their sessions and presentations, they had remained very quiet about this and not addressed it to the community as a whole, simply saying that they were building something better, a better mousetrap.

In the fall, Ancestry invited a small group of bloggers and educators to visit with them in an all-day meeting, which came to be called DNA Day.


In retrospect, I think that Ancestry perceived that they were going to have a huge public relations issue on their hands when they introduced their new feature called DNA Circles and in the process, people would lose approximately 80% of their current matches.  I think they were hopeful that if they could educate, or convince us, of the utility of their new phasing techniques and resulting DNA Circles feature that it would ease the pain of people’s loss in matches.

I am grateful that they reached out to the community.  Some very useful dialogue did occur between all participants.  However, to date, nothing more has happened nor have we received any additional updates after the release of Circles.

Time will tell.



DNA Circles 12-29-2014

DNA Circles, while interesting and somewhat useful, is certainly NOT a replacement for a chromosome browser, nor is it a better mousetrap.


In fact, the first thing you have to do when you find a DNA Circle that you have not verified utilizing raw data and/or chromosome browser tools from either 23andMe, Family Tree DNA or Gedmatch, is to talk your matches into transferring their DNA to Family Tree DNA or download to Gedmatch, or both.


I might add that the great irony of finding the Hickerson DNA Circle that led me to confirm that ancestry utilizing both Family Tree DNA and GedMatch is that today, when I checked at Ancestry, the Hickerson DNA Circle is no longer listed.  So, I guess I’ve been somehow pruned from the circle.  I wonder if that is the same as being voted off of the island.  So, word to the wise…check your circles often…they change and not always in the upwards direction.

The Seamy Side – Lies, Snake Oil Salesmen and Bullys

Unfortunately a seamy side, an underbelly that’s rather ugly has developed in and around the genetic genealogy industry.  I guess this was to be expected with the rapid acceptance and increasing popularity of DNA testing, but it’s still very unfortunate.

Some of this I expected, but I didn’t expect it to be so…well…blatant.

I don’t watch late night TV, but I’m sure there are now DNA diets and DNA dating and just about anything else that could be sold with the allure of DNA attached to the title.

I googled to see if this was true, and it is, although I’m not about to click on any of those links.

google dna dating

google dna diet

Unfortunately, within the ever-growing genetic genealogy community a rather large rift has developed over the past couple of years.  Obviously everyone can’t get along, but this goes beyond that.  When someone disagrees, a group actively “stalks” the person, trying to cost them their employment, saying hate filled and untrue things and even going so far as to create a Facebook page titled “Against<personname>.”  That page has now been removed, but the fact that a group in the community found it acceptable to create something like that, and their friends joined, is remarkable, to say the least.  That was accompanied by death threats.

Bullying behavior like this does not make others feel particularly safe in expressing their opinions either and is not conducive to free and open discussion. As one of the law enforcement officers said, relative to the events, “This is not about genealogy.  I don’t know what it is about, yet, probably money, but it’s not about genealogy.”

Another phenomenon is that DNA is now a hot topic and is obviously “selling.”  Just this week, this report was published, and it is, as best we can tell, entirely untrue.


There were several tip offs, like the city (Lanford) and county (Laurens County) is not in the state where it is attributed (it’s in SC not NC), and the name of the institution is incorrect (Johns Hopkins, not John Hopkins).  Additionally, if you google the name of the magazine, you’ll see that they specialize in tabloid “faux reporting.”  It also reads a lot like the King Richard genuine press release.


Earlier this year, there was a bogus institutional site created as well.

On one of the DNA forums that I frequent, people often post links to articles they find that are relevant to DNA.  There was an interesting article, which has now been removed, correlating DNA results with latitude and altitude.  I thought to myself, I’ve never heard of that…how interesting.   Here’s part of what the article said:

Researchers at Aberdeen College’s Havering Centre for Genetic Research have discovered an important connection between our DNA and where our ancestors used to live.

Tiny sequence variations in the human genome sometimes called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) occur with varying frequency in our DNA.  These have been studied for decades to understand the major migrations of large human populations.  Now Aberdeen College’s Dr. Miko Laerton and a team of scientists have developed pioneering research that shows that these differences in our DNA also reveal a detailed map of where our own ancestors lived going back thousands of years.

Dr. Laerton explains:  “Certain DNA sequence variations have always been important signposts in our understanding of human evolution because their ages can be estimated.  We’ve known for years that they occur most frequently in certain regions [of DNA], and that some alleles are more common to certain geographic or ethnic groups, but we have never fully understood the underlying reasons.  What our team found is that the variations in an individual’s DNA correlate with the latitudes and altitudes where their ancestors were living at the time that those genetic variations occurred.  We’re still working towards a complete understanding, but the knowledge that sequence variations are connected to latitude and altitude is a huge breakthrough by itself because those are enough to pinpoint where our ancestors lived at critical moments in history.”

The story goes on, but at the bottom, the traditional link to the publication journal is found.

The full study by Dr. Laerton and her team was published in the September issue of the Journal of Genetic Science.

I thought to myself, that’s odd, I’ve never heard of any of these people or this journal, and then I clicked to find this.

Aberdeen College bogus site

About that time, Debbie Kennett, DNA watchdog of the UK, posted this:

April Fools Day appears to have arrived early! There is no such institution as Aberdeen College founded in 1394. The University of Aberdeen in Scotland was founded in 1495 and is divided into three colleges: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/about/colleges-schools-institutes/colleges-53.php

The picture on the masthead of the “Aberdeen College” website looks very much like a photo of Aberdeen University. This fake news item seems to be the only live page on the Aberdeen College website. If you click on any other links, including the link to the so-called “Journal of Genetic Science”, you get a message that the website is experienced “unusually high traffic”. There appears to be no such journal anyway.

We also realized that Dr. Laerton, reversed, is “not real.”

I still have no idea why someone would invest the time and effort into the fake website emulating the University of Aberdeen, but I’m absolutely positive that their motives were not beneficial to any of us.

What is the take-away of all of this?  Be aware, very aware, skeptical and vigilant.  Stick with the mainstream vendors unless you realize you’re experimenting.

King Richard

King Richard III

The much anticipated and long-awaited DNA results on the remains of King Richard III became available with a very unexpected twist.  While the science team feels that they have positively identified the remains as those of Richard, the Y DNA of Richard and another group of men supposed to have been descended from a common ancestor with Richard carry DNA that does not match.



Debbie Kennett wrote a great summary article.


More Alike than Different

One of the life lessons that genetic genealogy has held for me is that we are more closely related that we ever knew, to more people than we ever expected, and we are far more alike than different.  A recent paper recently published by 23andMe scientists documents that people’s ethnicity reflect the historic events that took place in the part of the country where their ancestors lived, such as slavery, the Trail of Tears and immigration from various worldwide locations.

23andMe European African map

From the 23andMe blog:

The study leverages samples of unprecedented size and precise estimates of ancestry to reveal the rate of ancestry mixing among American populations, and where it has occurred geographically:

  • All three groups – African Americans, European Americans and Latinos – have ancestry from Africa, Europe and the Americas.
  • Approximately 3.5 percent of European Americans have 1 percent or more African ancestry. Many of these European Americans who describe themselves as “white” may be unaware of their African ancestry since the African ancestor may be 5-10 generations in the past.
  • European Americans with African ancestry are found at much higher frequencies in southern states than in other parts of the US.

The ancestry proportions point to the different regional impacts of slavery, immigration, migration and colonization within the United States:

  • The highest levels of African ancestry among self-reported African Americans are found in southern states, especially South Carolina and Georgia.
  • One in every 20 African Americans carries Native American ancestry.
  • More than 14 percent of African Americans from Oklahoma carry at least 2 percent Native American ancestry, likely reflecting the Trail of Tears migration following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
  • Among self-reported Latinos in the US, those from states in the southwest, especially from states bordering Mexico, have the highest levels of Native American ancestry.


23andMe provides a very nice summary of the graphics in the article at this link:


The academic article can be found here:



So what does 2015 hold? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out. Hopefully, it holds more ancestors, whether discovered through plain old paper research, cousin DNA testing or virtually raised from the dead!

What would my wish list look like?

  • More ancient genomes sequenced, including ones from North and South America.
  • Ancestor reconstruction on a large scale.
  • The haplotree becoming fleshed out and stable.
  • Big Y sequencing combined with STR panels for enhanced genealogical research.
  • Improved ethnicity reporting.
  • Mitochondrial DNA search by ancestor for descendants who have tested.
  • More tools, always more tools….
  • More time to use the tools!

Here’s wishing you an ancestor filled 2015!