Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success


In the first part of this two part series, Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now?, we talked about the different kinds of things you can do when you receive your autosomal DNA test results from either Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23andMe.  There are, in general, 4 types of goals that people have when they test their autosomal DNA – if they have any specific goals:

  1. I want to meet people I’m related to.
  2. I want to confirm my genealogy is correct.
  3. I want to find new ancestors.
  4. I want to map my chromosomes to my ancestors.

Regardless of which of these goals you had when you tested, or have since developed, now that you know what is possible – most of the options are going to require you to do something – often contacting your matches.

One thing that doesn’t happen is that your new genealogy is not delivered to you gift wrapped and all you have to do is open the box, untie the bow around the scroll, and roll it down the hallway.  That only happens on the genealogy TV shows:)

Because of the different ways the various vendors have implemented their DNA matching software, there are different reasons why you might want to contact your matches.


At 23andMe, you cannot send messages to your matches or share your matching DNA segments unless you obtain permission from each match to first communicate with them and then to share matching DNA segments, which can be one or two separate permissions.  23andMe has an internal messaging system that facilitates you sending a permission request to your matches.  Personalized messages work best.  If permission is granted, you can then begin a dialogue about common ancestors and how you might match that person.

Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, you are provided with the e-mail address of everyone that you match within each person’s privacy selections.  Participants can upload their GEDCOM files, create family trees and enter a list of ancestral surnames.  You can search by current or ancestral surname.  The most common reason to contact someone you match at Family Tree DNA is if you are a match to them and they have not uploaded or created a family tree.


Ancestry also uses an internal messaging system.  The most common reason to contact a DNA match at Ancestry is if you match someone, and especially if you share a shakey leaf hint with them, meaning you have a common ancestor in your trees – but your match’s tree is private and you can’t see who that common ancestor might be.


If you upload your results to, a free (donation based) site, you can then match your results to people who tested at all 3 companies – if they also have uploaded their results.  People provide their e-mails when uploading and configuring their accounts at GedMatch.  People who use GedMatch are often the most excited and “into” autosomal DNA matching and therefore, the most likely to contact matches.

Regardless of where you are matching, it’s important to make that first communication attempt count.  At 23andMe, if your match declines contact, you can’t communicate with them.  If they don’t reply, you can delete that first contact attempt and try again, but your attempts are limited – so you really do have to make them count.

Here are some helpful hints and approaches that do and don’t work well.  Your goal is to obtain a helpful response, so you want to position yourself in the best possible light to get that response.

A faux pas may kill your chances, so let’s start out with what not to do, and why, then we’ll look at how to make your communications a winner!


  • Don’t send group e-mails to everyone you match saying, “Hi, we all match. Can you tell me how?” Guess what? You won’t get many or any replies and you’ll have irritated all of your matches in one fell swoop. This is considered DNA spamming. Think about what you are writing before you press that send button.
  • Don’t say things like this to people: “Hi, I’m guessing (or hoping) that you’ve mapped your (or your cousin’s) chromosomes and you can just tell me how we are related.” When I told this person I have not mapped my cousin’s chromosomes – they had the bad judgment to ask me when I might get around to it.
  • Don’t provide just a few surnames and ask if they are related. Most of your matches will be more than 2 or 3 generations back in the tree, so the answer is likely going to be “no,” or no answer at all.
  • Don’t offer to send them an ancestry invite. That means they have to sort through your entire tree to find a match, AND Ancestry will attach your tree to their list forever. Give the e-mail recipient something to work with in the e-mail itself. Don’t make your problem their problem or they won’t reply. The more work they have to do to reply, the less chance they will.
  • Don’t send multiple e-mails with dribs and drabs of information in each one. If you have something to share, put it together logically and concisely in an e-mail and send one.
  • Don’t assume that someone of a different ethnicity isn’t related to you.
  • Don’t assume a particular surname is indicative of a person’s entire genealogical background.
  • Don’t convey an entitlement attitude. Remember, you are asking them to take a few minutes of their time to help you.
  • Don’t assume that all of your matches are from the US, or that English is their primary language – so use full state names and locations. The good news is that more and more people are testing from around the world.
  • Don’t send messages in all caps.
  • Don’t send messages with misspellings, incorrect grammar or abbreviated texting language. Translated, this means your phone or i-pad with autocorrect is probably not a good idea.
  • Don’t send the entire request in the title of the message. Yes, people do this.
  • Don’t send a message with a title like “hi there.”  It’s likely to go to the spam folder or be over looked or ignored.  Instead, title each message with the name of the test, the testing company and whose DNA you are writing about.  In other words, something like this: “Autosomal DNA Match at Family Tree DNA to John Doe”
  • Don’t just send the “canned” request message at 23andMe. Send a personal note. If you have an online tree, include that link. If you notice you have ancestors from the same part of the world, or country, tell them. If you match their DNA, tell them. Some people send match requests because they notice a common surname. In other words, try to find some common ground to start a conversation.
  • Don’t dash off a hurried, half-baked, partially complete message.  It shows and will be reflected in the responses you do, and don’t, receive.
  • Don’t expect others to do your work for you.  Recently, I received a match contact and when I asked the sender for the name of the person they matched, they told me they couldn’t remember, they had sent out a “mass mailing,” and asked me to check my kits and see if there were matches to them.  Seriously?  They also didn’t tell me the testing company name, nor the test type.  Three e-mails later, I still don’t know the name of the person they matched.  Guess what.  Delete!  Make it easy for your matches to help you and don’t waste their time by only providing partial information.


  • Read your matches profiles if they have provided one. It shows you took the time to read what they provided, and may give you some common ground out the door. “I see we both have ancestors from the Netherlands,” is a good icebreaker, for example.
  • Address the e-mail to the person using their name if it’s available. In other words, begin, “Hi Joe” not just “Hi.” Do not assume a gender. Names can be deceiving. My name is not deceiving, Roberta, but I can’t tell you how many e-mails I receive to Robert or “Mr. Estes.” This tells me they didn’t pay attention.
  • Do use capital letters and punctuation.  Otherwise, you’re telling the person on the receiving end they aren’t important enough to bother with – and they will likely treat your request in kind.
  • Enter information about yourself in your profile at the vendors, including your country of origin.
  • Upload a photo of yourself into your profile at the vendor so that people can see you. This makes you seem more like a real person and they may look at you for family resemblance. Probably shouldn’t upload a photo that might be controversial or off-putting if your goal is to maximize response.
  • Link your tree to your DNA results (Ancestry) or upload a Gedcom file (Family Tree DNA.) 23andMe is more challenging since their collaboration with My Heritage which is a subscription service. Most people simply put a link to their public tree someplace in their profile information at 23andMe.
  • Provide your name and kit number or other identifying information in all correspondence – including the first e-mail.
  • Include kit numbers (GedMatch) and/or names (Family Tree DNA) that you’re matching. Many people manage multiple kits for family members and if they have to go and look for you in their kits’ matches, they won’t.  Don’t make the recipient have to guess at any part of the equation.  Say something like this, “Hi, I match John Smith’s autosomal DNA test at Family Tree DNA and you are his e-mail contact…”
  • Tell them where you tested and where you are matching them. “Hi, I tested at Ancestry and downloaded by kit to GedMatch where I’m kit number A100007. I’m matching kit F9141, Jane Doe, where you are listed as the contact.”  Be sure to get the name of the testing company right.  Today, someone told me the test was through “Family Search,” who, of course, does not do DNA testing.
  • If you are matching on a Y or mitochondrial DNA test, tell them at what level you’re matching.  Otherwise, they have to search through each level to find you.  On mitochondrial DNA, if you and they both tested to the full sequence level, but you’re only matching on the HVR1 level, it’s not nearly as compelling or interesting as if you match at the full sequence level with no mutations difference.  So, tell them, “I’m a match to John Doe at Family Tree DNA at the full mitochondrial level, with no mutations difference.  Maybe we can find our common ancestor.  My direct mitochondrial line is….”
  • If you are matching at GedMatch and you lowered the match threshold from the default, tell them. Better yet, don’t lower the threshold, at least not for initial comparisons.
  • Make replying to your query as easy as possible. You stand a much better chance of getting a reply. The more work you make them do, the less chance you’ll get a reply.
  • Include your full name and e-mail address if you are using Ancestry’s or 23andMe’s message systems.
  • Get your facts straight. I recently received an e-mail from someone who told me that we matched on 21% of our DNA and one segment. I knew that was impossible because 21% is in the half sibling range and if you’re a half sibling – you will match on a whole lot more than one segment. If you don’t pay attention and get your facts straight, it’s less likely that the person you are contacting will take you seriously.
  • Accept contact requests if you tested at 23andMe and receive a contact or sharing request, and be sure to share genomes so that you can see how you match and use their comparison tools like their Family Inheritance: Advanced.
  • Include a very brief, maybe two sentence summary about yourself in contact requests. Something like. “It appears we may match on my father’s side which is primarily from Appalachia, which means they were Scotch-Irish and British before that” or “My maternal heritage is from Scandinavia, so the names may not look familiar to you. My mother’s family is from the area near Stockholm.” Do not tell them your life story or ramble. You’ll lose them.
  • Send a pedigree chart (preferably with an index) in pdf format if you’re using e-mail or a link to a tree. I have a pedigree chart for my mother’s side and my father’s side. I can tell which side they match because my mother has tested as well. One of the best tools I have ever received with a query is shown below. It was sent as a spreadsheet, which made it incredibly easy for me to sort, but wouldn’t work for everyone. It could be sent as a pdf file as well, and is very easy to scan for surnames and locations. I immediately liked this person and absolutely knew they were serious and we stood a chance of making a genealogy connection.  (Click on the image to make larger in a separate window.)

ancestor spreadsheet

  • Take the time to learn about autosomal DNA, matching and what it means. Aside from the many articles on this blog which you can find by using the key search word “autosomal,” here are four additional resources for you:

Genetic Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond by Emily Aulicino
NextGen Genealogy: The DNA Connection by David Dowell
DNA Adoption’s classes
Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy by Kelly Wheaton

  • If you’re adopted or searching for an unknown parents or grandparent, visit
  • If you have a blog or genealogy webpage, include that information, maybe below your signature.
  • If you’re serious about maximizing your opportunities for success with genetic genealogy, you’ll want to test at all 3 companies, Family Tree DNA (Y, mtDNA and autosomal), Ancestry and 23andMe. Family Tree DNA facilitates reduced cost file transfers from Ancestry and from 23andMe if you tested before Dec. 2013 (when 23andMe changed their chip.) They all have their strong and weak points – but the bottom line is that you’ll want to fish in all three ponds. You’ll also want to download your results from one of those companies, preferably Family Tree DNA or Ancestry, to, a site that facilitates comparison of data from the various companies and provides some great tools. GedMatch is a contribution site, so don’t forget to donate. Some of their Tier 1 tools require a minimal subscription of $10 a month, which is well worth it if you are serious. Ask your matches if they have downloaded their data to GedMatch and provide your kit number there.
  • Be courteous and gracious. Say please and thank you. You’d be amazed how many people say neither.
  • Share this article with eager newbies who need a little direction. Most newbies aren’t going to find this article before shooting off that e-mail in their initial excitement to an entire group of matches. By helping them to better focus their efforts, you’ll be helping yourself too. Most newbies have no idea what they’ve just gotten themselves into!

Acknowledgements:  Thanks to contributors in the ISOGG Facebook group for helping to flesh out these tips for success.

Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now?

When I first started this blog, my goal was to provide explanations and examples of genetic genealogy topics so that there would be fewer questions and easier answers.

That sounded like a great idea, but the reality of the situation is that the consumer market for autosomal DNA testing has exploded – meaning more and more consumers with more and more questions.  Compounding that situation, the consumers who purchase these tests today, especially on impulse, and mostly I’m referring to here, often have absolutely no idea what to expect or even what they want except that Ancestry will find their ancestors for them.  That’s because that’s what Ancestry tells them in their advertising.

So, in the big picture, the questions and inquiries that experienced people are currently receiving are becoming less specific and more general and often exhibit a lack of understanding of what DNA testing can do.  It’s frustrating to parties on both sides of the fence, but I’m glad people are asking because it means they are interested and willing to learn.

Rather than approach this topic from a technical perspective of how to work with autosomal DNA, I’d like to talk about what can be done with autosomal DNA testing from a newbie perspective.  The person who just got their results back and are saying to themselves, “OK, now what can I do with this?”

However, there is lots “how to” information in this article for everyone if you click on the links.  If nothing else, this gives you a tool to send to those overly excited newbies who are starry eyed but have no clue how to proceed.  Remember, you were once new too!

This is part 1 of a two part series.  The second part will focus on how to make contact with your matches successfully.  But now, let’s pretend it’s day 1 and you just got your autosomal test results back.

Why Did You Test?

The first question to ask yourself is why did you test in the first place?  If your answer is “because Ancestry had a sale,” that’s fine, but then you’ll need to read all four options to know what you can do with autosomal DNA.

1.  I want to meet other people I’m related to.

Ok, but the first thing here you’re going to have to define is the word “related.”  You are likely related to everyone on your match list.  I said likely, because there may be some people there whose DNA simply matches yours by chance.  For the most part, and especially for those people who are your closest matches, you’re related somehow. The challenge, of course, is to figure out how – meaning through which ancestor.  This is the genealogy jigsaw puzzle of you!

All three of the major vendors, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe show you your closest matches first on your match list.

autosomal 101 FTDNA

Do you want to meet your DNA cousins only if you can identify a common ancestor?  Do you want to work with them on genealogy? The answers to these questions will help sort through the rest of what to do and how.

If your goal is to contact your matches, then Family Tree DNA is the easiest, as they provide you with the e-mail addresses of your matches by clicking on the little envelope for each match on your match page, shown above.

Ancestry is second easiest, but forces you to use their internal message system which often doesn’t deliver the messages.  (Do not send more than 30 in one day or Ancestry will blacklist your messages and block your communications, thinking you are a spammer.)

23andMe is the most difficult as you have to request permission to communicate with each match and also to share DNA and if your match authorizes communication, then you can communicate through 23andMe’s message system.  Sound cumbersome?  It is and the response rate is low.

Confirming Genealogy

Let’s look at another reason for testing.

2.  I want to confirm my genealogy is correct – meaning that my great-grandfather really is my great-grandfather and so forth on up the line.

Well, you’re in luck, especially if some of your cousins, known or otherwise, have tested.  Confirming your genealogy is easier done in closer generations than more distant ones and the more cousins from various lines that have tested, the better.  That’s because you will share more of your DNA with relatives when you have a close common ancestor.

Autosomal DNA is divided approximately in half in each generation, when the child receives half of their DNA from each parent – so the closer your cousin, the more likely you are to share more DNA with them.  The more DNA you share, the more likely you are to be able to identify which ancestor it comes from.  And if a match matches you and your proven cousin both on the same segment, that identifies positively which line that match comes from.  That three way matching is called triangulation.

Let’s talk about the word “confirm.”  Herein lies a challenge, because DNA does have the absolute ability to confirm ancestors, as noted above.  DNA also has the ability to give you hints that go towards a “preponderance of evidence.”  DNA, can also lead you astray if you draw erroneous conclusions – and one vendor provides a tool (or tools) that encourages overstepping conclusions.  Let’s look at each circumstance.

Proof Positive through Triangulation

Just what it says – absolutely unquestionable proof that a particular ancestor is your ancestor.  If you match two other people who also descend from your common ancestors, Joe and Jane Doe, on the same segment of DNA, that is confirmation that you share that ancestor and that segment of your DNA is considered proven to that ancestral line.  This requires two things.  First, that your DNA matches on the same segment AND that you have identified the same ancestors, Joe and Jane Doe, genealogically in your trees.

Now, you probably can’t tell which side of the couple, Jane or Joe, the DNA is from unless you also match two people on just Jane’s side of the family or just Joe’s on that same segment.

One caveat here – counting you and your parent as two of the three people doesn’t work because you and your parents are too close in the tree.  By three people, that would preferably be three people who descend from that couple through three different children.

Here’s an example.


It would also ideally be more than three people, but three is the minimum to form a triangulation group.  In the real world, these matches might not start and end of the same segments as in the example above, but the overlapping portion should be significant

The example above is proof positive, because the three people descend from the same ancestor, through different children, and match on the same chromosome in the same locations.

This technique is called triangulation.

Now for the bad news – you can’t do this at, because they don’t provide you with any of the segment information in the last 5 columns.  Ancestry has no chromosome browser, which is the tool that shows you where on your DNA you match your cousins.

Family Tree DNA’s chromosome display tool that is part of their chromosome browser is shown below.

Two cousins browser

On the example above, you can see that Barbara Jean Long, the black background person on the chromosome graphic, is being compared to her two first cousins, the blue and orange on the chromosome graphic.

You can download the information from Family Tree DNA or 23andMe in spreadsheet format, or you can display the information graphically, like in the example above.  You can see the “stacked” locations where both the cousins match the black background person they are being compared to.  You can also see that there are some locations where only one of the cousins matches the background person, like on chromosome 20.  And of course, some locations where neither cousin matches the background person, like on chromosome 21.

If you download that data, the information gives you the locations where the people being compared match the person they are being compared against.

Two cousins combined

The chart above is the download of part of chromosome 1 for Barbara, Cheryl and Donald, siblings who are Barbara’s first cousins.

The areas where the 3 people overlap, or triangulate, are colored in green on the spreadsheet, while the rows entirely in pink or blue do not triangulate – meaning Barbara matches either one cousin or the other, but not both.  Keep in mind that this example only proves their common ancestral couple, which in this case are common grandparents – but the technique is the same no matter which common ancestor you are trying to prove.

This bring us to our next topic, that of close relatives.

Close Relative Matches

I previously said that you can’t use you and a close relative to prove a distant ancestor.  But that’s not necessarily true when the relationship you are trying to prove is closer in time.  The chart below shows the relationships of the example above.

Miller Ferverda chart

In the case shown above, two first cousins who are siblings, Cheryl and Don, are being compared to their common first cousin, Barbara.  Their fathers were siblings and their common ancestors were their grandparents.  This is not 6 generations up a tree where matching is iffy.  You can be expected to match closely with your first cousins where you may not match with more distant cousins, because you simply didn’t inherit any of the same DNA from your distant common ancestor.  You should be sharing about 12.5% of your DNA with first cousins, and if you have first cousins that you’re not matching, that might signal that an undocumented adoption has occurred in one line or the other.

In a case like this, if you and a first cousin match, that suffices to prove a close connection.  If you don’t match, it suffices to raise questions.  A lot of questions.  Big ugly questions.  The next thing to do is to see if any other known cousins have tested and who they match – or don’t match.

For example, if Barbara Ferverda was not the child of John Ferverda, she would not match either Cheryl nor Don, and we’d know there was a problem.  If Cheryl and Don match other Ferverda or Miller relatives and Barbara didn’t, then we’d know the genetic break in the line was on Barbara’s side and not on Cheryl/Don’s side.

This same technique is also how we know which “side” matches are on.  If an unknown match matches both Barbara and Cheryl, for example, it’s a good bet that their common ancestor is someplace in the Miller/Ferverda line.  If they also match another Miller on the same segment, then the common ancestor has been narrowed to the Miller side of the Miller/Ferverda couple.

Unfortunately, not all DNA results are as definitive or easy to prove as these.  Let’s look at some of the more “squishy” results.

Preponderance of Evidence through Aggregated Data

In regular genealogy, there are a range of proofs.  There is direct evidence that someone is the child of an ancestor.  That would be a will, for example, that names a daughter and her husband and maybe even tells where they moved to.  This would be your lucky day!

Think of that will as equivalent to triangulated proof of a common ancestor.  There is just no arguing with the evidence.

If you’re not that lucky, you have to piece the shreds of indirect evidence together to make a story.  In the genealogy world, this is called preponderance of evidence, and I am always, always much less comfortable with this type of evidence than I am with solid proof.

There are various flavors of pieces of evidence in the DNA world. Sometimes we have hints of relationships without proof.

The most common is when you have matches with a group of people who share the same surname, but you can’t get back far enough to find a common ancestor.  Is this a probable match?  Yes?  Guaranteed?  No.  Have I seen them fall apart and the actual match be on another entirely unrelated line?  Yes.  See why I call these squishy?

Ancestry takes this one step further with their DNA Circles.  For a DNA Circle to be created, you must match DNA with someone in the Circle AND everyone in the Circle must match DNA with someone else in the Circle AND everyone in the Circle must have a common ancestor in their tree.  Circles begin with a minimum of three people.  Generally, the more people who match AND have the same ancestor, the stronger the likelihood that you would be able to confirmation the common ancestor of the group as your ancestor too – if you had a chromosome browser type of tool.  Still, Circles alone are not and never will be, proof.  Circles are great hints and along with other research, can confirm genealogical research.  For example, my paper genealogy says I descend from Henry Bolton, and I find myself in Henry Bolton’s tree, matching several other Bolton descendants through Henry’s other children.  Those multiple connections pretty well confirms the paper trail is accurate and no undocumented adoptions have occurred in my line.

Now, the bad news….Circles is predicated upon matching of trees.  If there is a common misconception out there that is replicated in these trees, then people who match will be shown in a Circle predicated on bad information.  And, there is no way to know.  However, people interpret the existence of a DNA Circle as proof positive and that it confirms the tree.  Membership in a DNA Circle is absolutely NOT proof of any kind, let alone proof positive – except that your DNA matches the people who you are connected to by lines and their DNA matches the people they are connected to by lines.  You can see my connections in orange below, and the background connections in light grey.

circle henry bolton matches2

This is an example of my Henry Bolton Circle.  I match 5 different people’s DNA (the orange lines) who also show Henry Bolton as their ancestor.  This does NOT mean the match is on the same segment, so it is NOT triangulated.  This is a grouping of data where multiple people match each other, not a genetic triangulation group where everyone matches on the same segment.  In fact there are cases that I have found where the person I match in a circle is through a different line entirely, so in that case, the presumption of which common ancestor our common DNA is from is incorrect.

I want to be very clear, there is nothing wrong with DNA Circles, so far as they go.  The consumer needs to understand what Circles are really saying – and what they can’t and don’t say.  DNA Circles are another important tool in our arsenal.  We just have to be careful not to assume, or presume, more than is there.  Presuming that we match someone in the Circle because we share Henry Bolton’s DNA may in fact be inaccurate.  We may match on a completely unrelated line – but because we do match and share a common ancestor in our tree – we both find ourselves in the Henry Bolton Circle.

Are you reading those squishy words?  Presume – it’s related to the word assume…right???  And keep in mind that Circles are created based in part on those wonderfully accurate Ancestry trees.  Are you feeling good about this preponderance of evidence yet?

However, in my case, I’ve done due diligence with the genealogy and I have all of my proof ducks in a row.  The fact that I do match so many Bolton descendants confirms my work, along with the fact that at the other vendors and at GedMatch, I  have triangulated my matches and proven the Bolton DNA.  So, this circle is valid but the only proof I have is not found at Ancestry or because I’m a Circle member, but by triangulation and aggregated data using other vendor’s tools.

This next screen shot is of an exact triangulated match using GedMatch’s triangulation tool.  Each line shows me matching two cousins, along with the start and stop segments.  This just happens to be the Ferverda example.  So, I match six people, all on the same segment, all with a known common ancestor.  This is proof positive.  Not all “matching” is nearly so definitive.

Gedmatch triangulation

Sometimes the matches aren’t so neat and tidy. That’s when we move to using aggregated data.

Aggregated Data – What’s That?

Aggregated data is a term I’ve come up with because there isn’t any term to fit in today’s genetic genealogy vocabulary.  In essence, aggregated data is when a group of people (who may or may not know who their common ancestor is) match on common segments of data, but not necessarily on the same segments, or not all of the same segments.  When you have an entire group of these people, they form a stair step “right shift” kind of graph.

The interesting part of this is that by utilizing aggregated data and looking not only at who we match, but who our matches match that share a common ancestor, we can gain insight and hints.  Finding a common ancestor is of course a huge benefit in this type of situation because then you’ve identified at least a DNA “line” for the entire group.

If we were to utilize the triangulation tools at Gedmatch and look at my closest triangulated matches, they would look something like this, where the segments that I match with each person (or in this case, two people) shift some to the right.  What you are seeing is the start and stop match locations, with graphing.  Therefore, I match all of these people that have a common ancestor.

Each match overlaps the one above and below to come extent – and often by a lot.  These are known as triangulation groups (TG).

However, the top match and the bottom match do not overlap, so they don’t triangulate with each other.  They are still valid triangulated matches to me and you can expect to see this kind of matching when using aggregated data.

Understand that when you see your triangulation groups at GedMatch, your mother’s side and your father’s side will be intermixed. In this case, I know the common ancestor and I know many of these testers, so I’m positive that this is a valid grouping (plus, they all match my Mom too – the best test of all.)

gedmatch triang group

Here’s another example only showing three matches.  All three are triangulated to me through the same ancestor, but the locations of the top and bottom matches don’t overlap with each other.  Both overlap the one in the middle in part.

gedmatch overlap

New Ancestor Discoveries – Not Evidence at All

Let’s look at the third reason for DNA testing.

3.  I want to find new ancestors.

Discovering brand new ancestors is a bit tougher.

There are two ways to discover new ancestors.  The first is through triangulation combined with traditional genealogy.  I have done this, but in these cases, I did have a clue as to what I was looking for.  In other words, the new ancestor I discovered was actually confirming a wife’s surname or identifying the parents of an ancestor from several potential candidate couples.

The second way to potentially discover a new ancestor is Ancestry’s New Ancestor Discoveries, NADs, which is really a somewhat misleading name.  What Ancestry has determined is that you match a group of people who share a common ancestor – and Ancestry’s leap of faith is that you share that ancestor do too.  While that may not be correct, what IS very relevant is that you do match this group of people who DO share a common lineage and there is an important hint there for you someplace!  But don’t just accept Ancestry’s discovery as your new ancestor – because there is a good chance it isn’t.  Let’s take a look.

Ancestral Lines Through Triangulation

Let’s go back to the John Doe example.


Let’s take the worst case scenario.  You’re an adopted and have no information.  But you match an entire group of people in a triangulated group who DO know the identity of their common ancestor.

Does this mean that John Doe is your ancestor?  No.  John Doe could be your ancestor, or he could be the brother of your ancestor, or the uncle of your ancestor.  What this does tell you is that either John Doe is your ancestor, some of John Doe’s ancestors are your ancestors, or you are extremely unlucky and you are matching this entire group by chance.  The larger the segment, the less likely your match will be by chance.  Over 10 cM you’re pretty safe on an individual match and I think you’re safe with triangulated groups well below 10 cM.

Ancestry’s New Ancestor Discoveries

You can make this same type of discovery at Ancestry, but it’s not nearly as easy as Ancestry implies in their ads and you have no segment data to work with, just their match, shown below.

Larimer NAD

“Just take the test and we’ll find your ancestors,” the ad says.  Well, yes and no and “it depends.”

Ancestry went out on a limb a few months ago, right about April Fools Day, and frankly, they fell off the end of the branch by claiming that New Ancestor Discoveries are your missing ancestors found.  While that is clearly an overly optimistic marketing statement, the concept of matching you with people you match who all share a common ancestor is sound – it was the implementation and hyper-marketing that was flawed.

The premise here is that if you match people in a Circle that have a common ancestor, that you too might, please note the word might, share that ancestor – even if that person is not in your tree.  In other words, even if you don’t know who they are.  Just like the John Doe triangulation example above.

Here is my connection to the Larimer DNA Circle, even though I don’t know of a Larimer ancestor.

Larimer NAD circle

Now, the problem is that you might be related to an ancestor on one side upstream several generations, but it’s manifesting itself as a match to that particular couple because several people of that couple’s descendants have tested.  I’ve shown an example of how this might work below.

common unknown ancestor

In this example, you can see that your true common ancestor is unknown to both groups of people, but it’s not Mary Johnson and John Jones, or in my case, not John and Jane Larimer.

However, three descendants of Mary Johnson and John Jones tested, and you match all three.  If you also showed Mary Johnson and John Jones in your tree, then you’d be in a Circle with them at Ancestry.  However, since Mary Johnson and John Jones are NOT your ancestors, they are not in your tree.  Since you match three of their descendants, Ancestry concludes that indeed, Mary Johnson and John Jones must also be your ancestors.

While NADs are inaccurate about half the time, the fact that you do share DNA with the people in this group is important, because someplace, upstream, it’s likely that you share a common ancestor.  It’s also possible that you match these three people through unconnected ancestors upstream and it’s a fluke that they all three also descend from this couple.  And yes, that does happen, especially when all of the people involved have ancestors from the same region.

The first day that Ancestry rolled the New Ancestor Discoveries, I was assigned a couple that could not possibly be my ancestors.  I called them Bad NADs.

In my experience, there are more erroneous NADs out there than good ones.  I knew my original one was bad, as I had proof positive because I have triangulated my other lines.  Then, one day, my bad NAD was gone and now, a few weeks later, I have another assigned NAD couple that I have not been able to prove or disprove – the Larimers.  Truthfully, after the bad NAD fiasco, I haven’t spent a lot of time or effort because without tools, there is no place to go with this unless the people I match will download their results to GedMatch.  I’m hoping that a new tool to be released soon will help.

Here’s how NADs could be useful.  Let’s say that my Larimer matches download to GedMatch and I discover that they also match a triangulated group from my McDowell line.  Well, guess what – my Michael’s McDowell’s wife is unknown.  Might she be a Larimer?  Michael’s mother is also unknown.  Might she be a Larimer?  It gives me a line and a place to begin to work, especially if they share any common geography with my ancestors.

Even if the NADs aren’t my direct ancestors, this is still useful information, because somehow, I probably do connect to these people, even though my hands are somewhat tied.  However, labeling them New Ancestor Discoveries encourages people to jump to highly incorrect conclusions.  This isn’t even in the preponderance of evidence category, let alone proof.  It’s information that you can potentially use with other DNA tools (at GedMatch) and old fashioned genealogy to work on proving a connection to this line.  Nothing more.

So what is the net-net of this? Circles can count in the preponderance of evidence, especially in conjunction with other evidence, but NADs don’t.  Neither are proof.  If we were able to work with the segment data and compare it, we might very well be able to determine more, but Ancestry does not provide a chromosome browser, so we can’t.

Ancestor Chromosome Mapping

4.  I want to map my chromosomes to my ancestors so that I know which of my DNA I inherited from each ancestor.

If this is your DNA testing goal, you certainly did not start by testing with, because they don’t have any tools to help you do this.  This tends to be a goal that people develop after they really understand what autosomal DNA testing can do for them.  In order to map your genome, you have to have access to segment information and you have to triangulate, or prove, the segments to each ancestor.  So count Ancestry out unless you can talk your matches into downloading their raw data files to either GedMatch or Family Tree DNA.  You’ll be testing with both Family Tree DNA and 23andMe and downloading your match information to a spreadsheet and utilizing the tools at and

Just so you get an idea of how much fun this can be, here’s my genome mapped to ancestors a few months ago.  I have more mapped now, but haven’t redone my map utilizing Kitty Cooper’s Tools.

Roberta's ancestor map2

Tips and Tricks for Contact Success

Regardless of which of these goals you had when you tested, or have since developed, now that you know what you can do – most of the options are going to require you to do something – often contacting your matches.

One thing that doesn’t happen is that your new genealogy is not delivered to you gift wrapped and all you have to do is open the box, untie the bow around the scroll, and roll it down the hallway.  That only happens on the genealogy TV shows:)

So join me in a few days for part two of Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success.

Autosomal Matchmaking Vendor Comparison

Matchmaker, matchmaker…make me a match.

Indeed, matching is what autosomal DNA for genetic genealogy is all about.  Let’s take a look at the difference between matching at the various vendors and how it affects us as genetic genealogists.

Harold is my third cousin.  We have been genealogy research partners now for about 20 years on our family lines.  Fortunately, both Harold and I have encouraged our cousins and family members to test their DNA – at all 3 testing companies.  We’ve uploaded the results to GedMatch and we’ve matched, compared and triangulated until we’re blue in the face.

Hey, it keeps us off the streets:)

What this does, however, is gives us a very firm foundation to compare results at the different companies and with different tools.

Today, I’m going to take a look at how the matches differ at the different companies and at GedMatch when comparing the same people – and how it affects us as genealogists.

First, the matching thresholds aren’t the same, but we can compensate for that and we can see how the threshold differences affect our actual matches.

The following table shows the vendor autosomal matching thresholds.

Vendor Autosomal Matching Thresholds


At 23and Me, Harold and I share a total of 133.8 cM of DNA and 21,031 SNPs spread across 6 different segments on 5 chromosomes.

Harold Me 23andMe

Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, Harold and I share 152.44 cM of DNA with 35,774 shared SNPs.

FTDNA Harold Me

Family Tree DNA reports much smaller matching segments than 23andMe and by process of inference, Ancestry.  The chart below shows Harold matching to me at Family Tree DNA.  The green overlay highlights the segments that 23andMe shows for Harold and I as matches.  The non-highlighted rows are shown at Family Tree DNA, but not at 23andMe.

Harold Me FTDNA 23andMe

Family Tree DNA does us the HUGE favor of providing all the actual matching DNA segments over 500 SNPs in length as long as we match first on a larger segment.  The other vendors remove these.


Utilizing a new private tool currently in beta test, Harold and I share 113.92 cM of DNA at Ancestry.  Of course, there is no segment data, so all we have is a total, which is certainly more than we had before.

Ancestry runs their customer’s DNA through a phasing process that eliminates many segments before they do matching.  Therefore, the significantly smaller cM total on Ancestry is a result of their phasing and matching routines.

However, by comparing the Ancestry total to the 23andMe total, which is the next most restrictive result, we can see the difference.

23andMe’s total is 133.8, so the difference between the 23andMe and the Ancestry match is 19.88 cM.  If you look at the 23andMe matches, you’ll notice that the two smallest segment matches are 10.4cM and 12.8cM and together they total 23.2 cM, with is just slightly more than the 19.88 we’re looking for.

Harold Me 23andMe Ancestry

You may have noticed already that begin and end segments and matches between vendors even on the same chromosome do vary some.  These two red segments, above, are the most likely candidates to be the missing Ancestry segments, in part, because they are the smallest and their total is near to the 19.88.


At GedMatch, comparing Harold and I at the default of 700 SNPs and 5cM, which is equivalent to the 23andMe threshold, gives us the following:

Harold Me GedMatch at 23andMe Threshold

Next, I ran GedMatch at 500 SNPs and 1cM which is the equivalent of the FTDNA threshold after you have an initial match.

Harold Me GedMatch at FTDNA threshold

Vendor Summary

I’ve put together a vendor summary of our findings.

vendor match summary2

There’s quite a difference between vendors.  More than I expected.

Comparing the Vendors

Given that the GedMatch comparison using the FTDNA thresholds is the most generous in terms of matching segments, let’s compare the three vendors matching segments against the GedMatch matching segments.  Because start and end segments aren’t exactly the same, if any portion of the vendor’s match falls into the GedMatch match segment, I’ve counted it as a match, so in favor of the vendor.

The chart below utilizes the GedMatch to FTDNA matching segments as the foundation, and I’m comparing other vendors’ matches to the GedMatch results.

All Vendor Match Comparison

For purposes of this comparison, ignore WHICH (start, end, cM) column is colored.  I’ve just selected 3 columns and assigned one to color per vendor.  If that segment row is found in that vendor’s comparison, it’s highlighted in that vendor’s color.  So, for the first row, only FTDNA reported chromosome 1, from 44,938,970 to 47,788,153 as a match.  So, therefore, their cell in that row is the only one colored with their color, green.  Looking down to chromosome 5, you can see that both FTDNA and 23andMe show those segments as matches.  Only four chromosome segments are matches using the inferred Ancestry results based on their total cM information.

How Does This Affect Matching

When Ancestry introduced their phasing, as you might recall, a great many matches disappeared.  In essence, what Ancestry has done is relieved you of the problem of figuring out which matches are “solid” by not giving you any option to work with the raw data.

One of the comments that Ancestry has made is that few people who match in a DNA Circles match on the same segments.  In other words, they don’t triangulate, which means that Ancestry is telling us we don’t need to bother with triangulation because it won’t work anyway.  Their commentary becomes more understandable if you eliminate anything but large segments.  Most people who are distantly related are NOT going to match on large segments, and an entire group is not going to match on the same large segment, which is why we desperately need those smaller segments too – along with the raw data to compare.

Of course, because Ancestry provides us with no tools, we can’t see how we match our matches.

The best we can do is to download Ancestry raw data results to either or both Family Tree DNA and GedMatch – but we’ll never see what matches we are missing at Ancestry, which is really sad.

I ran my matches at both Family Tree DNA and at GedMatch for the two segments that Ancestry has apparently removed.

Yes, I have quite a few matches on those segments.  But not beyond what would be expected in terms of the number of people in the data base that I’m being compared to.  I do have some regions that are clearly from endogamous populations, and those areas have pages and pages of matches.  These two segments aren’t like that.

At GedMatch, I ran a triangulation report of that segment of chromosome 5 where I match others at both 23andMe and Family Tree DNA.  And for the really sad part – look at all those A kits, meaning Ancestry – more than half.  Those aren’t small segment matches either.  One triangulation group that includes an Ancestry kit is 14.7cM.  I’m missing those matches at Ancestry unless I happen to match these people on a larger segment that hasn’t been removed by Ancestry’s phasing.

GedMatch Triangulation Chr 5

I decided to check the second segment that Ancestry has removed that shows as a match through23andMe, Family Tree DNA and GedMatch – on chromosome 18.  There are fewer matches on that segment of chromosome 18, not more – so it’s not a pileup area either.  It does triangulate with other people who descend from a common Vannoy ancestor who are not close relatives.

At Family Tree DNA, here are my matches to 5 known Vannoy cousins on chromosome 5 at the FTDNA default threshold.  As you can see, I match two cousins, so we have a triangulation group of 3.


Look what happens below, in terms of matching, when the match threshold is lowered.  In addition to several other matches on other chromosomes, I’ve picked up another match on that segment of chromosome 5, which serves to increase that triangulation group to four people on that segment.

FTDNA chr 5 at 1cM

I checked, and indeed, the green, blue and orange cousins do match each other on this segment as well.  Chromosome 18 triangulated too, but with different cousins matching the base person.   The orange cousin is in both triangulation groups.

FTDNA chr 18

Ancestry apparently discarded both of those segments on chromosome 5 and on 18.  Ancestry claims that seldom do people in their DNA Circles match each other on the same segments.  That’s probably true if you’re measuring only very large segments, but we can see from these examples that these are neither pileup regions nor nonmatching segments.  They triangulate between cousins, so they are valid identical by descent matches.


I ran this little test as an experiment, but I must admit, I was stunned at the disparity in the matching of the vendors.  There has been a great deal of discussion surrounding the merits of Ancestry’s phasing.  Ancestry claims they are removing non-genealogical matches, as in IBS matches by population in pileup regions.

Based on what we’re seeing above, assuming the inferred discarded segments are accurate (without additional tools, inference is as good as it gets), they’ve pruned the tree too deeply.  That’s really not apparent when you look at your matches at Ancestry for three reasons:

  • Their data base is very large, so you still have a lot of matches
  • You can’t see your segment information
  • The Ancestry matches you do have are only the strongest – so you, proportionally, will have more “solid” matches at Ancestry than at other vendors – which makes people happy who don’t understand the behind the scenes ramifications of what they AREN’T getting and that those matches are not proven to that ancestor – nor is there any way to prove the data without a chromosome browser type of tool.

The smaller the matches reported by the vendors, the further out in time it moves the bar to finding your ancestors – which is why Family Tree DNA has a larger threshold, but still reports the small matching segments.

Let me say that again, in another way.

If you used a hypothetical matching threshold of 50cM for the smallest matching segment, you’re only going to get matches to about second cousins or closer.  Harold and I wouldn’t match with our largest segment being 47cM and we very clearly share a common ancestor. You’d have very few matches (if any) BUT they would all be very solid.  You’d be able to figure out quickly how you are related.  But how would this be useful to genealogy?  You likely already know those people. So this approach is very accurate, but also very restrictive, providing no opportunity to break down those distant brick walls.

If you move the threshold out to Ancestry levels, you’re going to get more matches, but fewer further back in time because the DNA from each contributing ancestor is reduced in each generation.  The majority of your matches will be beyond the 2nd cousin level, because you have a LOT more matches with each generation you go back in time.  Still, your matches will still probably be within a few generations.

At Ancestry, I have only one 3rd cousin DNA tree match, meaning a common ancestor has been identified with that person, about thirty 4th cousins, about a hundred 5th cousins and about thirty distant cousins.  So, you can see that 5th cousins are probably your most likely match and it falls off quickly after that.

If you move the matching threshold out even further, by making it smaller, you’ll have even more matches but many will be distant.  A greater percentage will be identical by chance and identical by population, but you will have some valid matches in those smaller segments.  The caveat is of course that you would have to work to sort the wheat from the chaff, by using triangulation methods.  The common ancestor will likely not be evident and may not be identifiable.  Conversely, the common ancestor may be identifidable…and that may be just what you need to break down that long standing brick wall.  I’ve done that twice now, once on my Younger/Hart line, confirming a wife’s rumored maiden name and one in my Vannoy line, confirming Elijah’s parents through matches to his mother’s Hickerson line.

But, if you don’t have those smaller segments to work with, along with tools, you will NEVER be able to find those elusive distant ancestors using DNA.

The great irony in all of this is that while I was working with the matches to chromosome 5 for this article, I noticed a couple of new matches I hadn’t seen before.  These matches also triangulate, but are from a female line, and now I know that at least part of that segment comes from the Crumley maternal line that married into the Vannoy line.  So, of you think for one minute that these smaller segments aren’t useful or important, think again.

So, the bottom line here is that if you’re interested in the immediate gratification aspect, with no work, but also no ability to utilize DNA segments to find distant ancestors, Ancestry is the one.  Their strong suit is their tree matching and many people are perfectly happy to never go beyond that – replete with incorrect assumptions that this means the ancestral genetic relationship is “proven.”

I currently have about 5400 total matches at Ancestry.  Of those, the day I did this comparison, 152 people matched my DNA and we have a tree match as well, meaning a common ancestor in my tree and their tree has been identified.  Of course, that does not assure that particular ancestor is how our DNA matches, and we can’t confirm that without a chromosome browser.  Still having those matches and matching trees, along with Circles is a wonderful first step.  It’s “feel good” stuff and who doesn’t like feel good.

If you’re interested in the vendor that gives you the most DNA segments to work with along with the tools to do it and therefore the most opportunity, Family Tree DNA, hands down, is the one.  Less feel good but way more potential.

23andMe is someplace in the middle – not easy or intuitive with a difficult communication process resulting in very few people who actually share their matching DNA with you, no feel good stuff, but they have a great matching tool that shows you not only who you match, but who your matches match in common with you as well.

I wish we could combine the best parts of all 3 vendors.  I wrote in detail about the autosomal offerings of all three vendors here.  Today, the best alternative is to test with all three.

Regardless, everyone who tests with any of the 3 vendors (or all of the three vendors) should upload their results to GedMatch where additional tools are provided that aren’t available at any vendor.  Another benefit of GedMatch is that the people there tend to be more serious about genetic genealogy.  The down side is that percentagewise, few people actually do upload their files, so you do still need to test at all of the vendors to achieve maximum matching and benefit from their individual strengths.

Additional tools are also available at where you will find analysis tools that utilize the matches found at the vendors (via downloads) but provide analysis and display in different ways.

Gedmatch, which works with your raw data and provides comparisons to others, and which downloads your actual match information from the vendors are the great equalizers between vendors today, as much as possible given the vendor matching threshold limits in place internally.  No matter what, the third party tools can’t get more than the vendors give you.

What’s the bottom line?  Fish in all of the ponds, but understand the wide variance in the boundaries and the limitations of each pool.  There is more difference between vendors in ways that might not be initially apparent.

The 1 Million Mark and Effective Matches

one million

Last week, announced the millionth customer in their autosomal data base.  On January 18th, 23andMe did the same.  I don’t have exact numbers from Family Tree DNA, but they can’t be terribly far behind.  So, let’s look at the effectiveness of these matches at the roughly 1 million mark between the various vendors.

comparison chart

Black bold highlights the vendor’s positive aspects and red bold notes the drawbacks and places where each vendor could stand improvement.  I’ve underlined the two red issues I feel are the most serious.

*1 – Both 23andMe and Ancestry provide communications with others whom you match through internal message systems.  However, you have to request permission at 23andMe with anyone you match to communicate with them, and then additionally to share their DNA.  The 23andMe the 1404 number is how many people I match and the 162 number is the number of people that have accepted communications from me.  Not all of those 162 are sharing DNA.

*2 – At 23andMe, this would be the number of people sharing DNA results with me.  Ancestry has no tools that allow comparison of DNA segments.  At Family Tree DNA this would be all of my matches.

*3 – 23andMe cuts your matches off at 1000 unless you are communicating with your matches or you have an outstanding “introduction sent” request.  Of the 1404 people I match, 138 are sharing genomes, 24 have accepted communications but have not shared genomes, and 12 have declined.  The balance of my 1404 are either those to whom I’ve requested an introduction and they haven’t replied at all or some that I haven’t gotten around to inviting yet.  Ironically, my last of 1404 matches (in percentage of shared DNA order) is my known cousin who would have been purged had we not been sharing genomes.  You don’t have to send introductory invitations to those you match at either Family Tree DNA nor Ancestry and neither of those companies have an arbitrary cutoff, although did a massive match purge when they implemented phasing.

*4 – At 23andMe, I can request to communicate with all 1404 people I match.  Of those, 162 have agreed to communicate or share genomes.  I can only communicate with those 162 people.  That doesn’t compare very well to either 1040 nor 5481 – and it shows how much genealogical benefit I’ve derived from 23andMe as compared to both Ancestry and Family Tree DNA.

*5 – At Ancestry, a minimum level subscription is required at $49 per year to see matching trees.  Not all participants have trees uploaded, and many trees aren’t public, so are not available for tree matching.  Otherwise, all trees connected to DNA results are included in matching function.

*6 – At Family Tree DNA, testers are encouraged to upload GEDCOM files or create trees in their account, and matching surname hints are given, but no actual ancestor matching in trees is performed.  Each participant must look at the tree of their matches, if provided.

*7 – 23andMe no longer hosts family trees on their site.  They have entered into collaboration with subscription service, MyHeritage.  Family Tree DNA is the only one of the vendors who hosts their own trees and does not require an additional subscription for that service, or for tree matching.

*8 – I have fewer matches at Family Tree DNA now than I did in November of 2014 when I had 1875 matches.  I have submitted a query to Family Tree DNA and they assure me this match number is accurate.


The disparity between the 23andMe and Ancestry match numbers, since both vendors have 1 million autosomal results in their data bases, is suggestive of how many matches may have been pared from my match list at 23andMe.

The number of effective matches that can be usefully utilized, and how they can be utilized, are quite a bit different than the total number of matches implies without further analysis.

Both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry have unique strong points that make them stand out as vendors.

23andMe, since I can only work with or communicate with about 10% of my matches, is the least useful, for me, for genealogy.  I found their health services, which 23andMe is no longer allowed to offer following a dust-up with the FDA, very beneficial.

The tree matches and DNA Circles at Ancestry are very useful, but the fact that Ancestry provides absolutely no tools such as a chromosome browser or the other comparison tools that both 23andMe and Family Tree DNA provide makes Ancestry’s tree matches terribly frustrating eye candy in the candy shop behind a hermetically sealed window we can’t get through.  Tree matches and Circles are suggestive of an ancestral connection, but without comparison and triangulation tools, your match to an individual could be through a different, potentially unknown, line, and you have no tools at Ancestry to confirm or deny.  People are left to assume that the tree matches and Circles are proof, and unfortunately, they do in droves.

Thankfully, Family Tree DNA accepts transfers from Ancestry, V3 chip transfers from 23andMe (not the V4 chip since Dec. 2013) and GedMatch accepts files from all 3 vendors.  Those are the only avenues to actually compare the DNA of those who tested at Ancestry to triangulate and prove ancestral matches.

The great news in all of this is that more than 1 million people have tested, and probably more than two million in total – although there is clearly some overlap between vendors.  With every person that tests and that we match in one place or another, it increases our odds as genealogists to confirm our genealogy or break through those pesky brick walls.

Footnote:  The prices for the tests are the same, at $99, unless a sale is taking place at one of the vendors.  Both 23andMe and Ancestry also sell the aggregated anonymized DNA data for other purposes.  Both 23andMe and Ancestry will request that you sign (digitally authorize by clicking a box) an informed consent agreement for your non-anonymized (or less anonymized) data to be utilized or sold as well.  Family Tree DNA is the only one of these three firms that does not sell your DNA data in any form.

DNA Testing Strategy for Adoptees and People with Uncertain Parentage

Adoptees aren’t the only people who don’t know who their parents are.  There are many people who don’t know the identity of one of their two parents…and it’s not always the father.  Just this week, I had someone who needed to determine which of two sisters was her mother.  Still, the “who’s your Daddy” crowd, aside from adoptees, is by far the largest.

The DNA testing strategy for both of these groups of people is the same, with slight modifications for male or female. Let’s take a look.

Males have three kinds of DNA that can be tested and then compared to other participants’ results.  The tests for these three kinds of DNA provide different kinds of information which is useful in different ways.  For example, Y DNA testing may give you a surname, if you’re a male, but the other two types of tests can’t do that, at least not directly.

Females only have two of those kinds of DNA that can be tested.  Females don’t have a Y chromosome, which is what makes males male genetically.

adopted pedigree

If you look at this pedigree chart, you can see that the Y chromosome, in blue, is passed from the father to the son, but not to daughters.  It’s passed intact, meaning there is no admixture from the mother, who doesn’t have a Y chromosome, because she is female.  The Y chromosome is what makes males male.

The second type of DNA testing is mitochondrial, represented by the red circles.  It is passed from the mother to all of her children, of both genders, intact – meaning her mitochondrial DNA is not admixed with the mtDNA of the father.  Woman pass their mtDNA on to their children, men don’t.

Therefore when you test either the Y or the mtDNA, you get a direct line view right down that branch of the family tree – and only that direct line on that branch of the tree.  Since there is no admixture from spouses in any generation, you will match someone exactly or closely (allowing for an occasional mutation or two) from generations ago.  Now, that’s the good and the bad news – and where genealogical sleuthing comes into play.

On the chart above, the third kind of DNA testing, autosomal DNA, tests your DNA from all of your ancestors, meaning all of those boxes with no color, not just the blue and red ones, but it does include the blue and red ancestors too.  However, autosomal DNA (unlike Y and mtDNA) is diluted by half in each generation, because you get half of your autosomal DNA from each parent, so only half of the parents DNA gets passed on to each child.

Let’s look at how these three kinds of DNA can help you identify your family members.


Since the Y DNA typically follows the paternal surname, it can be extremely helpful for males who are searching for their genetic surname.  For example, if your biological father’s surname is Estes, assuming he is not himself adopted or the product of a nonpaternal event (NPE) which I like to refer to as undocumented adoptions, his DNA will match that of the Estes ancestral line.  So, if you’re a male, an extremely important test will be the Y DNA test from Family Tree DNA, the only testing company to offer this test.

Let’s say that you have no idea who your bio-father is, but when your results come back you see a preponderance of Estes men whom you match, as well as your highest and closest matches being Estes.

By highest, I mean on the highest panel you tested – in this case 111 markers.  And by closest, I mean with the smallest genetic distance, or number of mutations difference.  On the chart below, this person matches only Estes males at 111 markers, and one with only 1 mutation difference (Genetic Distance.)  Please noted that I’ve redacted first names.

Hint for Mr. Hilbert, below – there is a really good chance that you’re genetically Estes on the direct paternal side – that blue line.

Estes match ex

The next step will be to see which Estes line you match the most closely and begin to work from there genealogically.  In this case, that would be the first match with only one difference.  Does your match have a tree online?  In this case, they do – as noted by the pedigree chart icon.  Contact this person.  Where did their ancestors live?  Where did their descendants move to?  Where were you born?  How do the dots connect?

The good news is, looking at their DNA results, you can see that your closest match has also tested autosomally, indicated by the FF icon, so you can check to see if you also match them on the Family Finder test utilizing the Advanced Matching Tool.  That will help determine how close or distantly related you are to the tester themselves.  This gives you an idea how far back in their tree you would have to look for a common ancestor.

Another benefit is that your haplogroup identifies your deep ancestral clan, for lack of a better word.  In other words, you’ll know if your paternal ancestor was European, Asian, Native American or African – and that can be a hugely important piece of information.  Contrary to what seems intuitive, the ethnicity of your paternal (or any) ancestor is not always what seems evident by looking in the mirror today.

Y DNA – What to order:  From Family Tree DNA, the 111 marker Y DNA test.  This is for males only.  Family Tree DNA is the only testing company to provide this testing.  Can you order fewer markers, like 37 or 67?  Yes, but it won’t provide you with as much information or resolution as ordering 111 markers.  You can upgrade later, but you’ll curse yourself for that second wait.


Mitochondrial DNA

Males and females both can test for mitochondrial DNA.  Matches point to a common ancestor directly up the matrilineal side of your family – your mother, her mother, her mother – those red circles on the chart.  These matches are more difficult to work with genealogically, because the surnames change in every generation.  Occasionally, you’ll see a common “most distant ancestor” between mitochondrial DNA matches.

Your mitochondrial DNA is compared at three levels, but the most accurate and detailed is the full sequence level which tests all 16,569 locations on your mitochondria.  The series of mutations that you have forms a genetic signature, which is then compared to others.  The people you match the most closely at the full sequence level are the people with whom you are most likely to be genealogically related to a relevant timeframe.

You also receive your haplogroup designation with mitochondrial DNA testing which will place you within an ethnic group, and may also provide more assistance in terms of where your ancestors may have come from.  For example, if your haplogroup is European and you match only people from Norway….that’s a really big hint.

Using the Advanced Matching Tool, you can also compare your results to mitochondrial matches who have taken the autosomal Family Finder test to see if you happen to match on both tests.  Again, that’s not a guarantee you’re a close relative on the mitochondrial side, but it’s a darned good hint and a place to begin your research.

Mitochondrial DNA – What to Order:  From Family Tree DNA, the mitochondrial full sequence test.  This is for males and females both.  Family Tree DNA is the only company that provides this testing.


Autosomal DNA

Y and mitochondrial DNA tests one line, and only one line – and shoots like a laser beam right down that line, telling you about the recent and deep history of that particular lineage.  In other words, those tests are deep and not wide.  They can tell you nothing about any of your other ancestors – the ones with no color on the pedigree chart diagram – because you don’t inherit either Y or mtDNA from those ancestors.

Autosomal DNA, on the other hand tends to be wide but not deep.  By this I mean that autosomal DNA shows you matches to ancestors on all of your lines – but only detects relationships back a few generations.  Since each child in each generation received half of their DNA from each parent – in essence, the DNA of each ancestor is cut in half (roughly) in each generation.  Therefore, you carry 50% of the DNA of your parents, approximately 25% of each grandparent, 12.5% of the DNA of each great-grandparent, and so forth.  By the time you’re back to the 4th great-grandparents, you carry only about 1% of the DNA or each of your 64 direct ancestors in that generation.

What this means is that the DNA testing can locate common segments between you and your genetic cousins that are the same, and if you share the same ancestors,  you can prove that this DNA in fact comes from a specific ancestor.  The more closely you are related, the more DNA you will share.

Another benefit that autosomal testing provides is an ethnicity prediction.  Are these predictions 100% accurate?  Absolutely not!  Are they generally good in terms of identifying the four major ethnic groups; African, European, Asian and Native American?  Yes, so long at the DNA amounts you carry of those groups aren’t tiny.  So you’ll learn your major ethnicity groups.  You never know, there may be a surprise waiting for you.

FTDNA myOrigins

The three vendors who provide autosomal DNA testing and matching all provide ethnicity estimates as well, and they aren’t going to agree 100%.  That’s the good news and often makes things even more interesting.  The screen shot below is the same person at Ancestry as the person above at Family Tree DNA.

Ancestry ethnicity

If you’re very lucky, you’ll test and find an immediate close match – maybe even a parent, sibling or half-sibling.  It does happen, but don’t count on it.  I don’t want you to be disappointed when it doesn’t happen.  Just remember, after you test, your DNA is fishing for you 24X7, every single hour of every single day.

If you’re lucky, you may find a close relative, like an uncle or first cousin.  You share a common grandparent with a first cousin, and that’s pretty easy to narrow down.  Here’s an example of matching from Family Tree DNA.

FTDNA close match

If you’re less lucky, you’ll match distantly with many people, but by using their trees, you’ll be able to find common ancestors and then work your way forward, based on how closely you match these individuals, to the current.

Is that a sometimes long process?  Yes.  Can it be done?  Absolutely.

If you are one of the “lottery winner” lucky ones, you’ll have a close match and you won’t need to do the in-depth genealogy sleuthing.  If you are aren’t quite as lucky, there are people and resources to help you, along with educational resources. provides tools and education to teach you how to utilize autosomal DNA tools and results.

Of course, you won’t know how lucky or unlucky you are unless you test.  Your answer, or pieces of your answer, may be waiting for you.

Unlike Y and mtDNA testing, Family Tree DNA is not the only company to provide autosomal of testing, although they do provide autosomal DNA testing through their Family Finder test.

There are two additional companies that provide this type of testing as well, 23andMe and  You should absolutely test with all three companies, or make sure your results are in all three data bases.  That way you are fishing in all of the available ponds directly.

If you have to choose between testing companies and only utilize one, it would be a very difficult choice.  All three have pros and cons.  I wrote about that here.  The only thing I would add to what I had to say in the comparison article is that Family Tree DNA is the only one of the three that is not trying to obtain your consent to sell your DNA out the back door to other entities.  They don’t sell your DNA, period.  You don’t have to grant that consent to either Ancestry or 23andMe, but be careful not to click on anything you don’t fully understand.

Family Tree DNA accepts transfers of autosomal data into their data base from Ancestry.  They also accept transfers from 23andMe if you tested before December of 2013 when 23andMe reduced the number of locations they test on their V4 chip

Autosomal DNA:  What to Order’s DNA product at – they only have one and it’s an autosomal DNA test

23andMe’s DNA product at – they only have one and it’s an autosomal DNA test

Family Tree DNA – either transfer your data from Ancestry or 23andMe (if you tested before December 2013), or order the Family Finder test. My personal preference is to simply test at Family Tree DNA to eliminate any possibility of a file transfer issue.


Third Party Autosomal Tools

The last part of your testing strategy will be to utilize various third party tools to help you find matches, evaluate and analyze results.


At GedMatch, the first thing you’ll need to do is to download your raw autosomal data file from either Ancestry or Family Tree DNA and upload the file to  You can also download your results from 23andMe, but I prefer to utilize the files from either of the other two vendors, given a choice, because they cover about 200,000 additional DNA locations that 23andMe does not. provides you with no tools to do comparisons between your DNA and your matches.  In other words, no chromosome browser or even information like how much DNA you share.  I wrote about that extensively in this article, and I don’t want to belabor the point here, other than to say that GedMatch levels the playing field and allows you to eliminate any of the artificial barriers put in place by the vendors.  Jim Bartlett just wrote a great article about the various reasons why you’d want to upload your data to Gedmatch.

GedMatch provides you with many tools to show to whom you are related, and how.  Used in conjunction with pedigree charts, it is an invaluable tool.  Now, if we could just convince everyone to upload their files.  Obviously, not everyone does, so you’ll still need to work with your matches individually at each of the vendors and at GedMatch.

GedMatch is funded by donations or an inexpensive monthly subscription for the more advanced tools.

Another donation based site is which offers you a wide range of analytical tools to assist with making sense of your matches and their trees.  DNAGEDCOM works closely with the adoption community and focuses on the types of solutions they need to solve their unique types of genealogy puzzles.  While everyone else is starting in the present and working their way back, adoptees are starting with the older generations and piecing them together to come forward to present.  Their tools aren’t just for adoptees though.  Tools such as the Autosomal DNA Segment Analyzer are great for anyone.  Visit the site and take a look.

Third Party Y and Mitochondrial Tools – YSearch and MitoSearch

Both and are free data bases maintained separately from Family Tree DNA, but as a courtesy by Family Tree DNA.  Ysearch shows only a maximum of 100 markers for Y DNA and Mitosearch doesn’t show the coding region of the mitochondrial DNA, but they do allow users to provide their actual marker values for direct comparison, in addition to other tools.

Furthermore, some people who tested at other firms, when other companies were doing Y and mtDNA testing, have entered their results here, so you may match with people who aren’t matches at Family Tree DNA.  Those other data bases no longer exist, so Ysearch or Mitosearch is the only place you have a prayer of matching anyone who tested elsewhere.

You can also adjust the match threshold so that you can see more distant matches than at Family Tree DNA.  You can download your results to Ysearch and Mitosearch from the bottom of your Family Tree DNA matches page.

Mitosearch upload

Answer the questions at Mito or Ysearch, and then click “Save Information.”  When you receive the “500” message that an error has occurred at the end of the process, simply close the window.  Your data has been added to the data base and you can obtain your ID number by simply going back to your match page at Family Tree DNA and clicking on the “Upload to Ysearch” or Mitosearch link again on the bottom of your matches page.  At that point, your Y or mitosearch ID will be displayed.  Just click on “Search for Genetic Matches” to continue matching.

Get Going!

Now that you have a plan, place your orders and in another 6 to 8 weeks, you’ll either solve the quandry or at least begin to answer your questions.  Twenty years ago you couldn’t have begun to unravel your parentage using DNA.  Now, it’s commonplace.  Your adventure starts today.

Oh, and congratulations, you’ve just become a DNA detective!

I wish you success on your journey – answers, cousins, siblings and most importantly, your genetic family.  Hopefully, one day it will be you writing to me telling me how wonderful it was to meet your genetic family for the first time, and what an amazing experience it was to look across the dinner table and see someone who looks like you.

Ancestry Reinvents my Ancestors, Again

Remember, right after April Fool’s Day, when Ancestry gave me two ancestors who weren’t?  I check my account every day, and every day for the past two months, they have been there, looking back at me, making me wonder if somehow I’ve missed something – but with no tools to figure out what, where or how.

Diedamia Lyon and John David Curnutte.

Yes, I was getting fond of John and Diedamia who I was beginning to refer to as my adopted NADs.

new ancestor discoveries

But today, today is different.  Yep, I have the same number of matches, the same number of hints, the same Circles….but my bad NADs are gone.  Bye bye John and Diedamia!

So my New Ancestor Discoveries (NADs) have apparently been undiscovered and have disappeared, or maybe got reburied, just like they never existed.  Poof.  Gone.  Never happened!

Of course, these ancestors didn’t exist in reality, but according to Ancestry they did.  But not anymore.  No explanation.  Just got up one morning and they were gone…slunk off in the night.  Not even a goodbye note.  After two months together.  I’m crushed.

disappeared nad

And look what else I found today.  Why, Ancestry reinvented my family story it seems.  The timing of this announcement is extremely ironic.  But maybe it’s the explanation I was looking for.  Reinvented.  That must be it.

Is this a joke?

reinvented story

So, Ancestry….which time were you wrong?  Two months ago or now?  Were John and Diedamia ancestors, or not?  Just how, exactly, is one supposed to know?

Which “story” is the true one?  Were you “just kidding” when you gave me those ancestors, or now that you’ve taken them away?  Not funny.

You said DNA would confuse people…and by golly…you’re right.  Only it’s not the DNA itself that’s confusing, it’s your conferring and then unconferring of ancestors – with no documentation or tools.  Without tools, we’re forced to believe you…but which version do we believe?

How are we supposed to have any confidence in these hide-and-seek, peek-a-boo, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t ancestor discoveries?  Did I somehow miraculously stop matching all 5 of the people who descended from John and Diedamia?  Did you, ahem, make a mistake?  Crystal ball broken maybe?  If so, an explanation and maybe an apology would be nice.  You can’t just rip my purported ancestors away from me like that with no explanation.  What if I had really believed you in the first place…that John and Diedamia were my ancestors?

Thankfully, I didn’t believe you because based on 30+ years of genealogy research and chromosome browsers and similar tools provided by other vendors, I’ve confirmed my tree.  But a lot of people will believe you….what about them?

And that lovely story that came along with John and Diedamia.  You mean that story you told me about my ancestors wasn’t true?  But it was MY story…you said so.  It has all those names and dates and places and pictures. How could it be wrong?  It seemed so real.  What happened?  Oh yea, I forgot, you reinvented it.

You know, I’d check on the solidity of those matches myself, but I can’t because, well, you don’t give me any tools…you know….like a chromosome browser…because you’ve implemented a superior methodology for matching.  Instead, you’d much prefer, in fact, you require that I simply trust you based upon the excellent track record and credibility you’ve established.  You’ve suggested that I might not understand how a chromosome browser works and I might make mistakes, and that, of course, would be just awful.  Why, I might even give myself incorrect ancestors.  Thank you so much for protecting me from those grievous errors.

But hey, maybe I’ll get a new NAD soon and we can do this all over again.  Won’t that be fun!  Or maybe John and Diedemia will be back to visit.  One never knows!

Say what Ancestry….how about you don’t give me any more bad NADs or any more NADs at all, because there appears to be no way to tell the difference between authentic ancestor discoveries and bogus ones.  For that matter, don’t gift me with any more re-reinvented stories either based on cumulative bad trees.  I’ll just settle for a chromosome browser instead.  What do you think?  I don’t much care for this new  methodology of incorrect ancestor gifting, retracting and reinventing.  I’d prefer to make my own mistakes…thank you.

rabbit in hat

RIP Sorenson – A Crushing Loss

The genetic genealogy community suffered a crushing loss this week.

The Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation data base of Y and mitochondrial results, complete with pedigree charts, owned by, has been removed.  Here is the statement by Ancestry currently appearing on the website.

smgf rip

This is a grievous loss for the genetic genealogy community.  The site was rich with information and since Ancestry took their own Y and mtDNA data base offline in the fall of 2014, was one of only two remaining Y and mitochondrial comparison sources.

YSearch and MitoSearch remain, today, funded by Family Tree DNA.  Outside of Family Tree DNA itself, these are now the only publicly available comparison data base.

Sorenson held over 100,000 samples of DNA and was linked to pedigree charts of those who contributed their DNA for processing.  One of the earliest data bases, many contributors to Sorenson have passed away today, and their Y and mtDNA information was only available at Sorenson.

While Ancestry did not say specifically, the public relations nightmare surrounding a police case recently has obviously spurred Ancestry to take this action.

Unfortunately, the tabloid reporting in this horribly biased and intentionally inflammatory article was posted and repeated within the genealogy community, even by some well-known individuals, without vetting for facts.  The sky was not falling, until this happened, and well….now we know that the sky falling actually does look like…because it has.

For the truth of the matter, please see Judy Russell’s articles here and here.  Judy Russell, who writes as The Legal Genealogist, is a genealogist with a law degree.  I can’t add anything to what Judy had to say about the facts and circumstances in this case.

What I can say is that the combination of shoddy journalism and rumor-mongering, for lack of any other term, has put Ancestry in a no-win position.  The only way for them to make this situation “go away” is to do exactly what they have done.  Now there is no data base, no way to compare DNA, for anyone, and therefore, nothing to talk about.  This will never happen to them again.  There will be no more negative publicity, at least not about this.  Their problem is solved.  Ours is not.

We are the losers in all of this.  And it’s a grievous loss.  One that cannot be replaced.

And as angry as I was, and still am, at Ancestry for destroying their own data base in October of 2014, I can hardly blame them for this move – as much as I don’t like it.  They don’t sell the Y and mitochondrial DNA testing products anymore – and there is no upside to them as a corporation to continue to support a philanthropic data base that was at the root of the public relations nightmare they have recently endured.

Having said that, I am hopeful that other arrangements can be made.  There is a group of individuals speaking with the folks at Ancestry this week to determine if there are any other options available and to discuss alternatives.