Autosomal Results – The Basics

With more and more people taking the Family Finder test at Family Tree DNA, the 23andMe test and the AncestryDNA test at, people get their results back, and then wonder what to do with them.  Let’s take a look at why people test and what to do with the results.

Remember, this is just the basics.  If you want a detailed analysis, that too is available. This article isn’t focused on everything you could possibly do and how to do it, but on getting the excited newbie through the first day:)  OK, maybe the first week!

What you Get

These three tests provide you with two basic genealogy related items, aside from the health information at 23andMe which we are not discussing here.

1. Percentages of ethnicity.  These tests are the most reliable way to obtain your ethnic breakdown.  Remember, these tests test all of your DNA, inherited from all of your ancestors.  By testing the Y-line and mitochondrial DNA, you can determine the ethnicity of those specific lines, but autosomal determines the ethnicity breakdown of all of you, not just those two genealogical lines.

2. Lists of people you are related to.  How each company provides this information varies a bit, but the essence is that you receive a list of people you match, and estimates of how closely.  Figuring out your common ancestry is up to you.

Why you Test

There are, in general, only 4 reasons, again, aside from the health information at 23andMe, to test autosomal DNA.

  1. You want your percentages of ethnicity.
  2. You want to see who you match and you’re willing to do the work to find out how.
  3. You have a theory that you’d like to test.
  4. You’re an adoptee or someone who doesn’t know who both of their parents are, and you’re hoping for a close match.

In reverse order, Providence will take care of number 4.  You can increase the odds of Providence helping you by fishing in multiple pools.  Remember that Providence has a sense of humor.

A good example of a theory that’s easy to test relative to reason number 3 is to see if two people are really half-siblings vs whole siblings or not siblings at all.  The results will provide you with the answer to this question easily.  This example only requires testing the two people directly involved.

A less straightforward testing theory example is attempting to determine which of 4 brothers born in the 1750s produced your ancestor who was born in the 1780s.  This scenario requires lots of hard work to find people whom you match who carry the surnames of the wives of the four brothers.  In addition, you may also want to do some of what is called “directed testing” where your find descendants of specific individuals or families and test several people to see if any of them match you, or any of your cousins in that line, using these autosomal tests.  This is a much more involved project and can be expensive.  However, if it’s your last best hope, or your only hope, somehow the cost doesn’t matter so much.  It’s probably less than a trip to another state.

Many people think the test does the hard work.  It doesn’t.  It does the easy work.  The hard work is left up to you….the genealogy research that must go along with these matches.  All the DNA test can do is to tell you that you DO match.  It can’t tell you how.  Your match could come from any of your ancestral lines and it’s up to you and the person you match to figure out how you match and who your common ancestor is.  Every single match is a new opportunity for research, work and discovery.


Let’s take a look at the results at Family Tree DNA.

Click on Family Finder, then on Matches.  The first mistake people make is that they don’t realize you’re not initially seeing all of your matches, just the “close and immediate” ones.

In the drop down box  for “relations,” you’ll see “show all matches.”  Choose that option.

Matching Surnames

If you have entered your surnames under Account Setting, Most Distant Ancestors and then Surnames, or if you have uploaded your Gedcom file, you will see your matching surnames with your matches in bold.  In the example above, Barbara is my mother.  Harold is my third cousin on my father’s side.  Harold has entered his surnames, and the ones we match “float to the top” and are bolded.  You can see the beginning of that list; Brown, Crumley, Lowery.

This is where the work for you begins, determining how you and your match connect to these surnames and if they are the same family.

Relationship Predictions

You can see that Family Tree DNA predicted that my mother was either my mother or my child.  They use the amount of shared DNA to make that calculation.  You share 50% of the DNA of each parent, and your child shares 50% of your DNA, so someone you match at 50% has to be either a child or a parent to you.  It’s that simple.

Of course, in each generation, after your parents, the percentage of DNA that you receive from any given ancestor is not exactly 50% of the previous generation.  But it’s close, and it’s the only number that we can accurately use for predicting relationships.

The following percentages show how much DNA is shared with different family members.

  • 50% mother, father and siblings
  • 25% grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, half-siblings, double first cousins
  • 12.5% first cousins
  • 6.25% first cousins once removed
  • 3.125% second cousins, first cousins twice removed
  • 0.781% third cousins

You may be able to see these relationships easier on the following graphic.

You can read more about autosomal inheritance on the ISOGG “Autosomal DNA Statistics” page.  At the bottom of that page are some other good articles about working with autosomal DNA results.

Family Tree DNA and 23andMe both use calculations that involve the total centimorgans shared and the longest contiguous block.  You don’t need to understand these calculations.  (Remember, this is just the basics.)  What you need to understand is that the relationship predictor can get close, but the further back in time you go, the less accurate it will be.  Remember that every generation, DNA is passed at random to the next generation.  You can see on my match page that my third cousin Harold is predicted to be a second cousin, but the range is 2nd to 3rd cousin.  That means that Harold and I share a little more DNA than most third cousins.

If you need help, you can always click on “page help”.

Ancestor Fishing and the Chromosome Browser

Let’s say I think that I might have found a new surname in my line.  It want to see everyone who has the surname Hickerson who is on my match list.  I enter that surname in the “ancestral surname” box, and click on “run report.”  The results returned will all carry the Hickerson surname, which you can see by scrolling for the highlighted names.

Now I want to see if these three people share common DNA not just with me, but with each other.  If we all share a common segment of DNA, then that confirms a common ancestor and attributes that DNA at that address on that chromosome to that specific ancestral family.

In my case, the known ancestral family is Vannoy, so let’s look at the Vannoy cousins as compared to me.

Each of the participants results are color coded.  On the page below, you can see that each matching segment of the chromosomes are colored.  It turns out that all of us share a fairly large segment on Chromosome 15.  So now we can attribute that segment to Elijah Vannoy, our oldest proven ancestor in that line.  You can also see some areas where one or two of my cousins match my DNA, but not all of us.  Those can also be attributed to Elijah Vannoy’s line since we share no other (known) common ancestors.

This cousin match is simple because the men share the same surname, but if this was 3 women with different surnames, the matching would still work.  The challenge of course would be to find the common ancestor.  In this case, if all 3 women had Elijah Vannoy in their tree, we could still tell that this segment of Chromosome 15 was attributed to the Vannoy family.

You can also download the results into a spreadsheet so you can do this matching without selecting 5 at a time.  Of course on a spreadsheet, there is no pretty and graphic chromosome browser.

Color your Chromosomes

You know, using these simple tools, you could “color in” your own DNA on your chromosomes so you can identify which part of your DNA was contributed by which ancestor.  Yes, I know, this is terribly geeky.

Reconstruct a Virtual Ancestor

Conversely, you could also “reconstruct” an ancestor. In fact, I think we’re well on the way with Elijah Vannoy.  Heck, I’ve already got most of chromosome 15 completed and parts of 3, 5, 11, 18 and 20!

Find a Guide – Consulting

If you’re trying to do something more complex, or have a specific goal in mind, you probably need some level of guidance if you are the proverbial Newbie.

There are three of us in the genetic genealogy community that provide various autosomal consulting services.

I provide DNA test planning, meaning helping you figure out who to test to achieve your desired results, and also after testing follow-up in the form of a Quick Consult.  I also write specialty reports upon request.  You can see the various options on my webpage or you can e-mail me directly at to discuss.

Cece Moore is another consultant in this space.  She works with a lot of adoptees and beginners.  You can reach Cece at  You’re probably familiar with Cece through her blog,

Tim Janzen, MD, provides consulting as well.  His specialty is called phasing which determines which part of your genome came from which parent/ancestor.  Now this is easy if you have parents yet alive, but if not, and you have to try to figure this out by piecing together matches from various cousins, it’s not straightforward at all.  Tim uses the phased DNA data in conjunction with data from known relatives to create chromosome maps of your genome.  These maps are very helpful when you are trying to figure out how you are related to your matches at 23andMe and in the Family Finder database.  You can reach Tim at

You might be surprised to see me recommending other people on my blog in what might be considered a competitive arena.  Don’t be.  We work together.  We know who is the best at which aspects of genetic genealogy and we refer people routinely to the best resource for their needs.

The Magic of Connecting

Your level of success with autosomal testing and finding cousin matches is directly proportional to the amount of work you’re willing to invest in contacting your matches and sometimes helping them with their genealogy.

However, the results can be incredibly rewarding.  One of my clients is an adoptee.  She, of course, was hoping for a half-sibling match, but she’s not that lucky….at least not yet.  In the mean time, three of her matches also matched each other, and 2 of them share part of the same chromosomal segment with her.  The surname involved is very unique, French Canadian, found initially in only one family in one location.  So while we don’t know who her parents are, or her hoped-for siblings, we were able to gift her with one ancestor that is, absolutely, positively, hers.  This is a gift she has never had in her entire life.  She has never known one biological family member, ever.  And she has cousins too, an entire list of them.  For her, autosomal DNA has provided the ability to put her family tree together backwards, working our way forward in time from distant ancestors, slowly…..while still hoping for that “lottery winning” sibling match!



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50 thoughts on “Autosomal Results – The Basics

  1. Thank you, Roberta, for the nice mention. This is the type of post that many people really are looking for with all of the recent buzz surrounding autosomal DNA testing for genealogy. Thanks for writing it!

  2. Good explanation and as I said with my “share” it gets a little better as you work with it for awhile.

  3. Thanks Roberta, an excellent & practical blog, once again. I already shared the link with the Finnish Suomi DNA group in FB.

  4. Thanks Roberta, I had let my Family Finder results go for awhile and now that I have more time this article will help bring me back up to speed.

  5. Thanks Roberta, Using you suggestion about how to use the Chromosome Browser, I just located a common ancestor between two matches and myself in Family Finder. I used additional knowledge from my matches in 23andMe and census data in

  6. I am looking at trying the Ancestry DNA kit and can’t decide if i should use my own DNA or my son’s. I am divorced from his father but i want my children to know their full heritage, Would i get an something that would show mine and their fathers or would you recommend a separate test to determine their genetic heritage?

    • I would recommend a separate test for your child. Because the autosomal results are mixed, without you testing yours, your child will have no idea which parts of his are from you and which parts from his father unless you test yours as well.

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  10. My brother had an autosomal DNA done in 2008. The company he went through only sent a map with the marker results, and nothing more. There were so many dots on the map it was so hard to determine anything. So I ran it through ENFSI and no one could explain exactly what to do. One group said to take the middle column and count the top ten. They explained the probability formula but it was confusing.

    I understand that in statistics, the probabilities are like this…-11 is greater than -12. But what confused me was when they said 2.3 -11 was less than 1.9 -11. So I calculated that on excel and entered in those I thought were in my top ten. The greatest probability came up as Croatian.

    This is what I mean…Croatia was 2.29E-011 and at the bottom was Portugal at 1.24E-011. I asked another “Expert” and they were very vague in explaining if I had the top ten list in the correct order. I am not sure I have. So the question is this, do I have it in the correct order if Croatia is first and Portugal is last?

    I ran it through OmniPop 2 and the map provided the same information as the original map my brother received, but I don’t know if that company had used OmniPop. What was more intriguing is that there were more hits in Eastern and Southern Europe, a lot in India and only one little dot in Russia. I looked this Russian dot up, just so I could get an idea of who was there, and it was Khanty-Mans.

    I found dots in Finland, Sweden and Norway, but only Norway was anywhere near the top ten on ENFSI. And to make matters worse, Ireland was way low, even though my great-grandfather said he was from County Clare. North Ireland did show up in higher frequency (if I got the list in the correct order), but he was not from North Ireland.

    I simply needed an answer for how to list the top ten in order of greatest to least. These “experts” are confusing. I am not a mathematician by any means, I have severe Dyscalculia. But if only they could have shown me examples to explain what they mean.

    Other than that, the Netherlands was in the top ten, that was expected. England was not, but Scotland/Glasgow was. I did a lot of research about why France/Lille was there, but not France/Toulouse. I think it must be Flemish, and some surnames seem to indicate Flemish ancestry.

    My question has been throughout, do I have the top ten listed in order and using the correct second column in ENFSI?

    This is fundamentally important because I have four ancestors not married to the fathers of their children. My dad has two candidates for fathers, one is a Moore and the other Lambert. Before I can continue with the genealogy paper trail, I want to know if I am going in the right direction.

    The surnames in question are these: Moore/Lambert, Gross/Minton, Patton/Nighswander and Bryant/McIntosh. The first surnames are supposed, the second are rumored.

    Would you like my brother’s autosomal markers? I can send them to you.

    • Kara,

      I do perform private consulting. However, it sounds to me like you took an old CODIS type autosomal test though, and these are entirely different tests. If that is the case, they would have been between 15 and 21 markers and they are now obsolete. If this is the case, you need to take these new tests.


      • I just sent a sample to 23 and Me a few weeks ago. They should have it finished in about a month.

        I didn’t understand why so many predictor programs asked for DYS and those are not what was given in the results. What he has are the D13S317 type of markers with Penta D, Penta E and TPox.

        I called the company and asked them to explain and the man who worked there simply said “he’s a white guy”. Now at least my brother has his genetic fingerprint if he is ever arrested.

        I have seen your name on Rootsweb, I look at those forums a lot for genealogy.

        I believe I am descended from Melungeon, my family has several surnames found among them and lived in the same area. I never heard the word Melungeon while I was growing up, but there were code words, such as “Black Dutch”. That’s pretty inconclusive, but intriguing enough for me.

        All I have are oral legends from my dad remembering what he heard his aunts and uncles and grandparents talk about. He was from McDowell County, West Virginia. My maternal grandmother from Kentucky also talked a lot about her ancestors, and I listened to her tell all about the colorful characters in her family. She had a basic knowledge about her ancestry, but the oldest stories she could remember was her family “came through the Gap” with Daniel Boone. She said they came from North Carolina but did not know names. I found this in the genealogy paper trail. It’s my dad’s side that is sketchy with so many rumors and legends that I never really believed him.

        But I did a lot of research on his side and found some things to be true, but he did not know a lot of details. I know more today than he did his whole life.

        I will have my brother to retest, hopefully we will get some clearer answers.

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  16. I really enjoyed your discussion and it helped to renew my energy for examining my DNA results which thus far have totally overwhelmed me. Your comment above “attempting to determine which of 4 brothers born in the 1750s produced your ancestor who was born in the 1780s” really caught my attention as this is what I am up against . Could you please expand on this idea? I believe my 2nd gr grandfather descended from one of 5 brothers. We have spent years trying to find documentation but to no avail, hence we have turned to YDNA and autosomal DNA testing. I need a solid game plan and this suggestion seems to be the one.

    Can you direct me to further documentation on this technique?

    David Johnson

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  21. I wanted to know if this would be a good test for me to take? I have my mothers last name and she died when I was 10. She never had the chance to tell me who my father is and i really want to know that. I have a brother and sister but with a different dad. What would you suggest?

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  23. In the case where the common ancestor is a couple (3rd cousin match through brothers born 1840’s)) would I just label the matching segments as Mother of Vannoy/Father of Vannoy until I find a match further back on one side or the other to determine which ancestor contributed to which segment? Also, I’m wondering if you automatically attribute the stray segment matches to Vannoy, particularly c18 since it looks quite small and none of the other Vannoy matches share this bit. Could it be identical by chance? Do you use a threshold to determine this?

    • I label them until I see some reason to do otherwise. I do not use a threshold in regards to labeling. If I start being concerned, I make notes accordingly or color code them with a “concern” color.

  24. Roberta. I took the test. If I have 11 5-8th DNA cousins all descending from the same ancestor, what are the oddds that this is an ancestral family for me as well. I was trying to find my oldest Oliver ancestor and found an unknown Oliver line in the same location that my Dudley ancestral line married into my Oliver ancestral line. In that unknown Oliver family, Peter Oliver married Margaret Duvall in 1729. The descendants of Mareen Duvall (b. 1730 France) is the common ancestor for all my 11 Duvall DNA cousin matches. Is this possible?

      • I was born an Oliver. I have traced my Oliver line back to James William Oliver b. 1822 in Georgia who married Mary Dudley. I have confirmed this paper trail info with autosomal DNA cousins from Dudley, but not Oliver. No one in the Oliver YDNA project matches my brother or cousin. Mary Dudley’s grandfather was in Orangeburg County, SC at the same time as an Oliver family. Thomas Oliver married Elizabeth Sistrunk. I do have 9 DNA cousins who descend from the Oliver-Sistrunk marriage and several of Elizabth’s brothers. I assume, with the locality the same, that this is my Oliver line. Am I correct? Thomas Oliver who married Elizabeth Sistrunk was baptized in 1750 by Rev. G who recorded the event in his diary. His parents were identitied as Peter and Mary. In the same county was a Peter Oliver who married Margaret Duvall in 1729. I can find NO descendants of this Peter who took the YDNA test, and I do not have any autosomal DNA cousins from the Oliver line, but I do have 11 Duvall DNA cousins who are 5-8th, which would be about th right time period to be my ancesral line. Without the use of triangulation, which I know would be the answer, I am going on my own instinct that Duvall may be an ancestral pedigree, because of the large number of DNA cousins from that line, but how to prove it. Without triangulation, how can I prove my theory?

  25. Took the test from FT-DNA. All I got back was an Ethnic table that gave percentages relating to various areas of the world. No matches. There were no STR values; didn’t even identify the Haplogroup. Of what value is this test in trying to confirm a suspected family tree. I realize the STR values are of value only along the paternal line. Without STR values I can’t compare with others who have had a Y-DNA test. Seems the autosomal test only works if you get someone you already know you are related to also take the test? Called FT-DNA and they said they no longer do the Y-DNA test.

    • There is some confusion someplace. It sounds to me like you’re talking about the old Ancestry test, not Family Tree DNA. They do the Y test, you get a haplogroup and matches if you have any. And you always get STR values. I will pass this on to someone at FTDNA and ask them to contact you.

      • Sorry, you are right. It was ancestry. This was a test I got for my uncle. I am trying to determine where in my line a mutation occurred. I differ from others back in my line & I know it happened between my great grandfather & myself.
        Still not sure that I see any value to the autosomal test. How far back can you go & still have any meaning.

        • Autosomal testing for ethnicity can only reach reliably back to find minority admixture about 5 or 6 generations. However, you can have cousin matches a long way back – it just depends on how the DNA is inherited. It all depends on what you want to do with your genealogy. I want to confirm my ancestry and I’d like to break down some brick walls too. Autosomal is invaluable for that.

  26. I have read this through time and time again and am still not understanding something. blame it on my age. I am a senior citizen who has been researching genealogy for 40 years and this DNA is new to me. I took the FamilyFInder test and have been looking at my chromosome browser. What am I looking for to compare with what? Chromomsome #?, beginning and end numbers? shared cM? I have a theory based on geography and need to find out if I am right about two families who lived near each other. I do show matches from these families, but how can I determine if I am related to one or both of them.


    • I would suggest that you arrange for a one hour tutorial with either Jennifer Zinck or Diahan Southard. They can help step you through this. You can find links to them under the Help tab at the top of the blog. There are also links to articles I’ve written that may help you.

  27. Iam looking at getting my DNA done my mother was Adopted , l have found my mothers Sister my Cousin has had her DNA done Ancestry l am asking if l had my DNA done would my Cousin DNA .and mine Match if l had it done lam male would l have more my fathers DNA thankyou if you can explan it l hate to get it done and waste $100 odd dollars down the drain

  28. My great great grandmother is from Africa: the grand mother of my father’s father) . I don’t know her name but “the African” had one daughter, Carmenta, Who had one child a son, Clarence, and no daughters. Clarence, my grandfather, has a daughter (my aunt). Can my aunt be tested to discover the ethnicity of the “African lady”. I read that only females carry the mitochondrial DNA ? Clarence, her dad being only an inheritor is not alive to be tested

    • There is no one to test her mtDNA, but your aunt can test for ethnicity. I’m also doing a seminar about Native American DNA, but it would work the same for African DNA as well. You may want to consider that as a possibility.

  29. Hi! I found an 8th cousin, using autosomal DNA. Is that possible? We trace to the same 7th (for me) great grandparents, with no other common ancestors down the way.

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