Autosomal DNA Matching within Projects

Family Tree DNA was gracious enough to establish projects for genealogists – in fact – that’s one of the first things they did.  However, when they established projects, some 14 or 15 years ago, the first projects that existed were Y DNA projects.  The Y DNA, of course, is passed from father to son, along with the surname, so the projects were called “surname projects.”

Women, of course, are genealogically jinxed because their surnames have historically changed in every generation, with marriage, and sometimes multiple times, with multiple marriages – so which surname project would they join?  The answer is, it varies, and more often than not, the answer is none.  They roam around like homeless nomads.  Mitochondrial DNA tools and data bases lag far behind those of Y or autosomal DNA.

There are four types of projects at Family Tree DNA.

  1. Surname projects
  2. Haplogroup projects
  3. Geographic projects
  4. Mitochondrial DNA lineage projects

Mitochondrial DNA lineage projects have never really caught on, probably because there is no good way to find them, but the other three types of projects are very common and widely used.

In upcoming articles, we’re going to look at each type of project, what it provides, to whom, and any special challenges it might have.

However, there is one universal challenge with projects and that’s how to find and handle autosomal matches.  Autosomal testing didn’t exist when projects were first defined, and now we don’t quite know how to handle autosomal testing and people who descend from specific lines but not through the Y chromosome.  In other words, my paternal grandmother was a Bolton, but it’s not my surname – should I and could I join the Bolton project?  In the past, assuredly, the answer would have been “no,” because the Bolton project is a Y DNA project – but is the answer still no?  That depends on the project and the administrators, and we’ll discuss these types of issues in the upcoming Surname Projects article.

However, regardless of the type of project, there is one question that gets asked a lot, and the answer is always the same.

Can I compare my autosomal DNA to other project members?

And the answer is…..drum roll please….yes.  However, not in the way you might expect.

All projects and types of projects, and all tests, except Big Y, SNP and factoids are included in the advanced matching features available on every participants home page at Family Tree DNA.  This means that you can see who you match, within each project you have joined, on each kind of and combination of kinds of tests.

Sign on to your personal page, and under “My DNA,” under either Y DNA, mtDNA or Family Finder, you have an “Advanced Matching” option.

y dna options

Selecting the Advanced Matching Option will show the following options.

advanced matches

Selecting Family Finder and then the project where you’d like to see who you match, in this case, “Speaks,” and then clicking on “Run Report” gives you the following.

speaks ff match

Within the project, you can see who you match, if they have had their Y or mtDNA tested, and if so, the haplogroup, and their estimated relationship range (to you) utilizing Family Finder.

Now, let me tell you what this DOESN’T mean.

It doesn’t automatically mean that you match these people on this same family line.

I want to say that again, and louder, because this is one of the most common erroneous assumptions I see.

autosomal does not

You have to do more work, chromosome matching and triangulation to determine how you match these people, and on which lines.

And it does not, DOES NOT, mean that if you are both members of a geographic project, like the American Indian project, for example, that you are American Indian because you match someone in the American Indian project.  You might match them on a completely different non-Indian line.

It also DOES NOT mean that these people who match you, match each other.  You can determine that, but you’ll need to utilize the matrix tool to see who matches whom.  In fact, in the example above, Stacy and Lola-Margaret do not match each other.

You simply cannot assume.  You know what assume does….

No jumping to conclusions either, no matter how excited you are or how promising a match within that project looks to be.  Conclusion jumping works functionally the same as assume.

If this seems a bit confusing to you, let me explain.

Autosomal DNA tests test and include your DNA that you received from all of your ancestral lines.  It reaches back in time reliably 5 or 6 generations, and often further, in terms of matching to your genetic cousins.

DNA Pedigree

At 5 generations, you have 32 separate ancestral lines, and at 6 generations, you have 64 different ancestral lines.

Y surname projects typically focus on one line, the blue Estes line above.  Mitochondrial DNA is the same, focusing on the red circle matrilineal line above  But your autosomal DNA match within the Estes project could reflect an Estes line match, or any of your 31 genealogical other lines at 5 generations.  People who join projects typically do so because of their relationship with one particular line, like the Estes line – but autosomal has the capability to and does reach across all lines – so just because you match someone in the same DNA project does not mean that’s where your genetic match comes from.  Of course, it’s a wonderful hint, especially if you’re an Estes and it’s the Estes project, and a great place to start looking – but it’s NOT a given.  And of course, in haplogroup and geographic projects, the connection is even less apparent.  The Y DNA and mtDNA haplogroup fields are also another great hint and can quickly eliminate, or suggest, those possible lines.

Are you curious to see who you match in different projects?  Take a look.  You never know what kind of surprise might be waiting.

23 thoughts on “Autosomal DNA Matching within Projects

  1. Thanks for posting this Roberta. It is an important point that many of the old guard from the various family associations don’t understand. I don’t bother talking to the people at the Cloud Family Association because of their fixation on the Y-Project at the expense of any autosomal testing. This excludes thousands of Cloud descendants from participation. Despite not sharing the surname and the direct Y-DNA link, I have just as much DNA from my 5th Great Grandfather William Cloud as any of his descendants who still happen to have Cloud for a last name. Despite this, they go out of their way to discourage their members from taking other tests such as 23andME or AncestryDNA which have both been very helpful to me.

  2. Not finding an answer to my question in the help section. How to you find how to contact someone who has HVR1 Mutations HVR2 Mutations matches… I see the kit number, but clueless how to contact a kit number. Direct me please…

  3. I can’t wait to read the rest of your series. I know that mutations occur randomly in both mtDNA and yDNA. Can random mutations also occur in autosomal DNA? If so, how can you identify the mutation to prevent eliminating someone who is actually related or accepting someone who isn’t?

    • Yes, they do. The way relatedness is measured autosomally is by the amount of DNA that does match and the length of those segments. Unlike mtdna and Y, we don’t expect autosomal to match exactly because of admixture in each generation.

  4. I’ve been thinking about surname projects for my dad but being African american how does that work? Since they just a selected surnames how does being in a project work? Thanks for helping me out with this.

    • Good question. I would suggest joining the surname project that is his surname, to begin. Now, regardless of where or how your family obtained that name, it’s yours and now your Y genetic line is associated with that surname, so it belongs in the surname project.

  5. I am thrilled to see you addressing this topic. From the day I got my first Family Finder test (my daughter, 2012) I have had more matches to Couch descendants than all my other matches put together. I am trying to work with others to establish the chromosome numbers and locations that “belong” to this family which clearly had DNA which holds up better under recombination than most of my ancestral families. It would be so great if Family Tree would make this part of their service.

  6. Excellent post, especially reminding folks that all the Ancestry DNA “matches” in the world prove nothing without triangulation on that matching chromosome string. Do you suppose if we yell loud enough, someone will finally pay attention?

  7. Thank you for this! I’ve known about that search page, forgot about it, but never realized that I could search in the Projects that I joined, because I was going to the projects and looking for names that came up as my matches. Glad to know that this feature is/has been available.

  8. I’m looking forward to your reviews of the various types of Projects. As a Project Admin for the Wallace-Wallis DNA Project I would like to say that even though we are primarily Y surname oriented, we have learned the value of those autosomal matches (and triangulation). We are inclusive to those people who have Wallace-Wallis family members somewhere in their pedigree. Part of our goals as Admins include actively putting Y’s and autosomal matches together, or even autosomal to autosomal. We have learned how interwoven our families are. The truth is we know we would not have this knowledge without working those autosomal matches. I wish more Surname Projects would be more inclusive. Is it more work for the Admins, yes, but really worth it.

  9. Women In Italy are not allowed to take the husband surname, this has always been the case except for a small period of time from inception of Italy as a nation – 1861 to 1975. But only some women took up the new change. Since 1975 when it was again banned.
    I never found any maiden name change for women in any registrars ( for northern Italy ) and I have gone back to the 1720s. You just need to remember, woman maiden name goes with her father and not her husband.

  10. Also looking forward to your ongoing reviews, love your posts. A question from this newbie to the expert….. A significant part of my ancestry is irish, including my most distant (only about 1860) known female relative in the MtDNA line. I am finding several pretty strong connections to some Australians, both through MtDNA and also FF (but not the same people). I’m thinking that in these cases, since emigration (forced or not) from Ireland to Australia was not that long ago, that this MtDNA might be pretty helpful to some of the Aussies, i.e., or shared connection can’t be that long ago (well, a couple of hundred years). Am I barking up the wrong tree? thx

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