Haplogroups and The Three Brothers

3 brothers group

Do you remember when you first started working with genealogy and you encountered your first “three brothers” story?

For those of you who don’t have one, it goes like this:

There were three brothers who came to <fill in the location.>  They had an argument about <a woman, religion, where to settle, other> and they all three went in different directions, never to see each other or speak again.

Well, of course, that might have happened and it probably did from time to time, but not nearly as often as the story would have you believe.

In my case, I had several “three brother” stories and even a “seven brother” story.  Even as a novice genealogist, I began to get suspicious when I heard the third or fourth story and they all seemed eerily similar.  Too similar.  Too convenient.

Enter the age of DNA testing.  Many of the three brothers stories seem to stem from three men with the same surname found in different or sometimes not-so-distant locations whose ancestries could not be tied nearly together, so surely someone said, “well they must have been three brothers who went different ways” and from that the “three brothers “ myth was born, to take on an entire life of its own.

But then, there are the stories that are real.  In some cases, the DNA testing does prove that those men descended from a common ancestor.  Of course, we can’t ever prove that they were brothers by their descendants DNA testing today.  We can only prove that they weren’t, if their Y DNA doesn’t match.

Recently, someone asked me a very basic DNA question, and the answer that came to mind was, “well, there were three brothers, you see…..”

The question was: “How can one haplogroup have descendants on different continents?

For example, how can a specific haplogroup include people who are Asian, European and Native American.

Let’s take a look at how that works.  It’s a lot like a pedigree chart.  In fact, it’s exactly the same.

There isn’t a haplogroup Z Y-DNA haplogroup, so let’s use that as a hypothetical example.  This example is equally applicable to mitochondrial DNA as well.

3 brothers

In our example, haplogroup Z was born a very long time ago, let’s say 30,000 or 40,000 years ago in Eurasia – we don’t know where and it doesn’t matter.

Haplogroup Z had two sons, and each one had a mutation different from the father, haplogroup Z, so the sons were named haplogroups Z1 and Z2.  One liked the hill to the west and one liked the river to the east, so they settled in opposite directions from their father.

Over time, the families and descendants of these two sons expanded until they had to move to new ground in order to have enough game to hunt.

Haplogroup Z1’s descendants had had two mutations as well.  One group, Z1a, went to Siberia and one group, Z1b went to China – or what is today China.

On the other hand, haplogroup Z2’s descendants also had two mutations that set their lines apart from each other.  One of these, Z2c went to what is now Europe and one, Z2d, went north to Scandinavia.

You can see as you look on out to the fourth generation that haplogroup Z1a, in Siberia had two sons with mutations.  Z1a1 went to Russia and Z1a2 crossed into Beringia, following game, and eventually would settle in North America.

Z1a2 then had two sons as well, both with mutations.  One of those, Z1a2a, traveled across the north and today his descendants are found primarily in eastern Canada and the US.

Now here’s the important part.  Z1a2a is known ONLY as Native American, because that mutation happened here, in the New World, and is not found in either Europe or Asia.  Z1a2b is also only Native American, found primarily in South America because that son followed the western coastline instead of traveling east cross country.

On the other hand, haplogroup Z1a2 might be found in BOTH Asia and the New World if it was born in Siberia but then migrated to the New World.  Some carriers might be found in both places, so if found in the New World, it likely indicates Native American, and yet it is also found in Siberia.  It is not found in other parts of the world though.

You can see that while the base haplogroup Z is today found worldwide, as defined by its subgroups, the subgroups themselves tend to be localized to specific regions.  You can also begin to see why determining locations of the birth of haplogroups is so difficult.  Europe is one big melting pot, and so is the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

We, as the genetic genealogy community, are still trying to sort through this, which is why you see new haplogroup subgroup designations on nearly a daily basis.  The Y tree changes almost hourly (thanks to advanced tests like the Big Y at Family Tree DNA) and the mitochondrial tree has had many additions in the past months and years, with more yet to come shortly as a result of ongoing research.

In the mitochondrial DNA world, haplogroups are still named in the pedigree type fashion.  For example, I’m J1c2f.  However, in the Y tree, the names became so unwieldy, some up to about 20 characters long, that the pedigree type name has been replaced by the defining mutation (SNP) for that haplogroup.  So, R1b1a2, the most common male haplogroup in Europe, is now referred to as R-M269.  Not as easy to tell the pedigree by looking, but much more meaningful, especially as branches are added and rearranged.  The SNP name assigned to the branch will never change, no matter where the branch is moved on the tree as more discoveries are made.

If a DNA participant only tests to the most basic of levels, they are only going to receive a rather basic haplogroup designation.  Let’s say, in our example, Z or Z1 or Z2.  Clearly, additional testing would be in order to figure out whether that individual is Native American or from Scandinavia.  And yes, we have exactly this situation in many of the Native American haplogroups – because all the Native American base haplogroups for Y DNA: C and Q, and for mitochondrial DNA: A, B, C, D, X and possibly M, were founded and born in Asia, thousands of years ago.

And yes, it seems they all had three siblings…..



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22 thoughts on “Haplogroups and The Three Brothers

  1. We had only the two brothers story, and I am desperately trying to use DNA to find out the truth. So far we have lots of encouraging results, but nothing definitive enough to say—Yes, Joseph and Moses were really brothers!

  2. I detest this very short version for references for markers.
    how is a novice suppose to know what branch R-M269 belongs to ?

    Far better to have something like this …..R1a-M269 or R1b-M269 ………a clear indicator of which branch of R this SNP is from.


  3. Roberta,
    I have really learned a lot about DNA tests from your free papers although I’m still a long way from understanding all I would like to. I have been tested at FamilyTree DNA for Ydna(111), Mtdna and FamilyFinder. My only living close relative that I have any contact with is my brother, can you tell me if there is any advantage to having him Ydna tested, Mtdna tested or FamilyFinder tested by FamilyTree DNA.com since we are brothers and should have matching DNA?
    Tom McLehaney

    • While your Y and mtDNA will match (assuming you are full biological brothers), your autosomal won’t match exactly. Both you and he will have inherited some different autosomal DNA from your parents – so if you’re trying to match ancestral DNA, you and your brother will match different people. So, yes there is a benefit to testing siblings for autosomal DNA.

  4. thank you Roberta, I am not a scientist and somehow missed all this when I had my brother’s y chromosome tested. it is only R1b, since it was a very simple test. I am going to save this, I won’t remember all this 6 months from now.


  5. Roberta,
    Have you heard of any grumblings about family tree dna? I’ve been waiting 14 weeks now on my mtdna test and this is getting ridiculous. Called and emailed many times without any positive success. I don’t want to take the y test, but have to due to too many adoptions in my family tree. I’m pretty hesitant now, but there are really no other options for me with lack of available testing companies.

      • Yet, my brother’s and my husband’s tests (both autosomal) came back in less than 8 weeks and both were ordered during the end of year sales. We have a atDNA and a Y-DNA37 test at the lab, and the predicted dates of return are less than 8 weeks from the batch date, with the Y test supposedly taking a couple of weeks longer. I think that’s pretty good.

  6. I have a question. In an attempt to come in contact with as many possible “cousins” and maybe solve genealogy questions/brick walls, I took DNA tests on Family Tree, Ancestry, and now 23 and Me. I was always careful to follow the instructions on each kit. Have had known cousins on each test show up. The tests at Family Tree and the test at Ancestry produced similar but not exact ethnicity results. However, the test at 23 and Me produced a higher percentage of my ethnicity being from Ireland and Great Britain and slightly different DNA on lesser ethnicity areas. However, two second cousins showed up on the matches section so I know it must be correct also. But the variations are a bit confusing. Is there an explanation such as different testing methods?

  7. Hi,
    We have corresponded in the past—as I have been tracing my genealogy from Hancock and Claiborne counties, TN for years. Just recently began part-time retirement–and subscribed to your page. I’m not current in my understanding of DNA testing–but am trying to learn—and really enjoy your explanations and blog postings!! Thanks for doing this for all of us—I will keep learning and reading! Great job!! Tom Spradling

  8. Great illustration of haplogroup differentiation. I will let my DNA group know about it at our meeting next week.
    I have a rare Y group based in western Europe. There was a big study done on Middle Eastern DNA that turned up a whole lot of Palestinians with a very similar haplogroup – but they split about 8-10ky ago or more. Other people in western Europe with my exact haplogroup have a TMRCA about 2-3ky ago, which is far more relevant. Many people just lump us all together, and I am told the origins of that line are Palestinian. Maybe, but at that rate we are all African.

    During my history studies we were warned about stories that had been polished in the retelling, and told of certain characteristics and certain standard forms. We don’t really have a “three brothers” tradition of stories in Australia and I found the American trope/subgenre/(add favourite appropriate term) fascinating when I came across it. USA has some great academic studies on folk traditions. Do you know of someone who might know of anything on three brother stories?
    Chris Schuetz

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  10. I have two-2 brother stories. One was disproved, and other is still pending. I also have three Indian stories, two on my maternal side and one on my paternal. Maternal stories are more definite and closer to me, However, no Native American markers on my Maternal side. I have some ‘mad as a wet hen’ family on my maternal lines. How do I help them to accept this? My paternal side is <0.1% is that even enough to even work with, or is it just noise? No definite stories, and lines go back to the 35th generation, except one 5th Great-Grandmother, that just stops – who are you? Gail

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  15. Some of my face book friend doubt the accuracy of Haplogroup testing. Could you please inform me of how accurate are the results depending on the number of markers tested. Thanks

    • Haplogroups are on a continium, meaning that you get a base haplogroup prediction with STR maker purchases. They are very accurate at the base level. To get a more refined haplogroup you need to do SNP testing, preferably the Big Y-700 test. That test is a test of discovery and it will give you your most refined haplogroup, much further down the branch than the STR estimate, but on the same branch.

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