On April 2, 2015, Ancestry rolled out its new ”New Ancestor Discoveries” feature. The graphic above is now what greets me when I sign into Ancestry.com.
I wrote about my incorrect “new ancestor,” both of them actually, the day after the rollout. Contrary to what some people thought, this was not an April Fool joke – neither their release nor my article.
The software rollout was accompanied by a press release, in which Dr. Ken Chahine is quoted, among others, about Ancestry’s “New Ancestor” feature which claims to identify new ancestors for you by utilizing only your DNA, and not matching trees. Their already implemented DNA Circles feature uses a combination of DNA matching and common ancestors found in trees between those matches – but this new feature uses only DNA.
“It is effectively a shortcut through time – you take the test today and we tell you who your ancestors were, for example, in the 1700s. You don’t need to research records or build a family tree – AncestryDNA now transports you to the past,” said Dr. Ken Chahine, SVP and GM of AncestryDNA.
Needless to say, if this is true, it holds unparalleled promised for genetic genealogists. After all, that’s what we all want – that elusive brick wall ancestor delivered to us – and our DNA has the potential to do just that. In fact, for those of us brick walled in colonial America, especially in counties with no records, our DNA is the only hope we have of ever solving that mystery.
However, I find the claim that “you don’t need to research records or build a family tree” quite astounding – bordering on the incredulous. An amazing claim for a genealogy company to make. In fact, I reread that several times in disbelief, actually, and it has been bothering me ever since. Ken Chahine is by no means an unintelligent man. He’s a lawyer and a Ph.D. in biochemistry, among other things – so fully aware of the weight of his words. I sincerely doubt, however, that he is a genealogist.
The video in this Ancestry blog by Kenny Freestone provides additional information and says that about three fourths of the “new ancestors” given to people are actually ancestors and the other one fourth are people who lived at the “same time and place as your ancestors so could be helpful as clues to point you in the right direction.” That’s a bit of a different statement than the claim in both the e-mail and on my Ancestry DNA home page, shown below, that “we found you new ancestors.”
Ignoring Ancestry’s obvious hype, and the fact that both of my new ancestors aren’t, maybe things aren’t as bad as they appear at first glance. I’m trying to be generous here. Maybe if you don’t have a large, developed tree, this new feature is more helpful. Maybe it’s a fluke that I received two new ancestors and they were both unquestionably wrong.
Clearly, I realize that I’m one of the outliers – I have decades worth of experience in genealogy research and 15 years in genetic genealogy spent confirming paper genealogy. So, I have an advantage that newcomers don’t have in that I know my ancestry back several generations and it has been proven with traditional genealogy records and confirmed with genetics through the 6th generation in most cases, and further back in some.
I’m also Ancestry’s worst nightmare – I’ve already spent my money for the test. I know what DNA can do, what’s not being done and, along with others in my boat, am constantly clamoring for more – usually a chromosome browser, but in this case, just accurate representation. I’m also far from alone.
Ancestry, on the other hand, fully knows that the rabid genealogists have already spent their $99 for their DNA test, so there is no incremental revenue to be had from us, aside from our subscriptions which we’re going to renew anyway. Ancestry is focused on making DNA (and genealogy) easy and on recruiting new people. That’s certainly not a bad thing – until it crosses the line between fact and wishful thinking.
Because of the investment in time, money and DNA that I’ve made personally over the years, I was able to very quickly discount the two “new ancestors” that Ancestry “found” for me. Yep, Ancestry’s worst nightmare.
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
But Ken Chahine’s claim really made me wonder. What if I was a new person? That’s clearly who Ancestry is targeting – someone who has never worked with a tree. Ancestry wants them to test as the doorway, the entry, to genealogy. How effective would this test be for them? Is there a way, short of testing a second time, to find out?
Indeed, there is. So let’s see if Ancestry really can do what Ken Chahine said. Let’s try to prove Ken right.
We’re going to do something called regression testing. In the technology world, this is where you already know the answer, but you set the system up to see if it can find the correct answer through the software only. Think of new calculator software and testing to make sure when you add 2 and 2 you don’t get anything other than 4. We’re going to use what we know about my matches, trees and DNA Circles through my normal tree and then we’re going to start over from scratch with a bare-bones tree and see what Ancestry finds.
My Proven Tree
First, let’s look at where we stand today, with my regular tree at Ancestry. I’ve been a well-behaved genealogist and have done everything I can to help myself find connections. I’ve entered my ancestor information and attached relevant hints, discarding others. I have entered my full direct line tree at Ancestry, so all of my ancestors are available, with appropriate source information attached. My tree is public. I’m not holding out. You notice there are no shakey leaves on my tree – that’s because I follow up on every single one of them.
Based on that information, here is what my DNA landscape at Ancestry looks like, utilizing my full tree, today. I am a member of 16 DNA circles, have 135 shared ancestor hints .
And, oh yes, those two “new ancestors” gifted to me by Ancestry who aren’t my ancestors.
Of my 16 DNA Circles, several are relatively robust with 14, 15, 17 and 18 members. These would be the best candidates for “New Ancestors” because there are so many matches. Those four are Henry Bolton and wife Nancy Mann along with Nicholas Speaks and wife Sarah Faires. You can see the number of members in the Circle at the bottom of each Circle below.
Recreating Myself as a Newbie
In order to become a newbie again, I created a new mini-tree showing only my parents. That’s where many people start. I made my robust tree “private” and my new tree “public,” which means that Ancestry will not use the private tree for DNA comparisons, and will instead use the public tree. Then I linked my DNA to my new mini-tree (under the settings gear under the DNA tab.)
Given that with the robust tree, I have 16 DNA Circles and my two “new ancestors” who are not my ancestors at all, I should receive at least a subset of those circles and probably those erroneous “new ancestors” with the new mini-tree.
Ancestry told us previously that they refresh their database every 4 hours or so. Sure enough, in just a few minutes, my circles and shakey leaf hints had all disappeared, which they should because those ancestors don’t exist in the new mini-tree. However, my two “new ancestors” who are not my ancestors at all both remained.
So, I waited, because I’m sure that some of the Circles I was a member of with my robust tree will be shown now as “New Ancestors” with my mini-tree.
Be aware that Ancestry does have some hiccups in this beta version of the software. It took overnight for the “switch” to the new tree to be completely effective, and in the meantime, it seemed to have been reading from both the new and old trees. I know this because, at one point, it gave me back my 16 circles, which, of course is impossible because my mini-tree doesn’t include any ancestors other than my parents. So, if you’re going to try this experiment, give it at least 24 hours to completely switch.
By the next day this had sorted itself out and I showed the following “New Ancestors.”
In addition to the same two “New Ancestors” who aren’t, Ancestry also gave me three correct ancestors, based on DNA alone, two of which, Henry Bolton and Nancy Mann, were DNA Circles previously, and the other new ancestor is their son.
I wonder where the other 14 Circle ancestors are and why they weren’t discovered? Perhaps I didn’t match enough DNA or enough people, but that’s odd, because in many of the circles I DNA match far more people, as many as 7, than the two matches used to “give me” Diedamia Lyon and John Curnutte, incorrectly, as ancestors.
For a newbie who has no way to differentiate – meaning they don’t know who their ancestors are – this would be very exciting – and partially accurate. However, there is no way to tell the difference between the accurate and inaccurate. In fact, as a newbie, you have no way of knowing that some ARE or even might be inaccurate. After all, Ancestry told you they are ancestors. Why would you disbelieve them? If someone finds that one of these ancestors is correct, they are likely to assume they are all correct, and probably vice versa.
I can’t tell you how ecstatic I was to receive two new ancestors, hoping they were brick wall ancestors, and then how horribly disappointed I was to discover that they weren’t.
Remember, for me to receive two new ancestors would mean a 30+ year brick wall would be falling that I have never been able to budge any other way. Had these matches not been represented as “new ancestors,” I would have had an entirely different set of expectations. Not only are they not ancestors, I can’t figure out how they are connected at all. The best I can figure is that I match the two individuals who make up the New Ancestor “circle” on two different, unrelated, unidentified lines. But let’s skip that for now and look at the three accurate ancestors as if I were a newbie.
Working With Results
Looking at my newbie results, Joseph Preston Bolton would be the easiest ancestor to find, as he shares a common surname with my grandmother and is her grandfather. If I were an adoptee, of course, I wouldn’t know that, but if I know my grandmother’s surname, I would pick up on that commonality right away, as well as the locations shown in the story displayed for each new ancestor by clicking on the little leaf provided in the upper right hand corner. Joseph’s is partially shown below.
While the stories provided by Ancestry are all at least partially incorrect, because they are created from compiled trees – there are useful hints therein – if you know that’s how to interpret this information. A warning, discussion or disclaimer about accuracy in the verbiage would be a nice touch – before the newbies make all of those novice mistakes and create even more incorrect trees by just accepting everything at face value. We were all newbies once and did this – only to have to unravel it later.
The best part of this new feature is actually the new compiled “Facts” tab.
It is a great tool to have the combined possible sources, possible facts and possible family members in one place. I do really like this. And Ancestry did the right thing and labeled them “possible.” In this case, for Joseph Preston Bolton, these are from 188 combined family trees and I know beyond a doubt some of the information is wrong (like Joseph’s second wife’s Martin children from her first marriage are listed as Joseph’s children), but when I was sorting through Joseph initially, I would have loved to have had this repository of “possible facts” available in one place to sort through.
So, yes, I do think this tool could be very useful. And I do think one day we will be able to tell people who their ancestors are, reliably, utilizing DNA alone. But that day is not today. So let’s say something more accurate, like “Your DNA suggests these people may be your ancestors or may be otherwise related to you.”
My problem with this new feature isn’t what it does or doesn’t do, or even how well – it’s how it has been portrayed and the extremely inflated marketing hype that came along with it.
I applaud what Ancestry is trying to do. I have a huge issue with how they are portraying DNA results – both directly and by inference.
It’s fine to give us “hints,” although what we really need is a chromosome browser. But don’t give us a “hint” under the guise of something it isn’t – a new ancestor. Call it what it is. Don’t misset expectations. This leads either to people who believe the hype and are wrong, seeding incorrect genealogies and trees, or people who discover they’ve been misled and then become disenchanted with both genealogy and genetic genealogy.
And Ken is right about not needing to build a family tree in order to take the test – even though that’s not exactly what he said. However, receiving disarticulated ancestors, both correct and incorrect, means you absolutely must build a tree in order to figure out which ones actually ARE ancestors. And then you’re disappointed to discover that some of your ancestors, aren’t, because they were represented as your “new ancestors.” Of course, by the time you figure this out, you’ve already paid your DNA test money and you’re, hopefully, excited and motivated to find more. I’m sure that’s the entire point, but saying that, “You don’t need to research records or build a family tree,” is a tad misleading. Receiving 2 or 3 ancestors is not at all the same thing as knowing how you connect to them – and the only way to make that discovery is through research and by creating a tree.
So, in a way it’s better if you’re a newbie, because you’re more likely to receive a “new ancestor,” but it’s also worse because you have no tools or experience to judge whether your new ancestor actually is your ancestor – or how to connect to them.
Unfortunately, the newer or more naïve the tester, the more apt they are to accept Ancestry’s pronouncement of “new ancestor” at face value. After all, Ancestry is a big genealogy company who deals with ancestors all of the time, and they are supposed to know what they are doing. One would also presume they would not represent someone as an ancestor who isn’t, or who might not be, especially since Ancestry very clearly knows that some of these “new ancestors” aren’t. I’m OK with them not being ancestors – just represent them appropriately. “These MAY be your ancestors or you MAY be related to these people in another way,” might be a better way to present these results.
Playing fast and loose with the wording and over-representing what the product can do is going to give the entire industry a reputation for DNA being unreliable and testing companies as being smarmy. Here’s an extract from a comment yesterday, “…the dna industry generally is not reliable. So, while it may be fun to play with, none of this can be taken or should be taken seriously.”
Ouch, ouch, ouch. While we know that’s not over-archingly true, it’s certainly the kind of commentary that Ancestry is inviting with its over-reaching and inaccurate marketing hype. And that hurts all of us.
The Bottom Line
So I wouldn’t exactly say Ken is redeemed, but he wasn’t entirely wrong either – because by remaking myself as a newbie, I did receive three accurate ancestors along with the same two inaccurate ones.
By using my newbie results, Ken Chahine is 3/5th redeemed because 3 of my 5 new ancestors are in fact, ancestors, although we have no idea where my missing 14 ancestors who are circles with my robust tree have gone. I have as many as 7 DNA matches to some of those circle ancestors who are absent, but only 2 DNA matches to the descendants of John Curnutte and Diedemia Lyons who are my incorrectly assigned “New Ancestors.” So maybe Ken is really only 3/19th redeemed, depending on how you count. Or, if you’re looking at my original results, my two “new ancestors” are still 100% wrong – so Ken is only partially redeemed if I’m a newbie with no prior info and no way to know my results are wrong. So, I’m probably a very happy newbie camper (Wow – I got 5 new ancestors!) and a very unhappy experienced camper (I got 2 new ancestors and they are both wrong!) Perception – it’s an amazing thing.
Regardless of how you count, If I were Ken, I’d still be going incognito to genealogy conferences where those experienced campers hang out wearing a wig and sunglasses for awhile. Being 3/5th right about something as serious to genealogists as giving them incorrect ancestors is no saving grace, because it is still 2/5th wrong, especially when we know that given the tools we need, those of us who are so inclined could quickly eliminate the confusion. It doesn’t have to be like this.
As a community we are beyond frustrated and exasperated, and exaggerated marketing claims are overshadowing the positive aspects of this new feature and making an already difficult situation worse.
What difficult situation, you ask? The fact that people who don’t understand about genetic genealogy already claim that Circle membership “proves” ancestral descent (it doesn’t) and Ancestry consistently has refused to provide us with the chromosome browser tools we need to prove or disprove an ancestral connection. Instead, we been given new ancestors who aren’t. This is not a better mousetrap. The only recourse we have is to beg our matches at Ancestry to download their results to either or both Family Tree DNA and www.gedmatch.com where we have tools. That or blindly believe.
I hate hype, in particular untrue or misleading hype. Out the gate, that colors my perspective of everything else and calls into question the credibility of the entity making the statements.
Setting that aside, I like the forward movement with technology and appreciate what Ancestry is trying to do.
This is indeed, the Holy Grail they are reaching for – being able to identify our ancestors based solely upon our DNA. I said reaching for, because it’s certainly not here yet. However, it’s not beyond reach either. And I certainly want to encourage innovation – because, selfishly, I want to know who those elusive brick-wall ancestors are. I want new ancestors – real ones.
I am grateful for the information. Ok, I would be grateful for the information were it accurate, or at least portrayed accurately – and it’s the portrayal that is really my issue here.
In my “real me” self, using the robust tree, I’m very irritated about receiving two incorrect ancestors, represented as my “new ancestors,” with no caveats, and no tools. I am too wizened and seasoned to be a “trust me” kind of person. I am not a blind believer. I know better. That combination of misrepresented and incorrect data is inexcusable because Ancestry knows better. Not only that, they have the opportunity to provide the types of comparisons and tools that do represent proof, but have chosen not to.
In my “newbie” self that I recreated, I would have been excited to receive 5 new ancestors – and had no idea of what to do next – including no idea that two of them were entirely bogus.
The “real me” wants the novices to be successful – to come to love genealogy as many of us have over the decades. To have the wonderful experiences we have had. But to do that, they can’t be disenchanted by discovering that their ancestors gifted upon them aren’t true – after they’ve built that incorrect tree that is being copied.
The technology could be improved. No doubt about that. But first steps first and you have to crawl before you can walk. I actually want to compliment the behind the scenes people for the work they have done. Unfortunately, that effort is being overshadowed by the “in your face” marketing BS.
However, it takes no development effort to modify the way this test and results are portrayed to the consuming public. And right now, that is what is needed most.
So, I’m happy that Ancestry is making this technology effort. I’ll be excited when the methodology is perfected, a few years down the pike. I’m glad to see Ancestry pushing the edge of the frontier.
I’m extremely unhappy with the combination of Ancestry’s overzealous marketing of this often incorrect new feature with the lack of the tools Ancestry clearly knows we need.
The most frustrating aspect is that the lack of tools holds our ancestors hostage just beyond our reach. They could do so much. Did Ancestry really think we would be appeased by Circles and “New Ancestors” that aren’t?
The Back Fence
You can see what others in the genetic genealogy community have to say about “New Ancestors,” below, and you can read the comments on my original article and Ancestry’s blog postings as well. Like I said, I’m far from alone.
Dr. David Dowell – Does Ancestry Think We are NOT OK?
Elizabeth Ballard – Ancestry DNA Has Now Thoroughly Lost Its Mind
Kathleen Carrow Ingram – New Ancestors You Tell Me? No proof? Is this an April fool trick?
Annette Kapple – New AncestryDNA Circles: You Need A Big Tree
Judy Russell – Still Waiting for the Holy Grail
John D. Reid – “New Ancestor Discoveries” through AncestryDNA and beyond