Testing Ancestry’s Amazing “New Ancestor” DNA Claim

ancestry new ancestor intro

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.”

new ancestors hype

new ancestor e-mail 2

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.

ancestry claim full tree

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 .

ancestry claim matches

And, oh yes, those two “new ancestors” gifted to me by Ancestry who aren’t my ancestors.

ancestry claim wrong 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.

ancestry claim circlesancestry claim circles 2

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.)

ancestry claim mini tree

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.”

ancestry claim 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.

ancestry claim joseph bolton

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 Good

The best part of this new feature is actually the new compiled “Facts” tab.

ancestry 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.”

The Bad

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.

The Ugly

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.

My Opinion

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



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51 thoughts on “Testing Ancestry’s Amazing “New Ancestor” DNA Claim

  1. Maybe Ancestry.com has adopted the attitude of a woman who wrote me and asked me to share my tree. (I was “renovating” and had made it private temporarily) I wrote back and asked how she was related. She replied that she wasn’t related, but she wanted a family tree for her kids and since she had Clarks in her family she thought my tree would do as well as any. (jaw drop)

  2. I thought the misinformation in the trees on Ancestry was bad enough, but at least the fault with them lies in the poor research and analysis of the trees’ creators. However, this DNA ancestor claim by the company itself is taking deceit, false advertising and misrepresentation to a whole new level!

  3. I have tried to make my NEW ANCESTORS work, I did find a couple geographic locations in common. However, even in my least researched branches, I don’t have opening for them. These individuals being born around 1830. The surnames have never caught my attention before. Some of the matches of the same NEW ANCESTORS are matches through different branches. There are three or four matches shown to validate the NEW ANCESTOR, but it seems like that isn’t much to base it on, as well these are married couples with neither side seeming to match.
    I thought perhaps an undocumented adoption, or “unkown” father might explain them? While I will hold that possibility open, I am not finding the new feature to be any benefit. There is a place for feedback, but I am doubting that my feedback would be seriously considered.

  4. I agree completely with your evaluation of Ancestry’s PR campaign. I also received “new ancestors” who are not a part of my researched and documented tree. And I have been working with the new version of the website and finding it more difficult to do my research than previously. Some things are good, such as the facts page and the media gallery, but others are a waste of my time–the story page is totally oriented to newbies. And I’m finding that the pages load slower than previously!

  5. Roberta, have you read Ancestry’s explanation for why they don’t want to use segment matching (or triangulation) but prefer to use “indirect matching”? (I would link to it but they don’t provide a way to do that.) You can find it by clicking on the question mark on the Circles section, then selecting “Why did Ancestry DNA create DNA Circles?” Here is a quote: “Some people advocate manually comparing segments of shared DNA to allow two or more people to infer whether DNA has been passed down by a common ancestor. Instead, AncestryDNA has created DNA Circles to leverage a massive collection of family trees and the DNA of thousands of AncestryDNA members. DNA Circles can provide you with more evidence to accomplish what comparing segments can do, but more effectively.” They go on to describe the “limitations” of Chromosome Browsers and why their way is better. I, too, welcome Ancestry’s attempts to find new ways to analyze DNA results – hey! I’ll try anything that works! But to discount a methodology that is a proven best practice of genetic genealogy seems to me to be the height of hubris. Frankly, this upset me more than their deceptive market-speak. I would be interested in your take on this document. (Although, perhaps that’s going to require an entire blog post on it’s own.)

    • This is another gem from the DNA Circles help (under the section Do all members of a DNA Circle have the same matching segment?):

      “DNA Circles show you which members share DNA with one another in the genome, but not where in the genome they share that DNA. This is because our studies of genetic inheritance and DNA Circles have shown us that individuals in DNA Circles very rarely share the same matching segments.”

  6. Dear Roberta, Sorry to bother you again. I agree 100 % with everything in your blog. Bless you. Best regards, Shedrick Moore, M.D.

  7. Thank you for your exhaustive reworking of your trees and the clearly set out explanation of your research, Ancestry’s genetic “links,” and the commercial science of DNA analysis used by Ancestry, and your calling out of their over-hyped advertising which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will probably be reviewing a la 23 and Me as we speak.

  8. Roberta – another great blog – fair and balanced. I, too, got two “new ancestor” that absolutely could not be! They didn’t fill any gaps in my Tree; they were geographically west of any ancestor I ever had; all of the ancestors they might have replaced have already been confirmed by DNA. The “new ancestors” were from left field!?! I even searched their ancestry to find a possible link, but could not lfind any (and I have determined Common Ancestors with over 300 Matches, so I’m not a rookie at this). I was warming up to the Circles… several of the non-DNA Circle Matches, proved to be good clues, and fit. But hearing that I could spit and be delivered my ancestors, is beyond belief – way beyond. I now have over 68 percent of my DNA mapped with Triangulated Groups to specific Ancestors – so I have some experience in this business. Some of these have multiple Common Ancestors. Some Matches share several Common Ancestors with me. Even with segment data and browsers, we cannot determine which is the correct Ancestor, without other genealogy input. To select one of these as THE “new ancestor”, and to do so using the copied Trees in Ancestry’s database, is reckless to say the least. It will work some of the time, sure. But should AncestryDNA be guaranteeing this outcome to new customers – I don’t think so. Saying they are computer generated HINTS, based on DNA matches and the Ancestry Trees on file, is still stretching it. AncestryDNA does not have a 100% record with all DNA matches being IBD; nor are the Trees of their customers uniformly accurate (many of them far from it). However, I will check each “new ancestor” with diligence, like a HINT – I hope I get one that helps, someday.

    • I have such great respect for your work Jim. Thank you for sharing. Your accomplishments with mapping your ancestors is the level to which the rest of us aspire:)

  9. Thank you for this outstanding assessment. That Ancestry is finding SOME of your ancestors via DNA is pretty exciting to me. They’ll get it right eventually. Yes, they did jump the gun, but it is Beta. They’re learning a lot from releasing this feature too soon.

  10. Roberta, I had a very similar experience to yours. I had three new ancestor suggestions (two I found to be a married couple) and none of them appeared related to me. I noticed right away that they had early 1800s births and that didn’t leave a lot of gaps. I started browsing through trees of some of the other people who were supposedly related to the new ancestor. I found that those who actually MATCHED me on DNA were related to me through a different ancestor and incomplete or errored trees kept ancestry from seeing the connection (at least I hope they were blind to it, rather than just ignoring it). Those who did not match DNA were unrelated. In my case, I was related to my DNA matches only, but through other ancestors, not the one suggested by Ancestry. It seems to me that what Ancestry has is a case of smaller circles overlapping their larger circle (like a VENN diagram). Some people belong in both circles, some belong only in the smaller DNA circle, and some belong in the larger DNA circle only. Yet, they have tried to lump us all together. In each case, this was true for me, and if it holds true for others, it could be useful information in that the people they have identified are genetic cousins (or other relations) to my genetic cousins. It could be useful information if someone was not already aware of the relationships. In my case, I only caught some after reviewing their trees when the match came up. I hope that Ancestry has gotten an ear-full from the folks who know the mistakes that were made, and I hope that what they did was not deliberate, but just a misguided attempt to help. Most of all, I hope they refine the tools so they work better in the future…and add the chromosome browser.

  11. Glad to read about these experiments that test the accuracy of New Ancestry Discoveries (NADs). I think the NADs were the logical next step after DNA Circles, where they say “these are ancestors who ARE already in your tree”–leaving you waiting for the other shoe to drop: what about DNA Circles I may be matching for ancestors NOT already in my tree? I also have 16 DNA Circles, and got 4 NADs who I’m sure are not mine, and who are all related to one another, but one of them has a grandmother with a surname and from a location I have wondered about as a possibility for one of my brick-wall 3rd GGFs, so I find that very intriguing and it has inspired me to work more on that possibility.

    As we know in genetic inheritance, most of our “matches” are much more distantly related than they appear to be, so I think it makes sense to end up with a “New Ancestor” who is actually a distant cousin.

    I agree the hype is maddening, but we get exaggerated claims in almost every aspect of genetic genealogy: my predicted “2nd-4th cousins” in FTDNA are not, more than 90% of the time, and the claim from both FTDNA and Ancestry that I am 30% Scandinavian is about 30% off. So it is par for the course. In any case, I want to know what DNA Circles I am matching that don’t represent my known ancestors to date, even if they are “wrong.” They may still provide important clues.

  12. As one who has exclusively used FTDNA but follow the various comments to used all three services, I’d like to throw in my 2 cents worth. I STILL don’t use 23andme as I see all the comments from users who find that matches must be approved by those who match you but in many cases requests to allow matches to be determined go unanswered. I have cousin who used 23andme to get his mtDNA haplogroup. I’veI get a similar situation on FTDNA so don’t need more of this lack of interest; I have a large db which is available on another site which I subscribed to for two years. I thought their ability to access many sources would be helpful but that has failed to prove true so won’t be renewing when the two years are up. I at one time was a year long, world wide member of Ancestry and may do that again but following the recent experiences of genetic genealogists whose work I follow and trust isn’t encouraging me to leap into that pool of DNA users. So if Ancestry comes up with the much requested chromosome browser, I’ll join up for sure. Considering that such considerate voices don’t get any results, I’ll simply hang onto my scarce funds until things change. I wish the news was better but this is all there is for now.

    Ray Whidden
    Whidden/Whitten/Whiddon/Whyddon researcher with over 35,000 individual db
    Edmonton AB Canada

  13. Another problem I see is that people who take the test and are given their “ancestors” won’t have a need for transferring their data to places like GEDmatch.com. If they trust the results of Ancestry, there is more of a chance of them being suspicious of your intentions in asking for them to post all of their DNA information somewhere else.

  14. AncestryDNA is in the business of overpromising and never delivering and all the while, they collect subscription monies.
    If this damn thing is in “Beta” and still experimental, AncestryDNA should be offering refunds for those who paid money expecting a scientifically accurate product.
    The “better mousetrap”, in reality has proven to be “total mousecrap.”

  15. Thanks Roberta for another insightful post.

    Let me see if I have this thing right. Don & Jim, you say that now Ancestry is claiming that triangulation and matching chromosome strings is not as accurate as sharing random DNA and names on a questionable family tree?? That all the other genetic genealogists have been misguided and all those lovely triangulated ancestors are inaccurate? This is their better mousetrap? [screams loudly and bashes head on computer screen, frightening the dogs]

    The best we can hope for is that, like the base pairs fiasco, they see the error of their ways down the road a bit and cave in by providing a chromosome browser.

    • I think the problem in their eyes is that a Chromosome Browser won’t be understandable to their mass-market customer demographic. And providing one won’t help their bottom line much at all (people like us don’t represent that large a part of their target audience). They probably feel they need to innovate to create differentiation from their competitors (at least PERCEIVED differentiation) and to serve people who won’t buy the test unless they believe it is easy to use. Let’s face it – autosomal DNA testing has a VERy steep learning curve. So I think that’s why there appears to be a need on Ancestry’s part to disingenuously discount segment triangulation.

      Actually, what they are trying (circles, tree matches and NADs) might be different approaches that can be more easily automated than triangulation – but apparently may not be as reliable. All along, Ancestry has tended to go for the less conservative (more false positives) approach to DNA matching – more results is better than reliable results. I still think their innovations could be helpful in unearthing DNA relationships that get lost as false negatives with segment triangulation (if you’re careful not to waste a lot of time researching less reliable predicted relationships), but these approaches shouldn’t be cast as a replacement for segment analysis. Ideally all these tools should be used together. As Roberta said, the real problem is in how the tools are positioned to their uninitiated customers – and the unfulfilled promises and hype that came with them.

  16. I have my mom and dad’s kits at Ancestry, FamilytreeDNA, and Gedmatch. Dad apparently has a non-parental event somewhere around my great-great-great-grandpa Norton’s generation, and he has a lot of matches I cannot connect. My mom’s tree is solid and I’ve been researching for 30 years since I was a high schooler doing a science project (I’m still not quite finished with the project). Mom had three new ancestors, and their ages quickly disqualified them as any ancestor of mine. Two of the matches were a husband and wife, and that would lead one to believe descent from that couple. As I looked at the trees accompanying those matches, I did see something–a name I recognized in the right time period. My mom’s ancestor Nathaniel Shaver married Mary Locke in 1795, Jefferson Co, KY. On these matches’ trees there was a Martin Coons married to a Mary Locke in 1796 in Jefferson Co, KY. I know that Martin Coons was a friend and neighbor of my ancestor Nathaniel Shaver, but I know of now relationship, and further have never been able to figure out how the two Mary Lockes are related. So, basically what Ancestry did was remind me that I have a 20+ year brick wall, and that these women are related somehow–but apparently HOW is being kept secret.
    In my case, I was not related at all to the man, but I am related somehow to the woman, just not a descendant. The third match didn’t make any sense at all.

  17. Another sad thing is some of us have “many kits” and as we all know the major problem is a large percentage of people that take the test have little or no information given, and for whatever reason, do not answer e-mails.
    This push by ancestry is going to hurt us all, by causing great doubts in WHAT has been accomplished and making our sucess even more limited.

    My cousin had almost talked me into the ancestry tests. The info I gained from the last genealogy conference is now? I don’t think so. I have suspected the respected backgrounds at ancestry has been overtaken by the greed for $ at the expenense of their service for sometime. I don’t mind paying for the service. They have records I need. But I do mind repeated price raises for the services at too large percentage hikes to be encouraged.

    No– I won’t be testing at Ancestry soon. And I wish there were more possible ways to get the information at a reasonable cost. A lot of us genies are now in their “golden years” on golden incomes. I am not ready to give up porridge yet for my info, and especially if the informant is not reliable.


  18. Bravo Roberta!

    What I can’t understand is the logic behind Ancestry’s conclusion that because I am a match to Test Taker A and Test Taker B, ergo A and B’s common ancestor is also my ancestor. As it happens, Test Taker A and I share a common ancestor in my 3 times great grandfather. I descend from his first wife, and A descends from his second wife. I also share a set of common ancestors with Test Taker B. My 4 times great grandparents are B’s ancestors also.

    So, why didn’t Ancestry decide, for example, that My 4 times great grandparents were Test Taker A’s possible ancestors or that my 3 times great grandfather was Test Taker B’s possible ancestor? Is there a scientific reason that I’m the one who gets a possible new ancestor, or did they just do a sophisticated version of eenie, meanie, miney, mo? (I can actually make a case for our 4th great grandparents being related to a A’s 3 times great grandmother who is NOT listed on A’s family tree but whose pedigree I have previously researched.)

  19. I agree about the hype. AncestryDNA would have defused much of the flak if they had dialed back on the claims of discovering an *ancestor*. It appears from anecdotal reports that everyone sees a 50% chance that the person is an ancestor. I understood this better when I looked at the FAQ “What is a New Ancestor Discovery” (accessible only from the “?” in the DNA Circles section as far as I can tell). The 50% comes from their own experiments along the lines of what you just did. They also give a 20% number for being related through marriage or a collateral line and a 30% figure for being related through many common ancestors. Those figures should be more prominently displayed right up front.

    That being said, I think it’s an impressive piece of work. I also understand better why they dismiss triangulation. It’s not that triangulation is faulty in any way — it’s just that it is a very restrictive requirement. That is the subject of the FAQ “Do all members of a DNA Circle have the same matching segment?” Coincidentally, I had been working on an essay with a concrete example using segment data from 23andMe when New Ancestry Discoveries went live.


  20. I welcome every creative approach to finding hidden connections. Maybe Ancestry will find the brick-wall-breaking clue that I’ve walked right past a hundred times.

    But the excessive hype, and their business approach of selling a complex product to the uninformed, will backfire when the lawsuits start. The person who expected a “DNA/family tree” for his $99 will not be pleased — if, of course, he’s sophisticated enough to notice that a lot of the relationships are bogus. Some will want their money back, and make a stink about it.

    All in all, I’d rather have the chromosomal match data than the questionable clues.

  21. Great blog post! I received 3 “New Ancestors”, two of them being husband and wife. I put enough information in my tree to find out who they were. Their relationship to me — 3rd cousin 2x removed, husband of 3rd cousin 2x removed and sister-in-aw of 3rd great-uncle.

    By the next day all 3 “New Ancestors” had become DNA Circles — with 19,19,11 members. How can they become circles if they are not Ancestors?

  22. Pingback: Dissecting AncestryDNA Circles and New Ancestors | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  23. Even experienced genealogists sometimes miss minute details in records. I recently found a ship manifest record for an ancestor where the indexing was incorrect, designating the adults this ancestor was traveling with as “parents” (instead of grandparents). The mistake was made in that the designation of relationship (“p.fille” for “petite-fille”) was in French (as the ship was out of Bordeaux, Fr). Easy enough to miss unless you can read at least some French.
    The problem is that this “error” now exists in multiple trees (including mine – I’m working out on how exactly to fix it).
    These types of errors can really throw off a tree, as any NPE would, and when genetic genealogy gets involved it can really throw off the “newbies”.
    The other hassle is genealogy for people with fairly recent immigrant ancestors (early 20th century). You could end up with a lot of “noise” in these “new ancestor” matches, especially if you don’t have a good paper trail for your ancestors while they were still in their originating country and/or are aware of siblings of immigrant ancestors who may have ended up in a completely different part of the destination country.
    The skilled long time researchers understand this, and can quickly dismiss the “chaff” but newbies are going to be thrown WAY off. Add to the mix all the badly (very badly) indexed documents, misspelled names (on documents and in trees), the previously mentioned N.P.Es that people might not know exist, and it will definitely be enough to send the newbies fleeing.
    I do hope that Ancestry fixes some of the technical issues in their “matching” algorithm (some of the “shaky leaf” matches are just dreadful), and give us a chromosome browser!.
    It really would go a long way toward making the whole site user experience better.

  24. After reading your blog I am glad I haven’t got any circles or “new ancestors” after having my DNA results for 2months. Thank you

  25. I have an extensive family tree with over 3500 people. My sister and I have both submitted our DNA to Ancestry, FTDNA and GEDmatch. I also have a YDNA-37 sample in FTDNA. Ancestry has not been able to define any circles for me yet, or supply me with any new Ancestors yet. The problem is that we are 3rd generation Irish American and all four of our grandparents were born in Ireland before 1864, so there are no Irish birth records available for any of them. Ancestry can’t even supply us with any more than 30 common matches, and half of those are private, have no contact information, or don’t respond to requests. The three or four matches I can verify on Ancestry are American 2nd cousins once removed that are already in my Family Tree and I’ve been in contact with them for years.

    I have done quite a bit of work in both FTDNA and GEDmatch and through triangulation, was able to reduce our two 1500 member match lists to one 520 member common match list for my sister and me, but because of the Irish Brick Wall, our closest matches are 4th generation and older matches. Even though the people we match are alive today in this country and in Ireland, most of them have surnames we never dreamed were connected with our known Ancestral surnames. Our DNA matches prove that we are cousins, but unless we can find descendants of our Ancestors siblings, who have family records passed down over the Brick Wall, we don’t have much of a chance to break the gap and connect our families together. We really need more people testing and cooperating with each other to solve these kinds of problems.

    • Martin,
      I hope you kept and use the roughly 1,000 Matches. You and your sister share about 50 percent of your DNA. This means you will share about 50 percent of your Matches. But the other 50 percent from each of you, is DNA one of you got from a parent that the other one didn’t get. Many of these Matches are also your cousins – particularly those with share segments over 10cM with either one of you.

      • Jim,
        I use GEDmatch and keep an Excel spreadsheet for all of my matches filed on my computer by kit number and name. They are easy to search for either kit numbers or surnames. I realize that autosomal DNA is admixed and siblings don’t necessarily get 25% of their DNA from each grandparent. Because of my full Irish ancestry with all four grandparents born in Ireland, I’m finding that my closest matches are no closer than fourth generation on everything but Ancestry and my 1500 match lists of my matches in GEDmatch sometimes goes to ninth generation.

        That was a good reply you made to Lisa a few minutes ago.

  26. I have an extensive tree, but I haven’t done any DNA testing. The main reason is lack of time to devote to learning how to understand the results. I’m sure there are a lot of people like me that this advertising hype will appeal to. In my case, I won’t test until I’m ready to devote the time to learning. Aside from the people who just test for fun, it seems like a real danger of this type of advertising language is in offering a lot of false hope to adoptees.

    • Lisa – You can use DNA testing on two levels. On the first level, you just accept the list of Matches as your cousins, and correspond/share with them to determine the Common Ancestor. This is what I did for the first 2 years after my atDNA test, while I was learning about the additional clues that DNA could provide. In those two years, I determined Common Ancestors with over 100 of my Matches – just by focusing on genealogy. I used the test as a “screening factor” so that I was, generally, only working with cousins. I developed many new co-researchers. I provided info from my 40 years of research, and I learned a number of new things about some of my more distant ancestors (ones I hadn’t researched very much). And I “adjusted” my Tree some. When I learned enough about genetic genealogy, I discovered a few of the Common Ancestors I had determined were not the ones who passed down the DNA. My Matches and I were still cousins on the Common Ancestor we had found, it’s just that the shared DNA didn’t come from that Ancestor. And we learned that there had to be some other Common Ancestor from whom we got the DNA. I view those two years as all positives; and much new genealogy for me, and my cousin-Matches.

      • I guess my problem is just that this sounds like it would be appealing for an adoptee who has no tree, but if it is leading them back to a common ancestor that is incorrect, then it wouldn’t really be helpful at all. Is it possible for them to compare the trees of the people they seem to match? I suppose in that way, if there were repeating families, that would give them some clues. My feeling is the statement above:

        “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.

        just seems strange to me. I guess it’s just that I wouldn’t care to know who my ancestors were in the 1700s without knowing how they were connected to me.

        • While it may appear that Autosomal DNA testing is only a shortcut through time, that is only true if you have several generations of deep American roots, with plenty of records available to take you back before the 1700s. My sister and I are not orphans, but our DNA testing has not given us any shortcuts at all. Our closest matches in Ancestry, FTDNA and GEDmatch, begin as fourth and fifth generation matches to people whose surnames don’t even appear in our extensive family tree. Our atDNA contains a small segment of the DNA of at least 32 different individuals from the last 5 generations. Some of my GEDmatch 1500 person match lists go back as far as 8 generations. It takes contributions from at least 256 people over 5 generations to produce our own atDNA. That is, if DNA was all divided evenly from generation to generation, but it’s not.

          The only shortcut I see, is a list of family names that have a definite genetic connection to me, four or more generations back in my family tree. I can only bridge that gap, if enough people who are alive today contribute their DNA to the database and cooperate, by sharing their family information with the rest of us. There are very few public Irish records between 1750 and 1864. That is the infamous “Irish Catholic Brick Wall”!

          My sister and I don’t need to know who we are, but we are trying to help lay down a path for our grand children and great grandchildren to follow. We are also trying to encourage our few first cousins who are still alive, to do the same for their descendants. It’s too late to leave a DNA sample after we are gone. I also have done a YDNA-37 test with FTDNA to establish the paternal Surname line of our Family Tree.

  27. I hope this is not just simply the case of Ancestry mixing up the terms “ancestor” and “relative?” I got two new “ancestors” too. But the research shows the woman might be the cousin to my 3xg-grandmother, and her husband, another “ancestor” according to Ancestry, is not a blood relative at all.

  28. I came to this article a little later than others, but wanted to comment on the completeness and the balanced approach. Ancestry has been misleading family historians (especially beginners) for years about how easy it is to create a family tree. As an executive member of an genealogical society, they have been the bane of my life, but I’ve been more hopeful as the television programs they sponsor have started to talk more about documentation. We won’t talk about the on-line trees. But, of course, I have a membership with Ancestry and a tree, because the microfilmed documents are perfectly useful, and other information provides clues. At least the shaky leaves only claim to be hints, not proof. These new claims take the hype to a new level. DNA holds the key to so much. I’m not a genetic genealogy, but I studied genetics at university and I’m a genealogist and understand how it works. I thank you for an insightful article. Regrettably, the people who need to read it most, probably won’t. Well done!

  29. Pingback: A Dozen Ancestors That Aren’t – aka – Bad NADs | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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  31. I am so happy to have found your blog! For one thing, I think we share Estes/Estiss antecedents, and the information on them has been a boon. But even more, this site teaches those of us who don’t remember our college genetics lessons so well. It is a learning site that informs, keeps one out of trouble (e.g., Ancestry’s new ancestor match), and generally returns some fun to the search for ancestors. Thank you for what you do.

  32. Pingback: DNAeXplain Archives – General Information Articles | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  33. Hello. I always learn so much from your blog. I have seen the splash page each time I log into Ancestry and was wondering about the reliability of this new offering. I’m glad I read your post first. I also wanted to comment on other posts regarding adoptees and DNA testing. I was adopted at birth in the USA in a forever-sealed-record state. As a group, most adoptees seek the Holy Grail of finding one’s birthparents or siblings. I knew this was unlikely and first tested with family tree 7 years ago simply as a way to learn something about how I fit into the world of humans. Receiving the MTdna test results was a revelation – I wasn’t an alien after all. Since that time I have tested with all 3 services, learned more about DNA inheritence than anyone in my family wants to hear about ever again 🙂 , and dedicated hundreds of hours to constructing and analyzing family trees for my close matches. Gedmatch’s comparison tools and the generosity of many matches has been invaluable in this effort. Over the years I have identified several family lines that I can trace many of my matches back to, and also several possible direct ancestors. So I am satisfied that – by studying the families of my closer matches – I am learning something about myself and my possible lineage, even if the Holy Grail eludes me. If I, as an adoptee, were presented with “new ancestors” from Ancestry, I would have no way to know if they were “real” or not and would waste alot of precious time chasing false leads. Thank you.

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  38. I was not in a specific circle until a cousin put the surname and relatives on his tree and other cousins followed. He is positive he has proven this is my gg-grandfather. Who has been a mystery. He said he proved this with a program to analyze my, his, and one other cousins DNA data (we did share with him). It was not compared with any know relative of the surname. He decided he figured out the exact man in a large family who fathered my great grandfather. I am very reluctant to put this on my tree as many others have. It is possible he really pin pointed this man?

    • I would be very reluctant too. I’d need an awful lot of proof first. The reason he shows up as a circle is because you folks match each other someplace on the DNA and you’ve all added him in your tres.

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