Genetic Genealogy Has Come of Age

sweet 16

And we didn’t even have a party…no Sweet 16 party…no turning 21 inaugural trip to the bar. It happened when we weren’t looking.  Sometime pretty recently.

In the Beginning…

When I first heard about DNA testing for genealogy, back in 1999, it didn’t even have a name.  Today it’s known as genetic genealogy, but before that, Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, one of the early pioneers in this field, about the year 2000, termed it genetealogy.  This was shortly after DNA testing first entered the consumer market space.  That name didn’t catch on.

I had already entered the world of genetic genealogy through mitochondrial DNA testing.  This was about the time I heard about Y DNA testing and suspected it might be a scam – like those bogus pedigree charts sold back in the 1970s and 1980s.  I did some research and called Family Tree DNA.  Bennett Greenspan, the President of the company, called me back, at 9:30 at night and we talked for an hour.  As our discussion progressed and I understood more about Y DNA testing and how it really was applicable to genealogy, I told him I was interested in setting up a surname project for the Estes line, but I was concerned that I didn’t have enough knowledge of how genetic genealogy and the Family Tree DNA website worked to do it justice.  Bennett told me that with my background, I’d be fine and that he would help me if I needed it.  My, how far we’ve come.  And talk about famous last words!

No one knew about DNA testing for genealogy at that time.  And I do mean no one.  Every person I approached to test was skeptical and most of the initial testers tested because they knew and trusted me.  Sadly, many of those folks are gone now.  Thank Heavens they tested when they did, because now would be too late and several were end-of-line people.

Within a couple of years, there were 2 or 3 of us doing DNA for genealogy presentations.  Even as little at 5 or 6 years ago, one had to beg for a spot on a conference schedule for DNA testing.  Today, there are entire DNA tracks at almost every conference and even entire events focused on genetic genealogy, with many speakers to choose from.

Genetic Genealogy Grows Up

Fast forward to 2015.  John Reid at his blog, Canada’s Anglo-Celtic Connections, has been doing the Rockstar Genealogist voting now since 2012.  Is it a popularity contest of sorts?  Sure.  But, to me it’s much more important than that, and it’s not about who wins individually.  It’s about the fact that we’re all winning.

Last year, in 2014, I really, really wanted to see a genetic genealogist in the winners circle.  Until recently, few traditional well-known genealogists had incorporated genetic genealogy as a standard tool, with Megan being a notable exception.

On the other hand, there were several folks who defined themselves as primarily genetic genealogists, myself included.  It was time for genetic genealogy to become an adult – to join the rest and sit at the big table. I think we arrived.

In order to help things along a bit, I offered a donation to the War of 1812 Pension fund if any genetic genealogist was in the finals.  Indeed, genetic genealogy was quite well represented in the finalists, and not just in the genetic genealogy category either.

However, the evidence that genetic genealogy has finally matured and come of age is that it has become the norm, and not the exception.  Today, very few genealogists don’t know about genetic genealogy now – and even if they are living under a rock and haven’t yet participated, they at least know it exists.  Most genealogists have participated at some level.

When I spoke years ago and asked how many people had tested in a room full of people, a few hands would be raised. Now it’s more like 50% and in many locations, more.

But the real evidence is held in this year’s 2015 Rockstar results.  Yes, there are genetic genealogists well represented again in the winners circle – several of us.  I’m extremely grateful for the level of recognition for DNA testing – because media coverage of any form lends a level of legitimacy and encourages new people to test.  Positive exposure of any sort is wonderful, as is individual recognition.  Genetic genealogy, more than traditional genealogy, is a group, collaborative effort – so we need more testers.  The more people who test, the more walls will fall.

The Devil in the Details

But to me, the real message is buried in the details.  I was thrilled, overjoyed, to see the details.  What details, you ask?

There were a total of 2026 people who voted in John’s poll this year, and of those people, 57% of them listed themselves as genetic genealogists.


That’s not 57% of the people who have heard about genetic genealogy – that’s 57% of the genealogists who also consider themselves genetic genealogists.  They are actively using genetic genealogy in some capacity as a tool for their genealogy.  These are genealogists incorporating genetic genealogy, not a separate group of “DNA people” running around with missionary zeal carrying DNA swab kits and asking everyone their name and where their grandparents were from!

I still remember getting stopped by the Texas State Trooper after one of the Family Tree DNA conferences in Houston and after looking at his badge, quizzing him as to where his family was from.  He decided I was either harmless or crazy and sent me on my way.  He declined to swab but I gave him my card just in case he changed his mind one day!  Imagine the story he told back at the station about the “crazy DNA lady!”  Now the crazy DNA lady is part and parcel of every genealogist – at least 57% anyway.  Hopefully that percentage will grow to 100% shortly.

Red Letter Day

Genetic genealogy is no longer separate or different or “odd.”  Not an outlier anymore, but part of the norm.  A mandatory piece of the puzzle.  In fact, as Judy Russell said, in her article, “DNA, coming on strong,” “it’s part and parcel of what every genealogist should be doing.”

Judy also tells us in her article that Thomas W. Jones, co-editor of the National Geographic Society Quarterly, stated that Y, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA testing should be part of what every genealogist does to capture their family story.  Every genealogist.  Not some and not just 57%.  Indeed, this is a red letter day!

Indeed, DNA testing is due for the Sweet 16 party.  It has survived and emerged a lovely flower, blossoming and coming entirely into its own – with the entire genealogy world realizing what kind of a unique gift every one of us has – directly from our ancestors.  And hopefully, with each individual realizing that the way to harness this energy is to test and to share those results along with the rest of our genealogy.

Every genealogist should test their Y (if a male) or find a male to represent their paternal line, test their mitochondrial DNA for their matrilineal line, and test their autosomal DNA.

Document DNA as an Integral Part of Family History

After you are done testing yourself, look around for who in your family carries Y or mtDNA that represents ancestors that your own DNA doesn’t reveal.  For example, your father’s mitochondrial DNA is not your mitochondrial DNA (because males don’t contribute mitochondrial DNA to their offspring) but his mitochondrial DNA provides the story of his mother’s matrilineal line.  Dad already gone?  Did he have siblings?  Test them, and while you’re testing their mitochondrial DNA, test their autosomal DNA as well.

What you are doing, in essence, is creating a DNA pedigree chartWikiTree provides tools that combine pedigree charts and DNA testing so that this information is available to descendants.  So, while you are providing information, you stand to harvest a lot more than you’ll ever provide.  Think about it.  You can contribute but one Y (if a male) and one mtDNA line, but you have many ancestors whose information you can gather as their direct linear descendants test.  Here’s an example of my chart with the haplogroups of my oldest ancestors noted if I have that information.  And if I don’t have it, guaranteed I’m looking for it!  All of this ancestral information except that of my red circle great-great-grandmother came from other people because I don’t carry their Y or mtDNA.

DNA Pedigree

Lastly, I would strongly encourage every genealogist to test the oldest family members autosomally, even if their Y and mtDNA lines are already tested and represented.  Not one of them, all of them.  They have each inherited different DNA from their, and your, ancestors.  Once they are gone, there is no further opportunity – a part of the history of your ancestors will depart with them and there will never be any way for you to recover what is lost.

So test.

Test everyone!

Test now!

While you can.

Build and preserve the genetic part of your family history that you can obtain no other way!



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13 thoughts on “Genetic Genealogy Has Come of Age

  1. I agree Roberta – we’ve come a long way. 2nd and 3rd cousins no longer think I’m insane when I suggest DNA kits. You’ve done as much as anyone to help get us to this point – thanks.

    Still, I figure fewer than 1 in 100 American adults have tested (about 1.5m out of ~200m). We
    really need a $49 price point to get to the next level.

    • Well, I do sort of talk about it every day. I remember vividly a few years ago when I was on an airplane, walking down the isle to deplane (I think) and saw someone reading one of my blogs. I was so excited!

  2. I consider myself a Genetic Genealogy Hobbyist.
    I, too, quiz people about their family surname. I once read that it is not proper to ask about a person’s lineage, unless we want to “breed” with them. LOL
    Never do I find people who are willing to discuss DNA. They just look rather askance as if it is a disease, so I seldom bring up the subject. So sad……..

  3. You just said that everyone should test mtdna yet so often I see where people say that you do not really learn anything from it including some who have tested and others who run Ydna groups. I have dna tested and plan on having my brother do the Y but why should I do the mtdna. I know my haplogroup from the 23 and me dna test. Do you have a blog on the mtdna and maybe I missed it. I agree with the autosomal test and have encouraged several relatives and cousins to test. Thank you Roberta for all of your hard work.

  4. A few hours BEFORE I read this blog post, I was struck with a strong feeling that I had to take action. Before my father died two years ago, he was very active with Y-DNA on his Scottish surname projects on Family Tree DNA. As beneficiary of his FTDNA account, I discovered that he’d never tested himself for autosomal or mitochondrial, although I had.

    So, I today I made sure FTDNA still had my father’s sample and ordered his autosomal DNA test posthumously. If that goes well, I’ll order his mitochondrial test for the story of his mother’s matrilineal line. My dad was a fan of your blog, so it was as if h somehow read this post before I did and was telling me, “Well, get on with it! Roberta says so!”

  5. Mtdna testing in my case told me what I was NOT. There was a myth in my family that one of my matralineal gg grandmothers was full NA. She might have been one-half with her father being NA, but her mother was not NA, because my, and her Haplogroup is U3a1b, and that is not considered a NA haplogroup.

  6. Christmas gift ideas! There are a couple I would like to give for the documentation trail of their ancestors (BIL, SIL, Uncle). As a genealogist, I need all the clues I can get! And DNA is an awesome tool!

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