Mitochondrial DNA, The Forgotten Test

Mitochondrial DNA is probably the most under-utilized type of DNA available to genetic genealogists. Mitochondrial DNA is a special line specific to your mother, and her mother, and her mother, on up that tree of mothers. It’s not mixed with any DNA from the fathers, so it’s a pure periscope line that extends back in time indefinitely – much like the Y DNA for the paternal line.

Just as an example, as an administrator looking at the Estes surname project, I can see an order summary. For clarification, the Estes project welcomes males and females alike, along with men who are not Estes surname males, but who are Estes descendants through other lines.

So, of the first 16 project participants, 2 are female.  The columns titled HVR1, HVR2 and FGS are the available mitochondrial DNA test levels.


Only one, me, has had ANY mitochondrial DNA testing done. The rest have not.

By comparison, 14 (all the males) have ordered some level of Y DNA testing and 7 participants, almost half, have taken the autosomal Family Finder test.

By any measure, mitochondrial is way WAY behind.

Mitochondrial gets forgotten about, often, because it’s not as “in your face” as a male surname is to a male and doesn’t have the “pride factor” associated with it. In fact, you might hear men say something like, “Yea, proud to be an Estes (fill in your surname here),” but when was the last time you heard someone say, “Yea, proud to be a H2a1a!”? It loses something someplace.

Because the matrilineal line’s mitochondrial DNA doesn’t follow any surname, it doesn’t invoke that surname loyalty factor, but it is a rich source of information that is often neglected.

What can we learn from mitochondrial DNA?

Pretty much everything we can tell about Y DNA – except of course we’re not looking to see if we match a particular surname. We’re looking to see if we match someone with a common ancestor. But that’s not it, there’s a lot more.

Haplogroup and Migration Path

Your mitochondrial DNA haplogroup tells you which continent your ancestor was from, meaning Europe, Africa, Asia or Native American, or an ethnicity like Jewish, and the path they took out of Africa to arrive on that continent. You may think you know, already, but do you really? There are surprises and you’ll never know if you don’t test.


Haplogroup Origins help to extend this information and tells you where your fully extended haplogroup is found in the world. Fully extended haplogroup means your full haplogroup, H2a1a, as opposed to simply haplogroup H. You have to take the full sequence mtDNA test to obtain your fully extended haplogroup.

Matches Map

Your Ancestral Matches and your Matches Map tell you where your matches most distant ancestors lived. This is most effective for full sequence matching because those are your closest matches. In fact, I only recommend full sequence matching today. You should obtain all of the ancestral information available and the only way to do that is to test the entire mitochondrial region.

Those who follow my blog know that I’m haplogroup J1c2f, and while that doesn’t make anyone gush at parties, it does provide me with information I not only didn’t have, but there is no way other than DNA testing to discover.

My most distant known ancestor is from Germany around 1800, but look at my matches map.


There is obviously a historical, or maybe not so historical, Scandinavian story. You can read about this discovery here.

Your matches are sitting there, waiting for you, but first you have to test.  After that, the genealogy to find a common ancestor may take some work, unless you simply get lucky – and some do.

If more people were to test and provide their most distant ancestor information and pedigree charts, there would be more easy matches with known ancestors!!!  Just saying…

Matches Never Stop

The great news is that your mitochondrial DNA results are fishing for you 24X7. In July 2013, I had 3 full sequence matches, shown below.

my matches J1c2f

Today, I have 16, and the more full sequence matches, the more granular and detailed the story. It’s like watching your ancestral story hatch, one match at a time. These people all share an ancestor with you, sometime, someplace. The fun is in unraveling that story.  What does it mean to you?  What information does it provide about your ancestors and their journey?

Proving Your Point

You can also use mitochondrial DNA to prove, or disprove, a specific type of historic relationship. Suppose you suspect two women are sisters. If you can find descendants of both women through all females to the current generation (which can be males) you can either prove those two women have a common matrilineal ancestor or that they don’t. In cases like this, mitochondrial DNA in conjunction with autosomal matching can be a very powerful tool.  Comparing multiple kinds of DNA, together, is available under the advanced tools.

Building A MitoTree

If you’re after quick answers, building your own mitotree isn’t for you, but if you’re willing to invest some elbow grease, you can figure out the ancestral pedigree chart of how your matches descended from your common ancestor, based on their mutations.

I presumed, based on the matches map locations, that I was fairly closely related to my match in Poland, because at that time, it was the only full sequence match outside of Scandinavia. I was wrong. That person descended in a parallel line from a common Scandinavian ancestor. So no need looking in those Polish church records hoping to discover something about my direct line ancestors because they aren’t there!

You can read about how to build a mitochondrial tree here. If you like puzzles, this is for you.

Finding Your Ancestor’s Surname

I like to obtain the haplogroups of all of my ancestors and build a DNA Pedigree chart. My ancestor, Magdalena married Philip Jacob Miller, but we don’t know her surname. We do know they were Brethren, and Brethren married within their own religion. We know where they lived, and to some extent, we know the other Brethren families in that region.

After I wrote my 52 Ancestors story about Magdalena with hopes of finding a descendant who carries her mtDNA, someone contacted me to say a woman with a tree on Ancestry fits the bill. Indeed she did, and she agreed to have her mtDNA tested.

She immediately had an exact full sequence match, in the Brethren community, and the match does NOT descend from Magdalena herself. Unfortunately, the match does NOT have her genealogy back far enough to discover the family who might, just might, be Magdalena’s family as well. However, I can research genealogy to extend her tree, and I will, come spring when the roads clear.

The only path to Magdalena’s surname, short of a family Bible appearing someplace, is DNA, because I’ve exhausted all other available records.

Can mitochondrial DNA save the day and pin point Magdalena’s family so that I can prove the relationship through records? Maybe. I’ll let you know as this story unfolds.

Don’t’ Forget Mother

Genealogy without DNA is incomplete. It’s the holiday season. Give yourself the gift of your mother’s matrilineal history. DNA testing is the gift that keeps on giving, and you can have it even if your mother has passed over and is watching from the other side. Everyone carries their mother’s mitochondrial DNA, males and females alike.

What is your Mom’s story?

Give her or take a mitochondrial DNA test yourself and find out!



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42 thoughts on “Mitochondrial DNA, The Forgotten Test

  1. Hello Roberta,

    I’ve been an outside observer for quite some time – we traded some emails four or five years ago – I really enjoy your Blog posts.

    With regards to DNA testing, I first did the Y-DNA 67 (FT-DNA Kit Number 271595) with only one match at 25, zero at 67 – the Yahoo Group folks thought it wouldn’t be of use right now to go to 111 markers, I was just the first one of my line being tested.

    So then, I did the basic M-DNA to find I’m a T2b. I’m not sure if any further testing would help, the science part of this is WAY beyond my pay grade. I’m just interested in searching for relatives, distant or otherwise.

    I am a member of the Estes Project, at least I think I am. My Grandmother was Ruth Estes of Waco, Texas, and we go up the Lyddal Bacon Estes line (yes, I think there are 3 of them going back not quite to Abraham the Immigrant).

    Is there any other testing you think I should be looking into – more testing for the M-DNA?


    Bob Guild


  2. I, too, espouse testing for mtDna. I also have 16 full sequence matches, (0 step).

    It helped me this way: There was a myth in my family that my maternal great grandmother was Native American. That is most probably impossible since my haplogroup (and her haplogroup) is U3a1b; and that is not considered, at this point in time, a NA haplogroup.

  3. Well, I’m proud of my mitochodrial DNA! M30c as tested with 23andMe last year. This is probably the most important part of the test. My mother’s family were in British India from at least 1800 to 1960. They all denied any possibility of intermarriage although we all have very dark brown eyes, dark hair and tan easily (we also have Sephardic Jewish blood, diluted from 1801). Lo and behold, M30c is found in the Indian subcontinent. That alone was worth the price of the test. I’ll repeat tests with FT DNA when I can afford it.

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  5. I wish I understood all of this . I have a complicated question: my maternal grandfather and the paternal grandmother of a first cousin -once removed have the same surname and we have wondered if they are related. He has done full MtDNA and full Y, and family finder. I have done the family finder. I also have my brother and my first cousin (paternal side) . Will this help us?

      • Hello – my birth name was Robyn Allene Estes. My Estes grandparent were Jim Lane and Mary Cleo – born 1900 ish – from Sherman to Denton. They migrated to California 1938 – where i was born 1957. Maternal haplo group is H2a1a. I received this info from 23 n Me about 3 days ago.

  6. Roberta I find some Estes in my Mom’s paternal line. I have Thomas Estes born in NC and died in Walla Walla WA. I am still trying to sort him out. His son James Madison Estes born in NC on 8/23/1823 married Rebecca Mouler Nolan died in Missouri during the civil war on 3/8/1863 Just wondering if it is part of your family. Debby

  7. Roberta, when you say “match” regarding Mtdna, do you mean at 0 gd? As an H1 stuck there for 5 years, I have dozens (maybe hundreds) of matches at 1 gd, but not 1 at 0 gd. H1 is so far back in time, I;ve been told it’s virtually hopeless to bother following anything more than 0 matches.

    • In my case, I meant the match was 0 GD. And in general terms, I would agree that matches more distant are much less likely to find the link. BUT, mutations happen when they happen, and it could be between you and your mother or not for 500 years. I would suggest that you have an unusual mutation, which is a good thing. The question is, when did that happen.

  8. Excellent article: it helped me decide to take the leap and purchase the mtFull Sequence test for myself. I have previously tested with the Genographic 2.0 test and found that I am T2b4, but now I’m ready to see whether I can find any actual matches through Family Tree. Wish me luck!

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  9. I am J1C2b and you are the same group except “f”. My question is: What is your estimate in years (centuries?) that it would be for our “b” and “f” lines to have diverged from a common ancestor? Just curious. Georgeann

    • The root of both haplogroups, J1c2 was born about 9700 years ago, plus or minus 2000 years. Your haplogroup was born about 6700 years ago, plus or minus about 2500. So our common ancestor was sometime after 9700 years ago, and before 6700 years ago, plus or minus 2500 years in each direction. A long time ago:)

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  12. My mitochondrial result was far more valuable than my Y result as the latter is so common as to be virtually useless for my purposes.

    My comparatively rare mitochondrial result (U2C1) proved to my satisfaction that my French ‘Creole’ female ancestor (circa 1750) was of South Asian origin. The written record provided a strong suggestion of this but in combination the argument became hard to dispute. On the lighter side I am married to an Indian and, despite my Anglo appearance, I’m the one who has a certificate to prove I’m a genuine Indian!! Annoys my wife greatly.

    Unfortunately I’ve never had a match because of the relative rarity of the result plus, as you indicate, a lack of mitochondrial testing.

    Thanks for your ongoing bulletins, very interesting.


    • Hi Trevor, we share mtDNA U2C1 🙂

      My maternal ancestor, Catherine of Malabar is well documented and there might be some clues in there for you. Look her up on WikiTree.

      “On 30 January 1662 the Angelier and Oijevaer departed Batavia enroute to de Caep de Goede Hoop where they docked on 2 April 1662. Among the pasengers on board the vessels were Zacharias Wagenaer, Maria aux Brebis and Maria de Bucquoij. Accompanying Wagenaer were his slaves Louis van Bengale, Annike van Bengale and Anthonij de Later van Japan. The widow Verburg (Maria de Bucquoij) was accompanied by her personal slave Catharina van Malabar“

      Good luck!

      • Fantastic to hear from you Hanri. This is the first match I’ve had in about 5 years. The relevant group convenor on ‘My Heritage’ did comment that U2C1 was almost exclusive to India except for a small group in Sth Africa. I’ve just glanced at the details so far but Catharina’s story is fascinating and I’ll spend some time absorbing it. It appears from my quick perusal that Catharina was Indian and was enslaved by the Dutch? I’m assuming they were Dutch. The Dutch had a settlement on the Malabar coast at Cochin, while the Portuguese were at Goa also on the Malabar Coast, I’ve been to both. I hadn’t realised slaves were taken from either by Europeans, who seemed more intent on conversion in India, but I suppose it is quite likely. The Portuguese did enslave some Muslem men after taking Goa – but as far as I’ve been able to determine they mostly killed the Muslem soldiers who were captured and forcibly married their wives to Portuguese soldiers and seamen. Another option is that they were captured by Arab traders and on-sold. I guess we will never know.

        Thanks for responding, Trevor.

        • Hi Trevor, I am so jealous of your trip to the Malabar Coast!
          It was a brutal time to be alive, but I am fascinated by it. There is a website “First Fifty Years – a project collating Cape of Good Hope records” which is a very interesting read.
          Have a lovely day,

          • Yes, lovely part of India. My wife is of Goan heritage so we go there now and again, train from Mumbai – Goa -Kerala is a great journey (but only in higher class carriages!!).

            Has me wondering about by U2C1 ancestor. If her mother was a Portuguese slave she may well have ended up in Bandel (Portuguese Calcutta) and married a European and out of slavery? Just leads to one more unprovable possibility though. Great that you know so much about your ancestor.


          • Hey there,

            I’m a Pakistani American with U2C1 mtDNA. My maternal grandmother comes from a Bangalori/Hyderabadi ancestory in South India. Hope that potentially helps?

  13. Hi Robert

    I usually do not respond as I am somewhat remote from your research as I am R1b-A476, But as you seem to be lonely on the mito-dna front I can report that I have also tested there as well and found to be H3AP that may have some Norman connection in my female lineage.

    Peter D Beattie Beatty Lineage L-286

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  15. I have tested mtDNA and it helped satisfy a particular question – whether I was “switched at birth” – something that had to be resolved after another test showed an unexpected result. Additionally, it supported paper research taking my mt-line back to a particular ancestor circa 1600. But I find that, absent the clearly extensive research you seem to have done on historical migrations and the like, any genealogical benefits still rely on cooperative matching individuals who have also done their homework. My ten zero GD (full sequence) matches and nine 1-to-3 GD matches, provided only seven ancestral locations, four of which are in the US (two 0 GD) , and three in Europe (of which one was 0 GD). Of those seven, only one provided any useful ancestral information – an individual who had independently traced his line to a different daughter of my mt-line immigrant to Massachusetts in the 1630s, thereby providing reasonable confirmation of my paper trail. It’s likely that several others would track to the same ancestor (she had many daughters) but doing so would be beyond my threshold for charitable research. My take, therefore, is while I’d be delighted to have others test their mt-DNA, when asked if it is really worth the money I respond that I believe it really isn’t worth the investment unless there is a specific question that it would address. I have no objection to others testing mtDNA but until the cost declines, the other tests are generally more rewarding. As they say, of course, “your mileage may vary . . .”

  16. Sweet for Magdalena! I wish you luck that you will be able to trace some decent hint with her descendant’s matches.

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  17. Is there any place we can contribute our results that will help with research on the mtDNA haplotree? I’ve found a few old articles mentioning some sites, but nothing within the past few years. It seems most advances are coming from academic research, are there any community groups working on expanding the tree?

    It could be I’m searching in the wrong places or for the wrong thing or it’s just the lack of interest as your blog post indicates, but compared to what I’ve found in the YDNA community, there is a dearth of information.

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  19. You are correct that mtdna is not in your face and there is not the pride factor as there is for men with the Y test. I did full mtdna years ago and I’m still hopeful to find some matches that will help me go back further on my maternal line. But it really frustrates me that the men in my local genealogy club continue to fu-fu the mtdna test and tell people not to waste their money. One of them is know in the ‘industry’ and has published family research books so everyone listens to him. So annoying! So please, women, our line is as important and harder to research so, do it! And make sure you do the full sequence!

    • I absolutely agree with you, Mary, that the female lines are every bit as important genetically as the male lines. But leaving aside what you view as sexism among your group members, I’d suggest that your experience demonstrates exactly why the mitochondrial test is considered less useful for genealogical purposes. You took the full sequence test (as did I). And you are “still hopeful to find some matches that will help [you] go back further on [your] maternal line.” I interpret that as meaning that you haven’t yet found it helpful because, in your thinking, you haven’t found enough matches. In my case (which I describe in an earlier comment) I had at least ten matches of zero genetic distance – that’s a lot! Wouldn’t you think ten matches would be helpful? Simply put, no. For genealogical purposes it is of little use since only one of the ten matches had any information earlier than about three generations ago. Only because both myself and a single match had done their research already were we able to get some value from the information – we found a common female ancestor 12 generations back. But for most people that’s not in the cards – whether it is “fair” or not, women traditionally lost their individual identities upon marriage and, unless marriage records can be found, cannot be traced. Whether fair or not, women died from childbirth and other women took their place (men died from war and accidents and everyone died of illnesses). As I stated in my other comments, unless one can accomplish the kind of research that Roberta has done so successfully, the vast majority of mt-DNA tests will remain useless. Like you, I personally hope others will test and I will find matches that help me move my maternal line still further back but I’m certainly not optimistic. Accordingly, like the “expert” in your group, I won’t advise anyone to take the test unless they have a specific goal in mind and the test can reasonably be expected to address their questions. And that is entirely practical advice – not sexist – given the cost of the test.

      • Unless the absolute only aspect of DNA testing that you are interested in is finding the common ancestor, then DNA tests, including mtDNA, are never useless. You can learn a great deal about those ancestors and ancestral lines without identifying your common match with others. You can learn about your haplogroup, where that haplogroup was from and its history. You can learn where your matches ancestors were from, and there may be a story there. To neglect one of only two lines that are not admixed with the DNA of the other parent is to turn a blind eye and decide you don’t want to know anything about history that is extremely relevant to your matrilineal genealogy simply because it “might” not yield an immediate ancestral match. That’s fine for you if that’s what you want to do, but please don’t discourage others from discovering whatever their ancestor’s DNA holds for them.

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