Sometimes a single word – and its interpretation – makes a world of difference.
For example, maternal versus matrilineal and paternal versus patrilineal.
What’s the difference and why does it matter?
In genetic genealogy, it’s very important.
Y and Mitochondrial DNA Lineage
When we explain the differences between Y, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA, we used to tell people that Y was your paternal line and mitochondrial (mtDNA) was your maternal line.
People became confused.
Here’s the pedigree chart generally used to explain the people in your tree represented by Y (blue boxes) and mtDNA (red circles) testing. Unlike autosomal, Y and mitochondrial only tests one line, but tests that one line VERY deeply, providing information not available through autosomal testing.
Y DNA tests only the Y DNA of the line shown with the blue boxes, NOT everyone on your paternal side.
Mitochondrial DNA tests only the line shown in red circles, NOT everyone on your maternal side.
That’s a good thing, not a bad thing, because this type of testing reveals information and matching opportunities not available through autosomal testing.
Maternal Versus Matrilineal, Paternal Versus Patrilineal
When we say maternal and paternal, the meaning can easily be confused.
Anyone on the father’s entire side of the tree literally is paternal, and anyone on the mother’s side literally is maternal. The line is drawn straight down the middle, with half of your ancestors on each side.
What we really mean when we discuss Y and mtDNA testing is patrilineal and matrilineal. Those words mean the direct paternal line only, and the direct maternal line only, shown below.
There doesn’t seem to be as much confusion with understanding that the Y chromosome follows the patrilineal line – probably because we’re used to this concept as the surname follows the same Y DNA path.
Matrilineal means the same thing on the maternal side, but there isn’t any key anchor concept, such as surname to go along with it. Therefore, when I’m discussing mitochondrial DNA testing, I say, “matrilineal, meaning your mother’s mother’s mother’s line, on up the tree until you run out of mothers.”
Why is this So Important?
Aside from the fact that expectations can easily be mis-set resulting in misinterpreted results, the concept of patrilineal and matrilineal are important because this confusion results in the confused person in advertently confusing others.
For example, when people want to take a mitochondrial DNA test to see if their Native American ancestor is on their mother’s side, what they are really testing is their matrilineal line, not everyone on their mother’s side of the tree.
Native American mitochondrial haplogroups are known to be subsets of haplogroups A, B, C, D and X. If the matrilineal line is Native, the mitochondrial results will fall into the proper Native subgroup. If not, they won’t.
However, a maternal Native American ancestor could well exist in any other ancestor or ancestors whose circles and squares aren’t colored at all – shown below by haplogroup B2a.
Conversely, a male Native American ancestor could exist in any of those other lines as well, shown above by C-M217. The only way to discover that information is to DNA test someone who carries the Y or mitochondrial DNA of each of your ancestral lines.
At Family Tree DNA
At Family Tree DNA, the only vendor that does full Y and mitochondrial testing and matching, one of the information fields that testers are asked to provide is titled “Earliest Known Ancestors.”
Although this field says specifically how to determine the relevant ancestor they are asking about, many people either don’t read this, or don’t understand, or they enter the information before their results come back and never think to update this field when they discover that this isn’t their Native line after all.
On the Matches Map tab, where this information can also be entered, there is no explanation for which ancestor they are asking for. Often, I see males names have been entered in the direct maternal field, so the person interpreted this as their OLDEST person on their mother’s side – which of course is inaccurate – instead of their most distant matrilineal ancestor.
The problem is that if the tester enters a person who was born in Germany, and the matrilineal ancestor is a Native American female (or vice versa), this provides incorrect information to the system which then uses that compiled information to populate Haplogroup Origins, Ancestral Origins and the locations on the Family Tree DNA universal Y haplotree and mitochondrial public haplotree for other people. This is why you often see people in European haplogroups shown as “Native American.” Other testers’ information is part of what is provided on those pages. Collaboration is the underpinning foundation of genetic genealogy, but it also carries with it the opportunity for error.
Family Tree DNA provides a lot of information to customers, but some of it relies on information from other testers, so please test, and please be sure that your information is accurately reflected in these fields. Now might be a good time to check.
What About My Other Lines?
You can’t test for lines other than your patrilineal (males only) and your matrilineal (both genders) personally, BUT, other family members can – and you can surely gift them with tests. I look at it this way; they are testing for me, and if I could, I’d test for that line in a heartbeat – so I’m more than willing to provide a scholarship for their testing.
In the situation above, your mother’s father carries the mitochondrial DNA that you seek, shown as Native American B2a. If he’s not living, his siblings carry that same mitochondrial DNA. If he has sisters, their children, both male and female carry his mother’s mitochondrial DNA too. You need to follow the lineage through all females to a living relative who’s willing to test.
To obtain the DNA of the Native male, shown above as C-M217, you’d need to test your father’s mother’s father, or her brothers, or their sons. Follow this line up and down in the tree to find a male who carries that surname who is not adopted into the family.
DNA Haplogroup Pedigree Tree
I’ve been gathering my own ancestors’ Y and mtDNA information, because only Y and mtDNA provides a periscope view directly down a single line without admixture from the other parent.
There’s just so much to learn! Where they originated, the history of their lineage, who you match and more. Y and mtDNA reaches back before surnames.
What can you learn about your family lines, and who can you ask to test?
What About You?
You can order the Y DNA for males and the mtFull test for either males or females at Family Tree DNA. When I ask a family member to test, I always offer to also purchase a Family Finder test at the same time so we can utilize their autosomal DNA as well, which is inherited from all of their lines. The cousin and I both get to know our ancestors better and advanced matching feature allows combined matching between all kinds of tests.
Your cousins and family members are goldmines containing the DNA nuggets of your ancestors just waiting to be found!
Ready for More?
If you have enjoyed this concepts article, you may enjoy other articles in our concepts series.
I receive a small contribution when you click on some (but not all) of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.
Thank you so much.
DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- Family Tree DNA
- MyHeritage DNA only
- MyHeritage DNA plus Health
- MyHeritage FREE DNA file upload
- 23andMe Ancestry
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
- Legacy Tree Genealogists for genealogy research