There have been a lot of questions recently about the methodology used by people searching for unknown parents and other unidentified individuals. I covered this technique in concept recently at a conference as part of an overview presentation. In this article, I’m addressing only this topic and in more detail.
What is the methodology that genealogists use to identify unknown parents? It’s exactly the same process used to identify unknown Does, meaning unidentified bodies as well as violent criminals who have left DNA, such as blood or semen, at a crime scene.
How is Identifying Unknown Individuals Different from Genealogy?
Genealogists are interested in discovering their ancestors. Generally, genealogists know who their parents are and most of the time, their grandparents as well. Not very many people can tell you the names of their great-grandparents off the top of their head – not unless they ARE genealogists😊
Genealogists interview family members and access family sources, such as photos, Bibles, boxes of memorabilia and often extend their family another generation or two using these resources. Then, to gather additional information, genealogists turn to publicly available sources such as:
Constructing a Tree
Genealogists utilize software to create trees of their ancestors, either on their own computers with software such as Family Tree Maker, Legacy, RootsMagic or the free tree building software from MyHeritage. They then either synchronize or duplicate their tree on the public sites mentioned above which provide functionality such as “hints” that point to documents relevant to the ancestors in their tree. Additionally, they can access the trees of other genealogists who are researching the same ancestors. This facilitates the continued growth of their tree by adding ancestors and extending the tree back generations.
While tree-building is the goal of genealogists, the trees they build are important tools for people seeking to identify unknown individuals.
In my tree, shown in the format of a pedigree chart, above, you can see that I’ve identified all 16 of my great-great-grandparents. In reality, because I’ve been a genealogist for decades, I’ve identified many more of my ancestors which are reflected in my tree on my computer and in my trees at both Ancestry and MyHeritage where I benefit from hints and DNA matches.
Genealogical pedigree charts are typically represented with the “home person,” me, in this case at the base with my ancestors branching out behind them like a lovely peacock’s tail.
While I’m looking for distant ancestors, adoptees and others seeking the identities of contemporary people are not looking back generations, but seek to identify contemporary generations, meaning people who are alive or lived very recently, typically within a generation.
Enter the world of genetics and DNA matching.
Genetics, The Game Changing Tool
Before the days of DNA testing, adoptees could only hope that someone knew the identify of their biological parents, or that their biological parents registered with a reunion site, or that their court records could be opened.
DNA testing changed all of that, because people can now DNA test and find their close relatives. As more people test, the better the odds of actually having a parent or sibling match, or perhaps a close relative like an aunt, uncle or first cousin. My closest relative that has tested that I didn’t know was testing is my half-sister’s daughter.
You share grandparents with your first cousin, and since you only have 4 grandparents, it’s not terribly difficult to figure out which set of grandparents you connect to through that first cousin – especially given the size of the databases and the number of matches that people have today.
The chart below shows my matches as of June 2019.
Second Cousin or Closer
You can see that I have a total of 45 close matches, although some of those matches are duplicates of each other. However, each database has some people that are only in that database and have not tested at other companies or transferred to other databases.
Situations like this are exactly why people who are searching for unknown family members take DNA tests at all 4 of the vendors.
Stories were once surprising about people who tested and either discover a previously unknown close relative, or conversely discovered that they are not related to someone who they initially believed they were. Today these occurrences are commonplace.
If you’re searching for an unknown parent or close relative, you just might be lucky to receive a parental, sibling, half-sibling or uncle/aunt match immediately.
An estimated relationship range is provided by all vendors based on the amount of DNA that the tester shares with their match.
My mother’s match page at Family Tree DNA is shown above. You can see that I’m Mother’s closest match. My known half brother did not test before he passed away, and mother’s parents are long deceased, so my mother should NEVER have another match this close.
So, who is that person in row 2 that is also predicted to be a mother or daughter? I took a test at Ancestry and uploaded my results to Family Tree DNA for research purposes, so this is actually my own second kit, but for example purposes, I’ve renamed myself “Example Adoptee.” Judging from the photo here, apparently my “adopted” sibling was a twin😊
If the adoptee tested at Family Tree DNA, she would immediately see a sibling match (me) and a parent match (Mom.) A match at that cM (centiMorgan) level can only be a parent or a child, and the adoptee knows whether she has a child or not.
Let’s look at a more distant example, which is probably more “typical” than immediately finding a parent match.
Let’s say that the “male adoptee” at the bottom in the red box is also searching for his birth family. He matches my mother at the 2nd-3rd cousin level, so someplace in her tree are his ancestors too.
People who have trees are shown with gold boxes around the tiny pedigree icons, because they literally are trees of gold.
Because of Family Tree DNA’s “bucketing” tool, the software has already told my Mother that the male adoptee is a match on her father’s side of her tree. The adoptee can click on the little pedigree icon to view the trees of his matches to view their ancestors, then engage in what is known as “tree triangulation” with his other close matches.
From the Perspective of the Adoptee
An adoptee tests not knowing anything about their ancestors.
When their results come back, the adoptee, in the red box in the center, hoping to identify their biological parents, discovers that their closest matches are the testers in the pink and blue ovals.
The adoptee does NOT know that these people are related to each other at this point, only that these 7 people are their closest matches on their match list.
The adoptee has to put the rest of the story together like a puzzle.
Who Matches Each Other?
In our scenario, test takers 2, 3 and 8 don’t match the adoptee, so the adoptee will never know they tested and vice versa. Everyone at a second cousin level will match each other, but only some people will match at more distant relationships, according to statistics published by 23andMe:
Percentage of People Who Match
Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, half siblings, half aunts/uncles and 1st cousins
6th cousins and more distant
You can view a detailed chart with additional relationships here.
By looking at the individual trees of test taker 1, 4 and 5 whom they match, the adoptee notices that John and Jane Doe are common ancestors in the trees of all 3 test takers. The adoptee may also use “in common with” tools provided by each vendor to see who they match “in common with” another tester. In this case, let’s say that test taker 1, 4 and 5 also match each other, so the adoptee would also make note of that, inferring correctly that they are members of the same family.
The goal is to identify a common ancestor of a group of matches in order to construct the ancestor’s tree, not a pedigree chart backwards in time, as with genealogy, but to construct a descendants’ tree from the ancestral couple to the current day, as completely as possible. After all, the goal is to identify the parent of the adoptee who descends from the common ancestor.
In this case, the adoptee realized that the pink test takers descended from John and Jane Doe, and the blue test takers descended from Walter and Winnie Smith, and constructed descendant trees of both couples.
The adoptee created a theory, based on the descendants of these two ancestral couples, incorporating other known facts, such as the year when the adoptee was born, and where.
In our example, the adoptee discovered that John and Jane Doe had another daughter, Juanita, whose descendants don’t appear to have tested, and that Juanita had a daughter who was in the right place at the right time to potentially be the mother of the adoptee.
Conversely, Walter and Winnie Smith had a son whose descendants also appear to have not tested, and he had a son who lived in the same place as Juanita Doe. In other words, age, opportunity and process of elimination all play a role in addition to DNA matches. DNA is only the first hint that must be followed up by additional research.
At this point, if the adoptee has taken either Y or mitochondrial DNA testing, those results can serve to either include or exclude some candidates at Family Tree DNA. For example, if the adoptee was a male and matched the Y DNA of the Smith line, that would be HUGE hint.
From this point on, an adoptee can either wait for more people to test or can contact their matches hoping that the matches will have information and be helpful. Keep in mind that all the adoptee has is a theory at this point and they are looking to refine their theory or create a new one and then to help narrow their list of parent candidates.
Fortunately, there are tools and processes to help.
What Are the Odds?
One helpful tool to do this is the WATO, What Are the Odds statistical probability tools at DNAPainter.
Using WATO, you create a hypothesis tree as to how the person whose connection you are seeking might be related, plugging them in to different tree locations, as shown below.
This is not the same example as Smith and Doe, above, but a real family puzzle being worked on by my cousin. Names are blurred for privacy, of course.
WATO then provides a statistical analysis of the various options, with only one of the above hypothesis being potentially viable based on the level of DNA matching for the various hypothetical relationships.
DNAPainter Shared cM Tool
If your eyes are glazing over right about now with all of these numbers flying around, you’re not alone.
I’ll distill this process into individual steps to help you understand how this works, and why, starting with another tool provided by DNAPainter, the Shared cM tool that helps you calculate the most likely relationship with another person.
The more closely related you are to a person, the more DNA you will share with them.
DNAPainter has implemented this tool based on the results of Blaine Bettinger’s Shared cM Project where you can enter the amount of DNA that you share with someone to determine the “best fit” relationship, on average, plus the range of expected shared DNA.
You, or the test taker, are in the middle and the relationship ranges surround “you.”
For example, you can clearly see that the number of cMs for my Example Adoptee at 3384 is clearly in the Parent or Child range. But wait, it could also be at the very highest end of a half sibling relationship. Other lower cM matches are less specific, so another feature of the DNAPainter tool is a life-saver.
At the top of the page, you can enter the number of matching cMs and the tool will predict the most likely results, based on probability.
The relationship for 3384 cMs is 100% a parent/child relationship, shown above, but the sibling box is highlighted below because 3384 is the very highest value in the range. This seems to be a slight glitch in the tool. We can summarize by saying that it would be extremely, extremely rare for a 3384 cM match to be a full sibling instead of a parent or child. Hen’s teeth rare.
Next, let’s look at 226 cM, for our male adoptee which produces the following results:
The following chart graphically shows the possible relationships. The “male adoptee” is actually Mom’s second cousin. This tool is quite accurate.
Now that you’ve seen the tools in action, let’s take a look at the rest of the process.
The Steps to Success
The single biggest predictor of success identifying an unknown person is the number of close matches. Without relatively close matches, the process gets very difficult quickly.
What constitutes a close match and how many close matches do adoptees generally have to work with?
If an adoptee matches someone at a 2nd or 3rd cousin level, what does that really mean to them?
I’ve created the following charts to answer these questions. By the way, this information is relevant to everyone, not just adoptees.
In the chart below, you can view different relationships in the blue legs of the chart descending from the common ancestral couple.
In this example, “You” and the “Other Tester” match at the 4th cousin level sharing 35 cM of DNA. If you look “up” the tree a generation, you can see that the parents of the testers match at the 3rd cousin level and share 74 cM of DNA, the grandparents of the testers match at the 2nd cousin level and share 223 cM of DNA and so forth.
In the left column, generations begin being counted with your parents as generation 1. The cumulative number of direct line relatives you have at each generation is shown in the “# Grandparents” column.
Here’s how to read this chart, straight across.
Viewing the “Generation” column, at the 4th generation level, you have 16 great-great-grandparents. Your great-great-grandparent is a first cousin to the the great-great-grandparent of your 4th cousin. Their parents were siblings.
Looking at it this way, it might not seem too difficult to reassemble the descendancy tree of someone 5 generations in the past, but let’s look at it from the other perspective meaning from the perspective of the ancestral couple.
Couples had roughly 25 years of being reproductively capable and for most of history, birth control was non-existent. If your great-great-great-grandparents, who were born sometime near the year 1800 (the births of mine range from 1785 to 1810) had 5 children who lived, and each of their descendants had 5 children who lived, today each ancestral couple would have 3,125 descendants.
If that same couple had 10 children and 10 lived in each subsequent generation, they would have 100,000 descendants. Accuracy probably lies someplace in-between. That’s still a huge number of descendants for one couple.
That’s JUST for one couple. You have 32 great-great-great-grandparents, or 16 pairs, so multiply 16 times 3,125 for 50,000 descendants or 100,000 times 16 for…are you ready for this…1,600,000 descendants.
|Descendants per GGG-grandparent couple at 5 generations||Total descendants for 16 GGG-grandparent couples combined|
|5 children per generation||3,125||50,000|
|10 children per generation||100,000||1,600,000|
NOW you understand why adoptees need to focus on only close matches and why distant matches at the 3rd and 4th cousin level are just too difficult to work with.
By contrast, let’s look at the first cousin row.
At 5 descendants per generation, you’ll have 25 first cousins or 100 first cousins at 10 descendants per generation.
At second cousins, you’ll have 125 and 1,000 – so reconstructing these trees down to current descendants is still an onerous task but much more doable than from the third or fourth cousin level, especially in smaller families.
The Perfect Scenario
Barring a fortuitous parent or sibling match, the perfect scenario for adoptees and people seeking unknown individuals means that:
- They have multiple 1st or 2nd cousin matches making tree triangulation to a maternal and paternal group of matches to identify the common ancestors feasible.
- Their matches have trees that allow the adoptee to construct theories of how they might fit into a family.
Following the two steps above, when sufficient matching and trees have been assembled, the verification steps begin.
- Adoptees hope that their matches are responsive to communications requesting additional information to either confirm or refute their relationship theory. For example, my mother could tell the male adoptee that he is related on her father’s side of the family based on Family Tree DNA‘s parental “side” assignment. Based on who else the adoptee matches in common with mother, she could probably tell him how he’s related. That information would be hugely beneficial.
- In a Doe situation where the goal is to identify remains, with a relatively close match, the investigator could contact that match and ask if they know of a missing family member.
- In a law enforcement situation where strong close-family matches that function as hints lead to potential violent crime suspects, investigators could obtain a piece of trash discarded by the potential suspect to process and compare to the DNA from the crime scene, such as was done in the Golden State Killer case.
If the discarded DNA doesn’t match the crime scene DNA, the person is exonerated as a potential suspect. If the discarded DNA does match the crime scene DNA, investigators would continue to gather non-DNA evidence and/or pick the suspect up for questioning and to obtain a court ordered DNA sample to compare to the DNA from the crime scene in a law enforcement database.
Sometimes DNA is a Waiting Game
I know that on the surface, DNA matching for adoptees and unknown persons sounds simple, and sometimes it is if there is a very close family match.
More often than not, trying to identify unknown persons, especially if the tester doesn’t have multiple close matches is much like assembling a thousand-piece puzzle with no picture on the front of the box.
DNA is a waiting game.
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