Concepts – Segment Size, Legitimate and False Matches

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match!

One of the questions I often receive about autosomal DNA is, “What, EXACTLY, is a match?”  The answer at first glance seems evident, meaning when you and someone else are shown on each other’s match lists, but it really isn’t that simple.

What I’d like to discuss today is what actually constitutes a match – and the difference between legitimate or real matches and false matches, also called false positives.

Let’s look at a few definitions before we go any further.


  • A Match – when you and another person are found on each other’s match lists at a testing vendor. You may match that person on one or more segments of DNA.
  • Matching Segment – when a particular segment of DNA on a particular chromosome matches to another person. You may have multiple segment matches with someone, if they are closely related, or only one segment match if they are more distantly related.
  • False Match – also known as a false positive match. This occurs when you match someone that is not identical by descent (IBD), but identical by chance (IBC), meaning that your DNA and theirs just happened to match, as a happenstance function of your mother and father’s DNA aligning in such a way that you match the other person, but neither your mother or father match that person on that segment.
  • Legitimate Match – meaning a match that is a result of the DNA that you inherited from one of your parents. This is the opposite of a false positive match.  Legitimate matches are identical by descent (IBD.)  Some IBD matches are considered to be identical by population, (IBP) because they are a result of a particular DNA segment being present in a significant portion of a given population from which you and your match both descend. Ideally, legitimate matches are not IBP and are instead indicative of a more recent genealogical ancestor that can (potentially) be identified.

You can read about Identical by Descent and Identical by Chance here.

  • Endogamy – an occurrence in which people intermarry repeatedly with others in a closed community, effectively passing the same DNA around and around in descendants without introducing different/new DNA from non-related individuals. People from endogamous communities, such as Jewish and Amish groups, will share more DNA and more small segments of DNA than people who are not from endogamous communities.  Fully endogamous individuals have about three times as many autosomal matches as non-endogamous individuals.
  • False Negative Match – a situation where someone doesn’t match that should. False negatives are very difficult to discern.  We most often see them when a match is hovering at a match threshold and by lowing the threshold slightly, the match is then exposed.  False negative segments can sometimes be detected when comparing DNA of close relatives and can be caused by read errors that break a segment in two, resulting in two segments that are too small to be reported individually as a match.  False negatives can also be caused by population phasing which strips out segments that are deemed to be “too matchy” by Ancestry’s Timber algorithm.
  • Parental or Family Phasing – utilizing the DNA of your parents or other close family members to determine which side of the family a match derives from. Actual phasing means to determine which parts of your DNA come from which parent by comparing your DNA to at least one, if not both parents.  The results of phasing are that we can identify matches to family groups such as the Phased Family Finder results at Family Tree DNA that designate matches as maternal or paternal based on phased results for you and family members, up to third cousins.
  • Population Based Phasing – In another context, phasing can refer to academic phasing where some DNA that is population based is removed from an individual’s results before matching to others. Ancestry does this with their Timber program, effectively segmenting results and sometimes removing valid IBD segments.  This is not the type of phasing that we will be referring to in this article and parental/family phasing should not be confused with population/academic phasing.

IBD and IBC Match Examples

It’s important to understand the definitions of Identical by Descent and Identical by Chance.

I’ve created some easy examples.

Let’s say that a match is defined as any 10 DNA locations in a row that match.  To keep this comparison simple, I’m only showing 10 locations.

In the examples below, you are the first person, on the left, and your DNA strands are showing.  You have a pink strand that you inherited from Mom and a blue strand inherited from Dad.  Mom’s 10 locations are all filled with A and Dad’s locations are all filled with T.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn’t keep your Mom’s and Dad’s strands on one side or the other, so their DNA is mixed together in you.  In other words, you can’t tell which parts of your DNA are whose.  However, for our example, we’re keeping them separate because it’s easier to understand that way.

Legitimate Match – Identical by Descent from Mother


In the example above, Person B, your match, has all As.  They will match you and your mother, both, meaning the match between you and person B is identical by descent.  This means you match them because you inherited the matching DNA from your mother. The matching DNA is bordered in black.

Legitimate Match – Identical by Descent from Father

In this second example, Person C has all T’s and matches both you and your Dad, meaning the match is identical by descent from your father’s side.


You can clearly see that you can have two different people match you on the same exact segment location, but not match each other.  Person B and Person C both match you on the same location, but they very clearly do not match each other because Person B carries your mother’s DNA and Person C carries your father’s DNA.  These three people (you, Person B and Person C) do NOT triangulate, because B and C do not match each other.  The article, “Concepts – Match Groups and Triangulation” provides more details on triangulation.

Triangulation is how we prove that individuals descend from a common ancestor.

If Person B and Person C both descended from your mother’s side and matched you, then they would both carry all As in those locations, and they would match you, your mother and each other.  In this case, they would triangulate with you and your mother.

False Positive or Identical by Chance Match

This third example shows that Person D does technically match you, because they have all As and Ts, but they match you by zigzagging back and forth between your Mom’s and Dad’s DNA strands.  Of course, there is no way for you to know this without matching Person D against both of your parents to see if they match either parent.  If your match does not match either parent, the match is a false positive, meaning it is not a legitimate match.  The match is identical by chance (IBC.)


One clue as to whether a match is IBC or IBD, even without your parents, is whether the person matches you and other close relatives on this same segment.  If not, then the match may be IBC. If the match also matches close relatives on this segment, then the match is very likely IBD.  Of course, the segment size matters too, which we’ll discuss momentarily.

If a person triangulates with 2 or more relatives who descend from the same ancestor, then the match is identical by descent, and not identical by chance.

False Negative Match

This last example shows a false negative.  The DNA of Person E had a read error at location 5, meaning that there are not 10 locations in a row that match.  This causes you and Person E to NOT be shown as a match, creating a false negative situation, because you actually do match if Person E hadn’t had the read error.


Of course, false negatives are by definition very hard to identify, because you can’t see them.

Comparisons to Your Parents

Legitimate matches will phase to your parents – meaning that you will match Person B on the same amount of a specific segment, or a smaller portion of that segment, as one of your parents.

False matches mean that you match the person, but neither of your parents matches that person, meaning that the segment in question is identical by chance, not by descent.

Comparing your matches to both of your parents is the easiest litmus paper test of whether your matches are legitimate or not.  Of course, the caveat is that you must have both of your parents available to fully phase your results.

Many of us don’t have both parents available to test, so let’s take a look at how often false positive matches really do occur.

False Positive Matches

How often do false matches really happen?

The answer to that question depends on the size of the segments you are comparing.

Very small segments, say at 1cM, are very likely to match randomly, because they are so small.  You can read more about SNPs and centiMorgans (cM) here.

As a rule of thumb, the larger the matching segment as measured in cM, with more SNPs in that segment:

  • The stronger the match is considered to be
  • The more likely the match is to be IBD and not IBC
  • The closer in time the common ancestor, facilitating the identification of said ancestor

Just in case we forget sometimes, identifying ancestors IS the purpose of genetic genealogy, although it seems like we sometimes get all geeked out by the science itself and process of matching!  (I can hear you thinking, “speak for yourself, Roberta.”)

It’s Just a Phase!!!

Let’s look at an example of phasing a child’s matches against those of their parents.

In our example, we have a non-endogamous female child (so they inherit an X chromosome from both parents) whose matches are being compared to her parents.

I’m utilizing files from Family Tree DNA. Ancestry does not provide segment data, so Ancestry files can’t be used.  At 23andMe, coordinating the security surrounding 3 individuals results and trying to make sure that the child and both parents all have access to the same individuals through sharing would be a nightmare, so the only vendor’s results you can reasonably utilize for phasing is Family Tree DNA.

You can download the matches for each person by chromosome segment by selecting the chromosome browser and the “Download All Matches to Excel (CSV Format)” at the top right above chromosome 1.


All segment matches 1cM and above will be downloaded into a CSV file, which I then save as an Excel spreadsheet.

I downloaded the files for both parents and the child. I deleted segments below 3cM.

About 75% of the rows in the files were segments below 3cM. In part, I deleted these segments due to the sheer size and the fact that the segment matching was a manual process.  In part, I did this because I already knew that segments below 3 cM weren’t terribly useful.

Rows Father Mother Child
Total 26,887 20,395 23,681
< 3 cM removed 20,461 15,025 17,784
Total Processed 6,426 5,370 5,897

Because I have the ability to phase these matches against both parents, I wanted to see how many of the matches in each category were indeed legitimate matches and how many were false positives, meaning identical by chance.

How does one go about doing that, exactly?

Downloading the Files

Let’s talk about how to make this process easy, at least as easy as possible.

Step one is downloading the chromosome browser matches for all 3 individuals, the child and both parents.

First, I downloaded the child’s chromosome browser match file and opened the spreadsheet.

Second, I downloaded the mother’s file, colored all of her rows pink, then appended the mother’s rows into the child’s spreadsheet.

Third, I did the same with the father’s file, coloring his rows blue.

After I had all three files in one spreadsheet, I sorted the columns by segment size and removed the segments below 3cM.

Next, I sorted the remaining items on the spreadsheet, in order, by column, as follows:

  • End
  • Start
  • Chromosome
  • Matchname


My resulting spreadsheet looked like this.  Sorting in the order prescribed provides you with the matches to each person in chromosome and segment order, facilitating easy (OK, relatively easy) visual comparison for matching segments.

I then colored all of the child’s NON-matching segments green so that I could see (and eventually filter the matchname column by) the green color indicating that they were NOT matches.  Do this only for the child, or the white (non-colored) rows.  The child’s matchname only gets colored green if there is no corresponding match to a parent for that same person on that same chromosome segment.


All of the child’s matches that DON’T have a corresponding parent match in pink or blue for that same person on that same segment will be colored green.  I’ve boxed the matches so you can see that they do match, and that they aren’t colored green.

In the above example, Donald and Gaff don’t match either parent, so they are all green.  Mess does match the father on some segments, so those segments are boxed, but the rest of Mess doesn’t match a parent, so is colored green.  Sarah doesn’t match any parent, so she is entirely green.

Yes, you do manually have to go through every row on this combined spreadsheet.

If you’re going to phase your matches against your parent or parents, you’ll want to know what to expect.  Just because you’ve seen one match does not mean you’ve seen them all.

What is a Match?

So, finally, the answer to the original question, “What is a Match?”  Yes, I know this was the long way around the block.

In the exercise above, we weren’t evaluating matches, we were just determining whether or not the child’s match also matched the parent on the same segment, but sometimes it’s not clear whether they do or do not match.


In the case of the second match with Mess on chromosome 11, above, the starting and ending locations, and the number of cM and segments are exactly the same, so it’s easy to determine that Mess matches both the child and the father on chromosome 11. All matches aren’t so straightforward.

Typical Match


This looks like your typical match for one person, in this case, Cecelia.  The child (white rows) matches Cecelia on three segments that don’t also match the child’s mother (pink rows.)  Those non-matching child’s rows are colored green in the match column.  The child matches Cecelia on two segments that also match the mother, on chromosome 20 and the X chromosome.  Those matching segments are boxed in black.

The segments in both of these matches have exact overlaps, meaning they start and end in exactly the same location, but that’s not always the case.

And for the record, matches that begin and/or end in the same location are NOT more likely to be legitimate matches than those that start and end in different locations.  Vendors use small buckets for matching, and if you fall into any part of the bucket, even if your match doesn’t entirely fill the bucket, the bucket is considered occupied.  So what you’re seeing are the “fuzzy” bucket boundaries.

(Over)Hanging Chad


In this case, Chad’s match overhangs on each end.  You can see that Chad’s match to the child begins at 52,722,923 before the mother’s match at 53,176,407.

At the end location, the child’s matching segment also extends beyond the mother’s, meaning the child matches Chad on a longer segment than the mother.  This means that the segment sections before 53,176,407 and after 61,495,890 are false negative matches, because Chad does not also match the child’s mother of these portions of the segment.

This segment still counts as a match though, because on the majority of the segment, Chad does match both the child and the mother.

Nested Match


This example shows a nested match, where the parent’s match to Randy begins before the child’s and ends after the child’s, meaning that the child’s matching DNA segment to Randy is entirely nested within the mother’s.  In other words, pieces got shaved off of both ends of this segment when the child was inheriting from her mother.

No Common Matches


Sometimes, the child and the parent will both match the same person, but there are no common segments.  Don’t read more into this than what it is.  The child’s matches to Mary are false matches.  We have no way to judge the mother’s matches, except for segment size probability, which we’ll discuss shortly.

Look Ma, No Parents


In this case, the child matches Don on 5 segments, including a reasonably large segment on chromosome 9, but there are no matches between Don and either parent.  I went back and looked at this to be sure I hadn’t missed something.

This could, possibly, be an instance of an unseen a false negative, meaning perhaps there is a read issue in the parent’s file on chromosome 9, precluding a match.  However, in this case, since Family Tree DNA does report matches down to 1cM, it would have to be an awfully large read error for that to occur.  Family Tree DNA does have quality control standards in place and each file must pass the quality threshold to be put into the matching data base.  So, in this case, I doubt that the problem is a false negative.

Just because there are multiple IBC matches to Don doesn’t mean any of those are incorrect.  It’s just the way that the DNA is inherited and it’s why this type of a match is called identical by chance – the key word being chance.

Split Match


This split match is very interesting.  If you look closely, you’ll notice that Diane matches Mom on the entire segment on chromosome 12, but the child’s match is broken into two.  However, the number of SNPs adds up to the same, and the number of cM is close.  This suggests that there is a read error in the child’s file forcing the child’s match to Diane into two pieces.

If the segments broken apart were smaller, under the match threshold, and there were no other higher matches on other segments, this match would not be shown and would fall into the False Negative category.  However, since that’s not the case, it’s a legitimate match and just falls into the “interesting” category.

The Deceptive Match


Don’t be fooled by seeing a family name in the match column and deciding it’s a legitimate match.  Harrold is a family surname and Mr. Harrold does not match either of the child’s parents, on any segment.  So not a legitimate match, no matter how much you want it to be!

Suspicious Match – Probably not Real


This technically is a match, because part of the DNA that Daryl matches between Mom and the child does overlap, from 111,236,840 to 113,275,838.  However, if you look at the entire match, you’ll notice that not a lot of that segment overlaps, and the number of cMs is already low in the child’s match.  There is no way to calculate the number of cMs and SNPs in the overlapping part of the segment, but suffice it to say that it’s smaller, and probably substantially smaller, than the 3.32 total match for the child.

It’s up to you whether you actually count this as a match or not.  I just hope this isn’t one of those matches you REALLY need.  However, in this case, the Mom’s match at 15.46 cM is 99% likely to be a legitimate match, so you really don’t need the child’s match at all!!!

So, Judge Judy, What’s the Verdict?

How did our parental phasing turn out?  What did we learn?  How many segments matched both the child and a parent, and how many were false matches?

In each cM Size category below, I’ve included the total number of child’s match rows found in that category, the number of parent/child matches, the percent of parent/child matches, the number of matches to the child that did NOT match the parent, and the percent of non-matches. A non-match means a false match.

So, what the verdict?


It’s interesting to note that we just approach the 50% mark for phased matches in the 7-7.99 cM bracket.

The bracket just beneath that, 6-6.99 shows only a 30% parent/child match rate, as does 5-5.99.  At 3 cM and 4 cM few matches phase to the parents, but some do, and could potentially be useful in groups of people descended from a known common ancestor and in conjunction with larger matches on other segments. Certainly segments at 3 cM and 4 cM alone aren’t very reliable or useful, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t potentially be used in other contexts, nor are they always wrong. The smaller the segment, the less confidence we can have based on that segment alone, at least below 9-15cM.

Above the 50% match level, we quickly reach the 90th percentile in the 9-9.99 cM bracket, and above 10 cM, we’re virtually assured of a phased match, but not quite 100% of the time.

It isn’t until we reach the 16cM category that we actually reach the 100% bracket, and there is still an outlier found in the 18-18.99 cM group.

I went back and checked all of the 10 cM and over non-matches to verify that I had not made an error.  If I made errors, they were likely counting too many as NON-matches, and not the reverse, meaning I failed to visually identify matches.  However, with almost 6000 spreadsheet rows for the child, a few errors wouldn’t affect the totals significantly or even noticeably.

I hope that other people in non-endogamous populations will do the same type of double parent phasing and report on their results in the same type of format.  This experiment took about 2 days.

Furthermore, I would love to see this same type of experiment for endogamous families as well.


If you can phase your matches to either or both of your parents, absolutely, do.  This this exercise shows why, if you have only one parent to match against, you can’t just assume that anyone who doesn’t match you on your one parent’s side automatically matches you from the other parent. At least, not below about 15 cM.

Whether you can phase against your parent or not, this exercise should help you analyze your segment matches with an eye towards determining whether or not they are valid, and what different kinds of matches mean to your genealogy.

If nothing else, at least we can quantify the relatively likelihood, based on the size of the matching segment, in a non-endogamous population, a match would match a parent, if we had one to match against, meaning that they are a legitimate match.  Did you get all that?

In a nutshell, we can look at the Parent/Child Phased Match Chart produced by this exercise and say that our 8.5 cM match has about a 66% chance of being a legitimate match, and our 10.5 cM match has a 95% change of being a legitimate match.

You’re welcome.


Concepts – Identical by…Descent, State, Population and Chance

In genetic genealogy, what does it mean when someone says they are “identical by” sometime…and what are those various somethings?

In autosomal DNA, where your DNA on chromosomes 1-22 (and sometimes X) is compared to other people for matches of a size that indicates a genealogical relationship, you can actually match people in different ways, for different reasons.

But first, let’s make one thing perfectly clear. There is only one way to obtain your autosomal DNA – and that’s through your parents, 50% from each parent.  However, how much of their (and your) ancestor’s DNA you receive is not necessarily half of what they received from that ancestor.

If you receive ANY DNA from that ancestor, it MUST BE through your parents. There is no other way to inherit DNA.


No. Other. Way.

If you would like to read the Concepts article about inheritance and matching, click here. If you don’t understand autosomal DNA inheritance and matching concepts, you won’t be able to understand the rest of this article.

Identical by Descent (IBD)

When you match someone because you share DNA from a common ancestor, that is called Identical by Descent, or IBD. That’s what you want.  That’s a good thing, genealogically speaking.

Let’s take a look at how an IBD segment of DNA works. In the graphic below, the strand location is in the first column.  The next two pink columns are the two strands that your mother carries, one from her Mom and one from her Dad – and the values in each location from each parent.  Columns 4 and 5 are the two blue strands of DNA carried by your Dad, one from his Mom and one from his Dad.  The final two columns are what you inherited from both your mother and your father.  In this case, we made it easy and you simply inherited one of each of their strands entirely.  Yes, that does happen in some cases for a particular chromosome segment, but not all of the time.  Conceptually, for this example, it doesn’t matter.

Identical 1

Your Inheritance

In this example, you inherited strand 1 from your Mom, all As and strand 2 from Dad, all Gs. Your match, shown in the graphic below, matches you on all As, so also matches your mother.  This phenomenon is called parental phasing, which means we know it’s a legitimate match because the person matches both you and one of your parents.

For purposes of this conceptual discussion you must match on all 10 locations for this to be considered a matching segment. So in this case, your matching threshold is “10 locations.”

Identical 2

Your Match Matches You and Your Mother’s DNA – Identical by Descent

Now, understand that while I’ve shown “You” with your strands color coded so you can see who you received which pieces of DNA from – that’s not how your DNA really looks. There is no color coding in nature.  I’ve added color coding to make understanding these concepts easier.

This is how you and your parents DNA really look:

Identical 3

Notice that in your parents, their parent’s strands are mixed back and forth, so you really can’t tell which DNA came from whom.  It’s the same for you too.

What the matching software has to do is to look for a common letter between you and your match.

So, at location 1, you inherited an A and a G from your parents. Your match has an A and a T, so you and your match share a common A.  If you look at all of your matches locations, they share a common A with you on all of those locations.  It just so happens you received that A from your mother – but without your Mom to compare to – you have no way to know which parent that particular DNA value came from.  So, the best matching software can do is to tell you that indeed, you do match – on 10 locations in a row – so this is considered a match and will be reported as such on your match list.

Why you match is another matter altogether.

And, ahem….there is another way to match someone, aside from receiving ancestral DNA from your parents. I know, this is a bad joke isn’t it.  Yes, it is, but it’s real.

So, to summarize, there is no other way to obtain your DNA except 50% from one parent and 50% from the other.

However there are two ways to match someone:

  • Identical by Descent, IBD, meaning you match someone because you share the same DNA segment that you received from an ancestor through a parent, as shown above.
  • Identical by Chance, IBC, meaning that you match someone, but randomly – not by inheritance.  How the heck can that happen?

Let’s look at how that can happen.

Identical by Chance (IBC)

Because you receive a strand of DNA from each of your parents, but that DNA is all intermixed in you, you can possibly match someone else by virtue of the fact that they aren’t actually matching your ancestral DNA segment inherited from an ancestor, but by chance they are matching DNA that bounces back and forth between your parents’ DNA.

Identical 4

Your Match Matches Neither of your Parents’ Strands of DNA – Identical by Chance

In this example, you can see the that you inherited the same strands from your parents as in example 1 above, but your match is now matching you, not on your mother’s strand 1, all As, but on a combination of A from your mother and G from your father. Therefore, they don’t match either of your parents on this segment, because they are matching you by chance and not because you share a strand of DNA that you received from a common ancestor on this segment with your match.

This is easy to discern because while they match you, they won’t match either of your parents on that segment, because the match is not on an ancestral DNA segment, passed down from an ancestor. Using parental phasing, you compare your matches to your parents to see which “side” they fall on.  If they fall on neither parents’ side, then they are IBC or identical by chance.

Identical 5

Identical By Chance Identified Through Parental Phasing

In this example, you can see that you match all of these people. By using parental phasing, you can tell that you are identical by descent (IBD) to everyone except John, who matches neither of your parents, so your match to John is identical by chance (IBC).  We will talk more in an upcoming article about Parental Phasing.

If you don’t have your parents to compare to, and you match multiple people on the same segment, there should be 2 groups of people who all match each other on that segment – one group from your Mom’s side and one from your Dad’s side – even if you can’t identify your common ancestor. If there are people who don’t fit into either of those two groups, because they don’t match those group members, then the misfits are identical by chance.

Even if your parents are unavailable, this is a situation where testing other relatives helps, and the closer the better, because those relatives will also fall into those match groups and will help identify which group is from which side of your family, and which ancestral line.

In the example below, using the same people from the phased parent example above, we no longer have our parents to compare to, but we do have an aunt, Mom’s sister, and an uncle, Dad’s brother. By comparing those who match us to our close relatives – if everyone in the match group matches each other, then we know they are IBD and the come from Mom’s side of the family or Dad’s side of the family.

Identical 6

Identical By Chance Identified Through Close Family Match Groups

In general matching, meaning not on specific segments, just on your match list, if John and I match, but John doesn’t match mother’s sister, it could mean that John matches me on a different segment that my aunt didn’t inherit from my grandparents but that my mother did. So the match could be valid, even though he doesn’t match my aunt.

However, moving to the segment matching level, shown above, we can differentiate, at least for that segment.  This is yet another example of why segment analysis tools are so critically important.

If we only had one matching group, the green above, we would not be able to say that John was IBC on this segment, because John might be matching me on Dad’s side.

But in this case, we have proof points on both sides of this same segment, with two match groups, green from Mom and blue from Dad.  Mom’s side has a match group of 4+me (including her sister) who all match each other on this same segment, indicating that they all descend through my mother’s side of my tree.  On Dad’s side, we have his brother and two other people who match each other and me on those same segments.

Since John matches no one in either match group on either side, his match to me on this segment must be IBC.  You can read more about match groups and confidence here.

Identical by chance segments tend to be smaller segments, because the chances of matching more locations in a row by chance diminish as the number of locations increases.

Ok, so now you’ve got this – the two ways to match. Identical by descent (IBD) and identical by chance (IBC,) nature’s cruel joke.

So, what the heck are identical by state (IBS) and identical by population (IBP).

Good questions.

Identical by State (IBS)

Identical by state is really an archaic term now, but you’ll likely still run into it from time to time. Understand that genetic genealogy is still a really new field of discovery.  Initially, terms weren’t defined very well and have since evolved.  IBD was used to mean a match where you could find a common ancestral line.  IBS, or identical by state, was often used when one could not find the ancestral line.  What this implied was that the match was not genealogical in nature.  But that often wasn’t true.  Just because we can’t determine who the common ancestor is, doesn’t mean that common ancestor doesn’t exist.  After we have more matches, we may well figure out the common ancestor at a later time.

What are some reasons we might not be able to figure out who our common ancestor is?

  • There’s a NPE or undocumented adoption in one line or the other.
  • The pedigree chart of one or both people doesn’t go back far enough in time.
  • The pedigree chart of one or both people is incorrect.
  • Not enough people have tested to connect the dots between the DNA. For example, we may share a common surname, Dodson, but be unable to actually pinpoint which Dodson line/ancestor we share.
  • The match is identical by population (IBP) and not in a genealogical timeframe. We see this most often in highly endogamous populations.
  • The match is identical by chance (IBC) and there is no common ancestor.

The tendency in the past has been to assume that if you can’t find the ancestor, then the problem MUST be that the match is Identical by State. But the problem is that identical by state includes two categories that are mutually exclusive; Identical by Chance and Identical by Population.

Identical by chance means there is no common ancestor, as we illustrated above.

Identical by Population means there IS a common ancestor, and you did receive your DNA from that ancestor, but you may not be able to figure out who it was because it’s too far back in time and many people from that same population base share that DNA segment.

So, today, we don’t say IBS anymore, we say either IBD and if it’s not IBD then it’s either IBC or IBP, but not IBS. If someone says IBS, you need to ask and see if you can determine whether they mean, IBC or IBP, or if they are trying to say something else like “I can’t identify the common ancestor so it must be IBS.”

Identical by Population (IBP)

Identical by population means that a large portion of a population group shares a particular segment of DNA. Some people feel IBP segments are not useful and want all of these segments to be stripped away by population (or academic) based phasing software.

In some cases, if an individual is 100% Jewish, for example, they will have many IBP segments from within the highly endogamous Jewish population. They don’t have any other ancestral DNA segments from ancestors who aren’t Jewish to contrast against in their DNA, so their IBP segments are not useful to them, and are in fact, just in the opposite.  There are too many IBP segments and they are in the way – often referred to as “noise” because they are not genealogically useful, even though they are descended from an ancestor (IBD).  So, yes, IBP is a subset of IBD.

However, for someone who has the following genealogy, these same population based endogamous segments can be extremely useful and informative.

Identical 7

In this conceptual pedigree chart, the Jewish person married a non-Jewish person with deep colonial American ancestry. Their child “Colonial Jew” married someone who was mixed “Irish Asian.”  The person at the bottom, “me,” is not themselves endogamous but has several widely variant lines in their heritage including endogamous lines.

If I’m lucky enough to have an African population segment, that tells me very clearly which genealogical line that match is probably from. But if those IBP segments are removed, they can’t inform me in this situation.

Same with Jewish, or Asian, or Native American.

Let’s see how this might work in real matching.

Let’s say your mother’s A value is only found in African populations, and it’s found in very high proportions in African populations and much less frequently anyplace else in the world, except for where Africans settled.

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Identical By Population Example Where Mother’s A Equals African

A few match outcomes are possible:

  1. You match with someone and you can discern a common ancestor or at least an ancestral line because you have only one African genealogical line – an ancestor in your mother’s line, like in the pedigree chart above.
  2. You match with someone and you cannot discern a common ancestor because many or all of your lines are African, similar to the Jewish example.
  3. You match with someone and you identify a common ancestor, but later a second genealogical line matches on that same segment because the segment is so common in the African population. This means you could have received that actual DNA segment from either ancestral line.
  4. Some DNA testing company runs academic or population based phasing software against your DNA and removes that segment entirely because they’ve decided that it occurs too frequently in a population to be useful. In this case, you won’t match that person at all.
  5. Some DNA testing company runs academic or population based phasing software against your DNA and removes that segment entirely because they’ve decided that particular segment in your results is “too matchy” so it must therefore be “invalid” and population based. This is often referred to as a “pile-up” and means that you have proportionally more matches on that segment than you do on other segments. If your “pile-up” segments are removed in this case, again, you won’t match at all. This is exactly what happened to my Acadian matches when Ancestry implemented their Timber phasing software, which removes pile-ups.

The graph below was provided to me at Ancestry DNA Day as an example of my own “pile-up” areas in my genome.

genome pileups

Ancestry with their Timber routine uses population phasing and removes your areas they deem “too matchy”? This helps Jewish and other heavily endogamous people by removing truly population based matches that are spurious and the contributing ancestor impossible to discern.  An endogamous individual could achieve much of the same effect by utilizing a higher matching threshold for their own matches, although that’s not an option at Ancestry.

However, for those of us who are not entirely endogamous, but who may have endogamous lines or lines from different parts of the world, population based phasing removes valuable informational segments and therefore, prevents valuable matches. When Ancestry ran Timber against my results, I lost all but one of my Acadian matches.  Yes, Acadians are heavily endogamous, but in my case, that line accounts for 1 of my 16 great-great-grandparents.  Believe me, if I had a tool to put all of my autosomal matches in one of 16 buckets, I would think it was a wonderful day!!!

16 gggrandparents

Because of endogamy, I actually carried MORE Acadian DNA that I would otherwise carry from a non-endogamous population – so yes, I am very matchy to my Acadian cousins, especially on smaller segments – or I was until Ancestry stripped all of that way.  Thankfully, I still have all of my matches at Family Tree DNA.

Why is endogamous DNA more matchy? Because endogamous populations only have the founders’ DNA and they just keep passing the same founder DNA around and around.

Ironically, another word for this kind of phasing is called “excess IBD” phasing. This means that “someone” decides unilaterally how much matching one “should” have and just chops the rest off at that threshold.  Clearly, that threshold for a fully Jewish person and me would be very different – and one size absolutely does NOT fit all.

I want to show you one more example of what population based phasing does. It chops the heart out of segments that would otherwise match.

People whose parents also test should match their parents on exactly 22 segments, one for each chromosome – because each child is a 100% match to their parents. If there is a read error or two (or three), then let’s say they could have as many as 25 matches, because some chromosomes are chopped in two because of a technical issue.  It occasionally happens.

At Ancestry, we’re seeing 80 to 120 matches for each parent/child pair, which means Timber is removing 58 to roughly 100 legitimate segments that you received from your parent.  One individual reported that they match one parent on 150 different segments, meaning that Ancestry removed 128 segments they decided are “too matchy” but are very clearly ancestral, or IBD, because all of your DNA must match your parents DNA on the strand they gave you.  However because of Timber’s removal of “too matchy” segments, the person no longer matches their parent on that removed segment – or on any of those 58 to 128 removed segments.  And remember, there is only one way to receive your DNA, so all of your DNA must match that of your parents.  You have no invalid matches to your parents DNA.  You can read more here.

Here’s a visual of what IBP phased matching does to you. Recall in our example that you need 10 contiguous matching locations to be considered a match.  I’m showing 20 locations in this example.

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Normal Matching – No Population or Academic Phasing

In this first example, the DNA you inherited from your mother is a combination of T and A, where A=African. Notice that only part of what you inherited from your mother is the A this time.

In normal matching without IBP phasing, above, the matching threshold is still 10, but you match your match on a segment that totals 20 locations or units. Now it’s up to you to see if you can identify your common ancestor.

In the IBP phased example, below, your African DNA is removed as a result of population based phasing software. Your African DNA used to be where the red spot with no values is showing in the You 1 column.  Therefore, you still match on the Ts, but you only have a contiguous run of 7 Ts, then the 7 As phasing deleted, then 6 more matching Ts.  The problem is, of course, that instead of a nice matching segment of 20 units, above, you now have no match at all because you don’t have 10 matching locations in a row.  Of course, the same IBP phasing would apply to your mother, so your match would not match your mother either, which means that a valid parentally phased match is not reported.

Identical 10

Population Based Phased Matching Example Removing African

What’s worse, you’ll never have that opportunity to see if you can find your common ancestor, because you and your match will never be reported as a match. This is a lost opportunity.  In the first “normal matching” example, you may never BE able to find that common ancestor, but you have the opportunity to try.  In the second IBP phased matching example, you certainly won’t ever find your common ancestor because you’re not shown as a match.  When population based or academic phasing is involved, you’ll never know what you are missing.

This chopping phenomenon is not a rare occurrence with population based phasing. In fact, if you divide 100 removed segments by 22 chromosomes, there are approximately 4 artificial “chops” taken out of every one of your 22 chromosomes with each parent at Ancestry, and in some cases, more.  The person who now matches their parent on 150 segments has an average of 5.8 artifical phasing induced chops in each chromosome.  When Ancestry implemented Timber, many people lost between 80% and 90% of their total matches.  Mine went from 13,100 to 3,350, a loss of about 75%.  At least some of those were valid and we had identified common ancestral lines.

So, identical by population (IBP) doesn’t necessarily mean bad, unless you’re entirely endogamous. If you’re entirely endogamous, then IBP means challenging and can generally be overcome by looking at larger matching segments, which are less likely to be either IBP or IBC.

Identical by population can be very useful in someone not entirely endogamous in that it preserves ancestral DNA in a given population. In people who carry a combination of different endogamous lines, such as Jewish and Acadian, this phenomenon can actually be very useful, because it increases your chances of matching other individuals from that ancestral line – and being able to assign them appropriately.

Identical by What?

So, in summary, you are either identical because you received DNA from a common ancestor (IBD) or identical by chance (IBC) because nature is playing a mean joke on you and you match, literally, by chance because your match’s DNA is zigzagging back and forth between your parents’ DNA.  And by the way, you can match someone IBD on one segment and the same person IBC or IBP on others.

If you match someone but that person does not also match either of your parents, then it’s an IBC, identical by chance, match. Measuring a match against both yourself and your parents to determine if the match is IBC or IBD is called parental phasing.  We will have a Concepts article shortly about Parental Phasing, so stay tuned.

If you don’t have parents to match against, your matches on any segment should cleanly cluster into two matching groups where you match them and your matches also match each other on that same segment. One group for your mother’s side and one group for your father’s side.  Those who match you but don’t fall into one group or the other are identical by chance, like John in our example.  Of course, you won’t be able to sort these out until you have several matches on that segment.  This is also why testing all available upstream family members is so useful.

If you’re not IBC, you’re IBD meaning that you and your match received that DNA segment from a common ancestor, whether or not you can identify that ancestor.

Identical by population (IBP) is a type or subset of identical by descent (IBD) where many people from that same population group carry the same DNA segment. This is seen in its most pronounced fashion in heavily endogamous populations such as Ashkenazi Jews.

If you are from a highly endogamous population, you will have many IBP matches, generally on smaller segments that have been chopped up over time, and you will want to use a higher matching threshold, perhaps up to 10cM, for genealogical matching, or higher.

If you have endogamous lines in your tree, but are not entirely endogamous, IBP segments may actually be beneficial because you may be able to attribute matches to a specific line, even if not the specific ancestor in that line.

The smaller the segment, the more likely it is to be less useful to you, whether IBD or IBP – but that isn’t to say all small segments should be disregarded because they are assumed to be either IBC or not useful. That’s not the case.  Some are IBD and all IBD segments have the potential to be very useful.  Kitty Cooper just recently reported another wonderful success story using a 6cM triangulated segment.

If you’re highly endogamous, or only looking only for the low hanging fruit, which is more likely to be immediately rewarding, then work with only larger segment matches. They are less likely to be IBC or IBP and more likely to yield results more quickly.  I always begin with the largest matching segments, because not only are they easier to assign to an ancestor, but those matching people may also have smaller matching segments that I can tentatively (pending triangulation) attribute to that specific ancestor as well.

Here’s a handy-dandy cheat sheet if you’re having trouble remembering “Identical by What.”

Identical by Chart

Understand that working with genetic genealogy and autosomal DNA is much like panning for gold. You may get lucky and find a large nugget or two smiling at you from on top the pile, but the majority of your rewards will be as a result of hard work sifting and panning and accumulating those small golden flakes that aren’t immediately obvious and useful.  Cumulatively, they may well hold your family secrets and the keys to locks long ago frozen shut.

Here’s hoping all your matches are IBD!!!!!