My friend recently reached out to me for some help with a close match at Ancestry. Which vendor doesn’t matter – the process for figuring out who my friend is related to her match would be essentially the same at any vendor.
My friend has no idea who the match is, nor how they are related. That match has not replied, nor is any of her information recognizable, such as an account name or photo. She has no tree, so there are literally no clues provided by the match.
We need to turn to science and old-fashioned sleuthing.
This eighth article in the “In Search of…” series steps you through the process I’m stepping my friend through.
This process isn’t difficult, per se, but there are several logical, sequential steps. I strongly recommend you read through this (at least) once, then come back and work through the process if you’re trying to solve a similar mystery.
The “In Search of…” Series
Please note that I’ve written an entire series of “In Search of…” articles that will step you through the search process and help you understand how to unravel your results. If you’re new, reading these, in order, before proceeding, would be a good idea.
- I introduced the “In Search of” series in the article, DNA: In Search of…New Series Launches.
- In the second article, DNA: In Search of…What Do You Mean I’m Not Related to My Family? – and What Comes Next? we discussed the discovery that something was amiss when you don’t match a family member that you expect to match, then how to make sure a vial or upload mix-up didn’t happen. Next, I covered the basics of the four kinds of DNA tests you’ll be able to use to solve your mystery.
- In the third article, In Search of…Vendor Features, Strengths, and Testing Strategies, we discussed testing goals and strategies, including testing with and uploading to multiple autosomal DNA vendors, Y DNA, and mitochondrial DNA testing. We reviewed the vendor’s strengths and the benefits of combining vendor information and resources.
- In the fourth article, DNA: In Search of…Signs of Endogamy, we discussed the signs of endogamy and various ways to determine if you or your recent ancestors descend from an endogamous population.
- In the fifth article, DNA: In Search of…Full and Half-Siblings we discussed how to determine if you have a sibling match, if they are a half or full sibling, and how to discern the difference.
- In the sixth article, Connect Your DNA test, and Others, to Your Tree, I explained how to optimize your DNA tests in order to take advantage of the features offered by each our primary DNA testing vendors.
- In the seventh article, How to Share DNA Results and Tree Access at Ancestry, I wrote step-by-step instructions for providing access to another person to allow them to view your DNA results, AND to share your tree – which are two different things. If you have a mystery match, and they are willing to allow you access, in essence “to drive,” you can just send them the link to this article that provides detailed instructions. Note that Ancestry has changed the user interface slightly with the rollout of their new “sides” matches, but I can’t provide the new interface screenshots yet because my account has not been upgraded.
Sarah – The Mystery Match
My friend, who I’ll be calling the Tester, matches Sarah (not her name) at 554 cM. At that close level, you don’t have to worry about segments being removed by Timber at Ancestry, so that is an actual cM match level. Timber only removes segments when the match is under 90 cM. Other vendors don’t remove cMs at all.
Ancestry shows the possible relationships at that level as follows:
Some of these relationships can be immediately dismissed in this situation. For example, the Tester knows that Sarah is not her grandchild or great-grandchild.
Our tester does not have any full siblings, or any known half-siblings, but like many genealogists, she is always open-minded. Both of her parents are living, and her father has already tested. Sarah does not match her father. So, this match is on her mother’s side.
It’s obvious that Sarah is not a full sibling, nor is she a half-sibling, based on the cM values, but she might be a child, or grandchild of a maternal half-sibling.
Let’s begin with observations and questions that will help our Tester determine how she and Sarah are related.
- It’s clear that IF this is a half-sibling descendant match, it’s on her mother’s side, because Sarah does not match our Tester’s father.
- The tester’s mother has six siblings, none of whom have tested directly, but three of whom have children or grandchildren who have tested.
- By viewing shared matches, Sarah matches known relatives of BOTH the maternal grandmother AND maternal grandfather of our tester, which means Sarah is NOT the product of an unknown half-sibling of her mother. Remember, Ancestry does not display shared matches of less than 20 cM. Other vendors do not restrict your shared matches.
- Ancestry does not provide mitochondrial DNA information, so that cannot be utilized, but could be utilized if this match was at FamilyTreeDNA, and partially utilized in an exclusionary manner if the match was at 23andMe.
DNAPainter’s Shared cM Tool provides a nice visual display of possible relationships, so I entered the matching cM amount
The returned relationships are similar to Ancestry’s possible relationships.
The grid display shows the possible relationships. Relationships that fall outside of this probability range are muted.
The color shading is by generation, meaning dark grey is through great-great-grandparents, apricot is through great-grandparents, green is through grandparents, grey is through one or both parents, and blue are your own descendants.
Based on known factors, I put a red X in the boxes that can’t apply to Sarah and our Tester after evaluating each relationship. I bracketed the statistically most likely relationships in red, although I must loudly say, “do not ignore those other possibilities.”
Let’s step through the logic which will be different for everyone’s own situation, of course.
- Age alone eliminates the great and half-great grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They are all deceased and would be well over 100 years old if they were living.
- The green half relationships are eliminated because we know via shared matches that Sarah matches BOTH of the Tester’s maternal grandparent’s sides.
- We know that Sarah is not a second cousin because second cousins match only ONE maternal grandparent’s ancestor’s descendants, and Sarah matches both of the tester’s maternal grandparents through their descendants. In other words, Sarah and our Tester both match people who descend from both of the Tester’s maternal grandmother AND grandfather’s lines, which, unless they are related, means Sarah’s closest common ancestor (MCRA – most recent common ancestor) with our Tester are either her maternal grandparents, or her mother.
- Therefore, we know that Sarah cannot be any of the apricot-colored relationships because she matches BOTH of our Tester’s maternal grandparents. She would only be related through one of the Tester’s maternal grandparents to be related on the apricot level.
- Sarah cannot be a full great-niece or nephew, or great or great-great niece or nephew because the Tester has no full siblings, confirmed by the fact that Sarah does not match the Tester’s father.
- We know that Sarah is not the great-grandchild of the Tester, in part due to age, but the definitive scientific ax to that possibility is that Sarah does not match our Tester’s father. (Yes, our Tester does match her father at the appropriate level.)
We know that Sarah is somehow a descendant of BOTH of Tester’s maternal grandparents, so must be in either the green band of relationships, the grey half-relationships, or the blue direct relationships. All of these relationships would be descended from the Tester’s maternal grandparents (plural.)
We’ve eliminated the blue direct relationship because Sarah does not match the Tester’s father. This removes the possibility that the Tester’s children have an unknown great-grandchild, although in this case, age removes that possibility anyway.
This process-of-elimination leaves as possible relationships:
- Grey band half niece/nephew and half great-niece/nephew, meaning that the Tester has an unknown half-sibling on their mother’s side whose child or grandchild has tested.
- Green band first cousin which means that the tester descends from one of the Tester’s maternal aunts or uncles. Given that Sarah is not a known child of any of the Tester’s six aunts and uncles, that opens the possibility that her mother’s sibling has a previously unknown child. Three of the Tester’s mother’s siblings are females, and three are males.
- Green band first cousin once removed is one generation further down the tree, meaning a child of a first cousin.
Using facts we know, we’ve already restricted the possible relationships to four.
Hypothesis and Shared Matches
In situations like this, I use a spreadsheet, create hypothesis scenarios and look for eliminators.
I worked with the Tester to assemble an easy spreadsheet with each of her mother’s siblings in a column, along with their year of birth. All names have been changed.
The hypothesis we are working with is that the Tester’s mother has a previously unknown child and that Sarah is that person’s child or grandchild.
Across the top of our spreadsheet, which you could also simply create as a chart, I’ve written the names of the maternal grandparents.
The Tester’s mother, Susie, is shown in the boxes that are colored red, and her siblings are listed in their birth order. Siblings who have anyone in their line who has tested are shown by colored boxes.
The Tester is shown in red beneath her mother, Susie, and a potential mystery half-sibling is shown beneath Susie.
This is important – the relationships shown are FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE TESTER.
This means, at far left, with the red arrow, these people at the top, meaning the mother’s siblings are the Tester’s aunts and uncles.
The next generation down are the Tester’s first cousins, followed by the next row, with 1C1R. The cell colors in that column correspond to the DNAPainter generation columns.
In the red “Mother” group, you’ll see that I’ve included that mystery half-sibling and beneath, the relationships that could exist at that same generation level. So, if the mystery half-sibling had a child, that person would be the half-niece/nephew of the Tester.
The cM value pointed to by the arrows, is the cM value at which the TESTER matches that person.
In this case, Ginger’s son, Jacob matches our Tester at 946 cM, which is exactly normal for a first cousin. Ginger’s son, Aaron, has not tested, but his daughter, Crystal, has and matches our Tester at 445 cM.
Three of the Tester’s aunts/uncles, John, Jim, and Elsie are not represented in this matrix, because no one from their line has yet tested. The Tester has contacted members of those families asking if they will accept a testing scholarship.
Some of the children of our Tester’s aunts/uncles have tested, and their matches to Sarah are shown in the bottom row in yellow, on the chart below.
Of course, obtaining Sarah’s matching cM information required the Tester to contact her aunts/uncles and cousins to ask them to look at their match to Sarah at Ancestry.
For each set of relationships with Sarah, I’ve prepared a mini-relationship grid below Sarah’s matches with one of the Tester’s aunts/uncles’ descendants.
- If Sarah is related to the Tester through an unknown half-sibling, Sarah will match the tester more closely than she will match any of the children of the Tester’s aunts and uncles.
- If Sarah descends through one of the Tester’s aunts’ or uncles’ lines, Sarah will match someone in those lines more closely than our Tester, but we may need to compensate for generations in our analysis.
I pasted the DNAPainter image in the spreadsheet in a convenient place to remind myself of which relationships are possible between our Tester and Sarah, then I created a small grid beneath the Tester’s match to Sarah, who is the yellow row.
Let me explain, beginning with our Tester’s match to Sarah.
Tester’s Match to Sarah
The Tester matches Sarah at 554 cM, which can potentially be a number of different relationships. I’ve listed the possible relationships with the most likely, at 87%, at the top. I have not listed any relationships we’ve positively eliminated, even though they would be scientifically possible.
I can’t do this for our Tester’s Uncle David, because the Tester has not yet heard back from David’s son, Gary, as to how many cMs he shares with Sarah.
Our tester’s aunts, Ginger and Barbara do have descendants who have tested, so let’s evaluate those relationships.
Ginger and Sarah
We know less about Ginger and Sarah than we do about our Tester and Sarah. However, many of the same relationship constraints remain constant.
- For example, we know that Sarah matches both of Ginger’s grandparents, because Ginger is our tester’s aunt, Susie’s full sibling.
- Our tester and all of the other family members who have tested match on both maternal grandparents’ sides.
- Therefore, we also know that the 2C relationships won’t work either because Sarah matches both maternal grandparents.
- Based on ages, it’s very unlikely that Sarah is a great-grandchild of Ginger’s children, in part, because I’m operating under the assumption that Sarah is old enough to purchase her own test, so not a child. Ancestry’s terms of service require testers to be 18 years of age to purchase or activate a DNA test. Also, Sarah’s test is not managed by someone else.
- We don’t know about great-nieces and nephews though, because if one of Ginger’s sibling’s children had an unknown child, that person could be Sarah or Sarah’s parent.
Ginger’s son Jacob
Using the closest match in Ginger’s line, her son Jacob, we find the following possibilities using Jacob’s match to Sarah of 284cM.
The DNAPainter grid shows the more distant relationship clearly.
You can quickly determine that Sarah probably does not descend from Ginger’s line, but let’s add this to our spreadsheet for completeness.
You can see that the MOST likely relationship, of the possible relationships based on our known factors, is 1C2R, which is the least likely relationship between our Tester and Sarah. It’s important to note that our Tester and Jacob are in the same generation, so we don’t need to do any compensating for a generational difference.
Comparing those relationships, you can see that the least likely relationship between Sarah and Jacob is much more likely between Sarah and our Tester.
Therefore, we can rule out Ginger’s line as a candidate. Sarah is not a descendant of Ginger.
Let’s move on to Barbara’s line.
Barbara’s Daughter Cindy
This time, we’re going to do a bit of inferring because we do have a generational difference.
Barbara’s granddaughter, Mary, has tested and matches Sarah at 230 cM. While we know that Sarah probably wouldn’t match Mary’s mother, Cindy, at exactly double that, 460 cM, it would certainly be close.
So, for purposes of this comparison, I’m using 460 cM for Sarah to match Cindy.
That makes this comparison in the same generation as Ginger and our Tester to Sarah. We are comparing apples to apples and not apples to half an apple (an apple once removed, technically, but I digress.) 😊
You can see that this analysis is MUCH closer to the cM amounts and relationship possibilities of Sarah and our Tester.
Here are the possible relationships of Sarah and Cindy, with the most likely being boxed in red.
Where Are We?
Here is my completed spreadsheet, so far, less the two DNAPainter graphs for Ginger and Barbara’s lines.
To date, we’ve eliminated Ginger as Sarah’s ancestor.
Both Susie, the mother of our Tester, and Susie’s sister Barbara are still candidates to have an unknown child based on DNA, or one of their children possibly having an unknown child.
Of course, we still have one more sister, Elsie, and those three silent brothers sitting over there. It’s much easier for a male to have an unknown child than a female. By unknown, in this situation, I mean truly unknown, not hidden.
Of course, what we really need is tests from each of Susie’s siblings, but that’s not going to happen. What can we potentially do with what we have, how, and why?
Our Tester can refine these results in a number of ways.
- Talk to living siblings or other family members and tactfully ask what they know about the four women during their reproductive years. Were they missing, off at school, visiting “aunts” in another location, separated from a spouse, etc.?
- Check to see if Sarah shared her ethnicity results (View match, then click on “Ethnicity.”) If Sarah has a significant ethnicity that is impossible to confuse, this might be significant. For example, if Sarah is 50% Korean, and one of Susie’s brothers served in Korea, that makes him a prime candidate.
- If possible, ask John, David, Jim, Ginger, Barbara, and Elsie to take DNA tests themselves. The best test is ALWAYS the oldest generation because their DNA is not yet divided in subsequent generations.
- If that’s not possible, find a child or grandchild of Elsie, Jim, and John to test.
- The Tester needs to find out how closely David’s son, Gary matches Sarah, then perform the same analysis that we stepped through above.
- Ask Ginger’s son, Jacob to see if Sarah also shares matches with the closest family members of the known father of Ginger’s children. One of Ginger’s children could have had an unknown child. This is unlikely, based on what we’ve already determined about Sarah’s match level to Jacob, but it’s worth asking.
- Ask Barbara’s granddaughter, Mary, to see if she and Sarah share matches with the closest family members of the known father of Barbara’s children. This scenario is much more likely.
- If the answer is yes to either of the last two questions, we have identified which line Sarah descends from, because she can only descend from both Barbara AND the father of her children if Sarah descends from that couple.
- If the answer is no, we’ve only eliminated full siblings to Ginger and Barbara’s children, not half-siblings.
- If our Tester can make contact with Gary, ask him if he and Sarah share matches with David’s wife’s line. One of David’s children could have an unknown child.
- If our Tester can actually make contact with Sarah, and if Sarah is willing and interested, our Tester can create a list of people to look for in her matches – for example, the spouses’ lines of all of Susie’s siblings. If Sarah matches NONE of the spouses’ lines, then one of Susie’s siblings (our Tester’s aunts/uncles,) or Susie’s mother, has an unknown child. However, if Sarah is a novice tester or genealogist, she might well be quite overwhelmed with understanding how to perform these searches. She may already be overwhelmed by discovering that she doesn’t match who she expected to match. Or, she may already know the answer to this question.
- It would be easier if Sarah granted our Tester access to her DNA results to sort through all of these possibilities, but that’s not something I would expect a stranger to do, especially if this result is something Sarah wasn’t expecting.
I wrote instructions for providing access to DNA results in the article, How to Share DNA Results and Tree Access at Ancestry.
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