Mitochondrial DNA is probably the most under-utilized type of DNA available to genetic genealogists. Mitochondrial DNA is a special line specific to your mother, and her mother, and her mother, on up that tree of mothers. It’s not mixed with any DNA from the fathers, so it’s a pure periscope line that extends back in time indefinitely – much like the Y DNA for the paternal line.
Just as an example, as an administrator looking at the Estes surname project, I can see an order summary. For clarification, the Estes project welcomes males and females alike, along with men who are not Estes surname males, but who are Estes descendants through other lines.
So, of the first 16 project participants, 2 are female. The columns titled HVR1, HVR2 and FGS are the available mitochondrial DNA test levels.
Only one, me, has had ANY mitochondrial DNA testing done. The rest have not.
By comparison, 14 (all the males) have ordered some level of Y DNA testing and 7 participants, almost half, have taken the autosomal Family Finder test.
By any measure, mitochondrial is way WAY behind.
Mitochondrial gets forgotten about, often, because it’s not as “in your face” as a male surname is to a male and doesn’t have the “pride factor” associated with it. In fact, you might hear men say something like, “Yea, proud to be an Estes (fill in your surname here),” but when was the last time you heard someone say, “Yea, proud to be a H2a1a!”? It loses something someplace.
Because the matrilineal line’s mitochondrial DNA doesn’t follow any surname, it doesn’t invoke that surname loyalty factor, but it is a rich source of information that is often neglected.
What can we learn from mitochondrial DNA?
Pretty much everything we can tell about Y DNA – except of course we’re not looking to see if we match a particular surname. We’re looking to see if we match someone with a common ancestor. But that’s not it, there’s a lot more.
Haplogroup and Migration Path
Your mitochondrial DNA haplogroup tells you which continent your ancestor was from, meaning Europe, Africa, Asia or Native American, or an ethnicity like Jewish, and the path they took out of Africa to arrive on that continent. You may think you know, already, but do you really? There are surprises and you’ll never know if you don’t test.
Haplogroup Origins help to extend this information and tells you where your fully extended haplogroup is found in the world. Fully extended haplogroup means your full haplogroup, H2a1a, as opposed to simply haplogroup H. You have to take the full sequence mtDNA test to obtain your fully extended haplogroup.
Your Ancestral Matches and your Matches Map tell you where your matches most distant ancestors lived. This is most effective for full sequence matching because those are your closest matches. In fact, I only recommend full sequence matching today. You should obtain all of the ancestral information available and the only way to do that is to test the entire mitochondrial region.
Those who follow my blog know that I’m haplogroup J1c2f, and while that doesn’t make anyone gush at parties, it does provide me with information I not only didn’t have, but there is no way other than DNA testing to discover.
My most distant known ancestor is from Germany around 1800, but look at my matches map.
There is obviously a historical, or maybe not so historical, Scandinavian story. You can read about this discovery here.
Your matches are sitting there, waiting for you, but first you have to test. After that, the genealogy to find a common ancestor may take some work, unless you simply get lucky – and some do.
If more people were to test and provide their most distant ancestor information and pedigree charts, there would be more easy matches with known ancestors!!! Just saying…
Matches Never Stop
The great news is that your mitochondrial DNA results are fishing for you 24X7. In July 2013, I had 3 full sequence matches, shown below.
Today, I have 16, and the more full sequence matches, the more granular and detailed the story. It’s like watching your ancestral story hatch, one match at a time. These people all share an ancestor with you, sometime, someplace. The fun is in unraveling that story. What does it mean to you? What information does it provide about your ancestors and their journey?
Proving Your Point
You can also use mitochondrial DNA to prove, or disprove, a specific type of historic relationship. Suppose you suspect two women are sisters. If you can find descendants of both women through all females to the current generation (which can be males) you can either prove those two women have a common matrilineal ancestor or that they don’t. In cases like this, mitochondrial DNA in conjunction with autosomal matching can be a very powerful tool. Comparing multiple kinds of DNA, together, is available under the advanced tools.
Building A MitoTree
If you’re after quick answers, building your own mitotree isn’t for you, but if you’re willing to invest some elbow grease, you can figure out the ancestral pedigree chart of how your matches descended from your common ancestor, based on their mutations.
I presumed, based on the matches map locations, that I was fairly closely related to my match in Poland, because at that time, it was the only full sequence match outside of Scandinavia. I was wrong. That person descended in a parallel line from a common Scandinavian ancestor. So no need looking in those Polish church records hoping to discover something about my direct line ancestors because they aren’t there!
You can read about how to build a mitochondrial tree here. If you like puzzles, this is for you.
Finding Your Ancestor’s Surname
I like to obtain the haplogroups of all of my ancestors and build a DNA Pedigree chart. My ancestor, Magdalena married Philip Jacob Miller, but we don’t know her surname. We do know they were Brethren, and Brethren married within their own religion. We know where they lived, and to some extent, we know the other Brethren families in that region.
After I wrote my 52 Ancestors story about Magdalena with hopes of finding a descendant who carries her mtDNA, someone contacted me to say a woman with a tree on Ancestry fits the bill. Indeed she did, and she agreed to have her mtDNA tested.
She immediately had an exact full sequence match, in the Brethren community, and the match does NOT descend from Magdalena herself. Unfortunately, the match does NOT have her genealogy back far enough to discover the family who might, just might, be Magdalena’s family as well. However, I can research genealogy to extend her tree, and I will, come spring when the roads clear.
The only path to Magdalena’s surname, short of a family Bible appearing someplace, is DNA, because I’ve exhausted all other available records.
Can mitochondrial DNA save the day and pin point Magdalena’s family so that I can prove the relationship through records? Maybe. I’ll let you know as this story unfolds.
Don’t’ Forget Mother
Genealogy without DNA is incomplete. It’s the holiday season. Give yourself the gift of your mother’s matrilineal history. DNA testing is the gift that keeps on giving, and you can have it even if your mother has passed over and is watching from the other side. Everyone carries their mother’s mitochondrial DNA, males and females alike.
What is your Mom’s story?
Give her or take a mitochondrial DNA test yourself and find out!
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