Many of us are curious about ethnicity and ancestors, and everyone wants to know if we are descendants of royalty! We’ve all seen those quirky ads with the kilts and the lederhosen.
A DNA test can be a logical step in exploring genealogy and finding lost cousins, as well as a chance to learn more about our health.
Now that you’ve been advised your results are in, what should you do now to learn the most from your test?
Explore your Ethnicity
For many, learning about ethnicity is the main reason people submit their DNA.
We usually don’t know much about our family beyond our great grandparents, and over the years, much family history can be lost. A DNA test can help you begin to figure out your family’s story.
Most of the direct-to-consumer DNA tests are autosomal tests.
This type of test examines our 22 pairs of autosomes, the chromosomes we inherit from both our parents. Your ethnicity results will reflect a comparison of your DNA to a wide range of reference panels that the testing company has adopted from known groups. It will be run multiple times, and you will receive a report that breaks down your ethnicity by percentage.
Determine New Information
For some, the ethnicity report may show some surprises, and not completely match the family history you’ve been told by your relatives.
Remember, the ethnicity results are an estimate. In fact, as more and more people test, reference panels and databases are updated to reflect the additional information, and the actual categories of your ethnicity are adjusted to reflect the improved information. Your DNA hasn’t changed, but resources have improved to provide better information.
There are other things that affect your ethnicity estimate.
For example, you may know that some of your ancestors immigrated from Ireland, but your result shows 0% Irish ancestry. This doesn’t necessarily mean that someone wasn’t telling the truth; it just means that you did not inherit that particular DNA. Or perhaps your ancestors were from Ireland, maybe Welsh people that settled there, but not Irish!
Due to the migration of people and changing country borders over time for geopolitical reasons, the ethnicity estimate may indicate a region rather than a country. Many of today’s country borders did not exist a few generations ago or changed as a result of both war and peace treaties.
Understand the Randomness of DNA
As you look at your results, it’s important to remember how we inherit DNA - approximately 50% from each parent.
Then again, each parent themselves has inherited approximately 50% from both of their parents. Each generation in your pedigree doubles in size, so by the time you are looking at your 2x great grandparents, their parents comprise a gene pool of 32 people!
The following chart from AncestryDNA makes a great visualization of just how random DNA inheritance can be.
In the example, each letter in the names represents a unique DNA segment. Each succeeding generation gets 50% of their “letters” from each parent, yet not all letters get passed down to each generation.
Children in the same generation get different letters from each other, and if a child doesn’t have a particular letter, it doesn’t mean that an ancestor didn’t have it!
From the example, you can see how some “letters” can be lost completely as future generations unfold.
Gain Insights into Where your Ancestors Settled
Depending on your DNA results, it’s possible that your ethnicity can be broken down into subcategories within regions.
This is where you may find out things such as roots in Colonial Virginia or Massachusetts. Some resources include timelines that show migration paths of ethnicities over time.
Start Building a Family Tree
Once you know a bit about your ethnicity, you may feel inspired to begin recording a family tree. Not all DNA testing sights offer the ability to do this online, but it is an excellent way to understand more about your ancestors, where they lived and what their lives were like.
If you’re not sure you know enough information to get started, or are doubtful about your interest level, you can start sketching out your tree on paper. See how many generations exist where you know the first and last names of each person in your pedigree, including maiden names for the women. Fill in birth and death years, and if you have an older relative as a resource, ask that person questions as you begin to put your tree together.
Consult family resources such as a family Bible or records of marriages, births and deaths if you, or a parent, have that information available.
Beginning this process before your DNA results come in can be helpful, especially when you review the DNA matches. It will be easier to understand how some of those DNA connections are related to you.
Starting a tree can inspire you to want to learn more. You may discover new family information, and find you have a genuine interest in genealogy.
These services give you access to record collections such as census reports, death certificates, marriage records, military records, public family trees and immigration records. You can even find wills and probate documents in some collections. There are even world-wide resources available!
In addition to the subscription services mentioned, you can register on FamilySearch to review their online record collection. This site is managed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and is offered at no cost.
Additional collections are available through their Family History Libraries, which you can find throughout the United States, and can be an excellent source for records that have not yet been digitized.
“Attach” your DNA to your Family Tree
Once you’ve begun your tree online, Ancestry allows you to link your DNA profile with your tree.
By attaching your DNA information to your position on your family tree, Ancestry can analyze tree information posted by others and show you how you may be related to others by identifying your “most recent common ancestor.”
A decision you will want to make about your tree is whether it is a public tree or private and if it is “searchable.”
A public tree is available to anyone on Ancestry who chooses to look at it, and all information you post, EXCEPT information about living individuals, is accessible.
A private tree is just that, visible only to you and anyone you choose to share it with. Why make a tree public, you may ask. In the spirit of genealogy research, many are trying to solve family mysteries or determine if 3x great granny was married more than once.
Having a public tree can help others solve family questions, and you may be moved to share your knowledge in appreciation of the facts you have learned from researchers before you.
If you are concerned about having your work available for others to co-opt or examine, then consider designating your tree as private, but “searchable.” This allows other researchers to learn that you have a tree with a particular surname that they are interested in, and they can contact you via the service’s email system if they’d like to learn more. What you share is up to you.
Sometimes your family research will lead you to some sensitive topics, such as children born outside of marriage or previously unknown adoptions.
As you explore those branches of your family tree, you can set up a tree labeled as a “research tree,” maintain it’s private status if desired and explore records that tell the story.
Examine Genealogy Work done by Others
You may be surprised to find a few family trees out there that are “your” family, but you don’t know the person that constructed the tree!
In fact, you may see new information on the tree, often helpful, but perhaps bits of family history that may not be accurate or widely known. You will also see that some researchers copy existing family trees without discretion and unintentionally perpetuate inaccurate information.
Therefore, don’t randomly copy existing trees, but conduct your own due diligence, adding sources to back up your relationships.
You might also be interested in: 15 Ways To Start Reading More Books Right Now
Review Available Documentation
Using online genealogy record search services, it is simple to attach supporting documentation to your family tree.
Some of the sorting is done for you once you begin a search, and you just need to review the document (census report, death certificate, etc.) and determine if it belongs to your relative.
Be careful here! You will be shocked to learn how many people have the same name, first and last, with dates of birth within a year of each other.
The reliability of documents varies also.
Census reports are notoriously wrong in terms of ages and name spellings because they were written down by an individual going door-to-door. However, marriage license applications and death certificates are sought after because these documents usually provide the full name of the parents of the person(s) the document represents.
Birth certificates were not widely issued until the mid-20th century and often were issued many years after the fact, so their accuracy is not as highly regarded.
Decide How Much History You Want to Know
Initially, most of us begin to put together a tree that shows our direct lineage, a pedigree view of our family.
As your research develops, you may wish to add siblings of your ancestors, along with making note of their spouses and children’s names as you learn them.
This information will be of value once you are looking at your DNA matches and trying to determine exactly who all these new cousins are!
Examine your DNA Matches
An exciting part of your DNA results includes a list of matching close and distant relatives. These individuals have taken the same test that you did, and their DNA and yours will show a quantifiable percentage of matching DNA.
This is measured in Centimorgans (cMs), and the higher the cMs, the closer the relationship to you. Most reports will also tell you the estimated relationship; however, you may find it is not totally accurate as there is a wide range of Centimorgans assigned to each relative position.
In addition, your report will tell you how many segments of DNA that you share with someone. A segment is a length of your shared DNA that matches a relative; the Centimorgans tell you the total length of common DNA.
For example, a parent/child relationship might show a match of 3475 cM’s over 48 segments. If you have some mystery relatives on your DNA report, a first step to figuring out the relationship is to look at both cMs and segments.
Sort Your Matches
One way to sort through this list of people is to determine whether the match is maternal or paternal. The absolute easiest way to do this is to have one or both of your parents take the test with the same testing company.
Then your results will show whether the match is on “Mother’s Side” or “Father’s Side.” If that is not an option, then you can sort matches using the information provided by looking at each individual and which matches you have in common.
A popular way to do this is by using The Leeds Method, developed by Dand Leeds, a biologist and genealogist who has developed systems for color clustering DNA results to help identify unknown relatives for adoptees and amateur genealogists. You can learn more about her methodology.
Many individuals have been surprised by their DNA results in terms of matches. Previous generations may have kept parentage a closely guarded secret in the matter of an adoption or when a child was born outside the marriage. Others have found that their birth was a result of sperm or egg donation, or a previously undisclosed relationship or non-consensual event. Siblings have found out they share only one parent, not two.
These outcomes can be very unsettling and disruptive. They can be life-altering in both positive and negative ways. Many people complete a DNA test for amusement and ethnicity, never imagining that the test will uncover previously unknown family history.
There are some helpful resources available if you come upon this situation, including Facebook groups for adoptees and resources from the DNA testing companies themselves.
Find More Matches
DNA matches are updated routinely, as more individuals take the tests. You also have the option to download your test results (your raw DNA) and upload them to other sites.
Not every testing site accepts uploads, but it is common for those seeking more information to download Ancestry results or data from 23andMe and upload them to sites such as My Heritage and Family Tree DNA.
If you have a family mystery to solve, this is a good place to start.
Depending on your interest level, the various testing websites have resources to allow you to thoroughly explore your results.
You can upload your data to a site with a chromosome browser, which allows you to map out your matching segments, perhaps leading you to identify the common ancestor you share. You can analyze your X chromosome to help determine your matching lineage.
You can explore triangulation to show which segments match between several people. You can run a test that will tell you if your parents are related, and how many generations back that relationship existed.
You might decide to test your mitochondrial DNA test or, if you are a male, take a y-DNA test to identify your paternal line. An excellent resource for exploring parentage is DNApainter.com, which includes several tools including, “What Are the Odds?” which allows you to test several relationship hypotheses.
Learn more about your Health
This is the category where the DNA companies seem to differ the most. The leading company for health information is 23andMe in terms of the most comprehensive information that can be offered about your predisposition for certain conditions, your carrier status and wellness.
Only recently has Ancestry offered health reports.
There are other companies that are smaller and focus on niche areas that also offer direct-to-consumer health-related DNA testing, some of whom focus on nutrition and fitness, such as Orig3n, and cellular aging, such as TeloYears.
The more comprehensive tests will provide you information about your genetic predisposition for certain diseases such as breast cancer, age-related macular degeneration, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, celiac disease or Parkinson’s disease.
It is important to remember that while you may be genetically predisposed to one of these diseases, there are environmental, lifestyle and other health factors that can influence outcomes.
Receiving information on this topic from a DNA test is just a first step in learning more about your health, and following up with your medical professional, who may recommend genetic counseling is definitely something to consider.
The DNA test may also identify whether or not you are a carrier for certain conditions. Although in most cases, these are not conditions that you will develop, the test may show that you have a gene variant identified with a specific condition such as cystic fibrosis or hereditary hearing loss that could be passed on to your children. If you find that both you and your partner have the same variant, speaking with a health professional is warranted.
Various tests may also reveal certain inherited, but rather random, traits. These test elements can be amusing and fun to explore, especially if you wish to compare certain traits within your family. Wellness information can be used to make lifestyle adjustments or as a basis for exploring other issues medically with your health professional.
You may have read recently that the number of people taking DNA tests has declined, and many have attributed this to privacy concerns.
Be aware that policies vary by company, and if you choose to upload your results from one company to another, it would be wise to know how the privacy policies differ between them.
There have been a few highly publicized cases of law enforcement using the direct-to-consumer DNA testing database to solve cold cases.
This methodology has generally involved law enforcement uploading DNA from a criminal event into the database by creating a profile and then using the matches to identify or confirm a suspect. Some DNA companies will not participate in this at all, and some give the customer the option to opt-out and keep their DNA out of the database for these purposes.
Read the policy privacy to know how your DNA can be used in this area.
The two largest companies, Ancestry and 23andMe have a combined DNA database of 15 million users.
Aggregated, anonymous data has been shared with pharmaceutical companies for development purposes and with other research institutions. Guidelines for privacy standards and consumer consent are mostly voluntary, and warrant a careful review by the consumer before clicking “I Accept”!
Wrapping it Up
Doing your DNA test could be the beginning of a new pastime and the opportunity to learn more about your family’s history and your health.
There are abundant resources available to put together a family tree, solve family mysteries and understand more about your ancestors.
For many, genealogy becomes a lifelong hobby. So, have some fun and explore a few topics that interest you once your results are in!
And, don’t forget to find out if you are descended from royalty!