Ancestry DNA’s genetic genealogy tools are failing to deliver

Ancestry.com’s DNA Circles. Like many others, I’m still grappling with this one. Boiled down, a DNA Circle on Ancestry is like a collaborative family research group. Only this group is created through shared ancestry from a common shared ancestor. Only genealogical research can determine how individuals within a Circle are related. The Circle, generated by DNA results and family trees, can only indicate shared genetics.

Now, I have an extensive family tree with over 26,000 individuals. Now no, size doesn’t matter, however, in this instance, it raises questions with regards to my DNA Circle results. You see, the fact of the matter is, I’m a member of zero circles. Yep, that’s right.

Not. A. Single. One.

Have a gander at the image below:

cropped screengrab of my Ancestry DNA landing page

click for larger image

Anything strike you as odd about the distinct lack of circles? Even after Ancestry’s ‘improvement’ to its DNA matching algorithm – which saw the number of my genetic matches decimated – I’m still left with 75 individuals who are identified as 1st to 4th Cousins. There’s probably another 100 or so who are identified as 5th – 8th cousins.

So I have  roughly 175 genetic matches. I have 7 shared family hints. At first I thought this had to do with the number of people who either don’t have family trees, or family trees with less than 50 or so people. This characterizes approximately 75% of my Ancestry DNA matches.

And, of course, locked trees present research issues as well.

Harlan DNA matchesDNA matches just for the Harlan name.

DNA matches just for the Harlan name. User names have been obscured for privacy reasons. Click for larger image.

And then I began researching my Quaker Harling-Harlan family. By that, I mean tracing all of its branches from the 1500s onwards; including the female lines. As I’ve recently mentioned…this is one huge family. And it’s a family that connects with both my maternal and paternal lines.

So I started to search my DNA matches for specific Harlan-Harling related names: Blackburn, Bailey, Hollingsworth, Peele, Cooke, Pike, Leonard, White, Heald and Calvert – just to name a few.

And there they were in a number of family trees. Over and over again there appeared the names of great-grandparents, grand uncles and aunts and cousins. Shared ancestors, in other words.

The tree below is a perfect example:

screen grab of George Harlan's family tree in Ancestry DNA

A Harlan family group form one of my DNA match’s family trees. click for larger image

Using the tree above:

  • Elizabeth Harlan is my 5th cousin 5x removed
  • George Harlan is my 2nd cousin 8x removed
  • James Harlan is my 4th cousin 6x removed
  • Samuel Harlan is my 3rd cousin 7x removed

Here’s the same group of Harlan cousins in my family tree:

Screengrab of Harlan cousins in my family tree

click for larger image

I’ve located other trees with the same individuals. Yet, I have no shared family tree hints with any of them. And it’s not a ‘me’ thing either. Others with these family members also don’t have any Harlan related circles. Most don’t have any Harlan-related shared family tree hints either. We’ve had to work out how we’re related by looking at each other’s tree.  Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s always great making contact with newly found cousins. However, this is something that Ancestry DNA advertizes that its service can do…with all the usual caveats, of course.

I think part of the problem is the complicated genealogy for the Harlan family. Like a number of Quaker families, one Harlan family feature is 3th or 4th cousins marrying other 3rd and 4th cousins since the 1540s. So you can have a woman who is both a [however-many-times] grand aunt and a cousin. It’s a pickle. It’s a pickle I think Ancestry should be able to figure out, especially in light of its DNA service and DNA tools like Circles.

So I think I have a partial answer where the Harlans are concerned.

I know I have Matthews family DNA matches. The Matthews lineage is pretty simple and straightforward. Again, no DNA circles and no shared family tree matches. So I kind of have to ask myself what’s up with these two aspects of Ancestry DNA. I’m hoping the much-publicized pending upgrade to these tools will address this. I’m managing my expectations.

Ancestry DNA’s genetic genealogy tools remain promising. For me, at the moment, this aspect of the service fails to deliver.

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4 Comments

Filed under ancestry, Edgefield, family history, genealogy, Genetics, South Carolina

4 responses to “Ancestry DNA’s genetic genealogy tools are failing to deliver

  1. I feel you on this. I ask myself why I care, but feel deeply Ancestry’s failure to generate Circles from data that meets all their criteria. I’ve got two circles, but each is missing people that should be included. I also know at least other circles that I should have — for fairly straightforward lines — that neither nor anyone who should be in them has. It’s frustrating.

  2. Shannon Watts

    I have heard and read some disappointing reviews about Ancestry DNA. Have you tried or thought about 23andMe?

    • I’ve been mulling 23andme over. There are a few reasons for this. I’m already connected to a few 23andme connections via Family Tree DNA and Gedmatch. So I’m not 100% convinced about doing another DNA test with another service.

      • Shannon Watts

        I’ve greatly thought about doing it. Once I do, I’ll let you know what I find!

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