Tag Archives: mtDNA

Mapping my father’s mtDNA to African tribes

It probably comes as no surprise that I’m a conceptual thinker. And few things aid my understanding of concepts better than visuals. Especially when I create visual materials. As I create things I begin to see inter-relationships in a tangible way. It’s the way my mind rolls, and I’ve learned to embrace it.

It’s like baking a cake. Ok, I get what a cake is. However, when I combine the different ingredients, and know their individual properties and how they interact with each another, I get how a cake is actually made. You don’t see the egg or the butter or the milk in the final product, but you know they’re there and how they contributed to the overall cake.

With this in mind, I’ve been making maps of the African tribes my father and I are descended from.

I’ve made 3 maps that cover:

  1. My Y-DNA (haplogroup subclade  E1b1a1a1f1a1) – the DNA that is passed down from fathers to sonsdna-reunion-y
  2. My mtDNA (haplogroup subclade L2a1c4a) – the DNA that is passed down from mothers to daughters. Mothers also pass this on to their sons. Sons, however, do not pass this on to their children.dna-reunion-m
  3. My father’s mtDNA (Haplogroup L3). I am so grateful that he took this test. He is the only living link I directly had to his mother’s mtDNA.dna-reunion-m

This project helped me to better understand:

  1. How each of these 3 sets of African DNA travelled within the African Continent; and
  2. Which tribes I’m directly descended from, and which tribes are genetic cousins.

The second point will have a role to play when the time comes to start pinpointing specific African ancestors who were captured and sent to the American colonies as slaves. In other words, it saves me from trying to look for a needle in a haystack. Instead, I can look for that needed in a specific part of the haystack.

Some interesting possibilities revealed

MY Y-DNA and the 2 mtDNA tests were done via Genebase and form the basis of this mapping project.

My Y-DNA and mtDNA tests connect me to a staggering number of African tribes. Thinking logically, I knew I couldn’t be a direct descendant of all of them. As I mentioned above, only a handful were going to be the tribes of my direct ancestors. All of the others would be like second or third cousins, etc.

It turns out that once I made a map, some interesting possibilities presented themselves. I’m going to do an individual post for each of the 3 maps. It makes it easier to convey the story each map is beginning to reveal.

My father’ maternal mtDNA mapping results

I’m going to start with my father’s maternal mtDNA, the mtDNA he inherited from his mother, Susan Julia Roane (remember, I didn’t inherit any of this mtDNA):

Susan Roane mtDNA outlined

Plotting the direct female mtDNA African lineage of my grandmother, Susan Roane. This map illustrates how her mtDNA was carried from east to west within Africa (Organe-brown arrow). The blue and green arrows show how this mtDNA was carried into southern Africa through her female DNA cousins. Click for larger image.

 

A few things to keep in mind before I delve into how I’ve interpreted this map:

  1. The number of African tribes that have been tested is relatively small compared to non-African populations; and
  2. For the tribes that have had their DNA tested and sequenced, the number of people tested can be quite small (like the 27 Somalians who were tested and whose results from part of Genebase’s research and indigenous peoples’ results).

So what does this map tell me?

Well, like every human being on the plant, the journey begins in the Horn of Africa. So no surprises there.

Susan Roane’s direct maternal ancestor’s DNA travelled into the heart of the African continent. I’ve illustrated this with the big orange-brown arrow. Her ancient female cousins (e.g. not her direct ancestral line), carried the same mtDNA into southern Africa – both along the east and west coasts.

Her direct, African female ancestors appear to have settled in and around the Greater Lake Chad region, including northern Cameroon. You can see this in the cluster of tribes formed by the Fali, Fulbe, Kanuri, Kotoko, Mafa and Masa.

I’m thinking that the Fulbe in Niger, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal are genetic Fulbe cousin lines. Too much of her mtDNA is clustered in northwest Cameroon and southwestern Chad. It’s here that I think the woman who was the mother of Susan Roane’s American female line came from. My father shares only a small number of mtDNA markers with the Fulbe outside of this Lake Chad zone.  His strongest Fulbe mtDNA results specifically point to Lake Chad and its environs.

So what’s the story with the Fulbe?

I’m doing quite a bit of research on these tribes. However, an interesting picture has begun to emerge.

While they are rarely discussed, Africa had ancient kingdoms. The central African kingdom that encompassed my grandmother’s mtDNA was the Fulani Empire. You can see this empire in the picture below:

fulani-presence-in-west-africa

Fulani Empire in western  Africa

There’s quite a bit of Fulbe in my grandmother’s mtDNA. The Fulbe were part of the Fulani tribe. It turns out that the Fulani have quite the history.

The Fulani are an ancient tribe. By ‘ancient’ I mean the ancient Greeks (Herodotus, to be specific), Egyptians and Assyrians wrote about them. I’m finding it difficult to get a handle about the origins of the Fulani. There’s quite a bit of positive and negative propaganda about them. Depending on the author, there’s a vested interest in saying that the Fulani either came from this place, or that place or some other place. So I’m taking what I’ve read so far with a pinch of salt. I’m still searching for a respected, credible source with verifiable information.

Some sources say they came from India. Others claim they came from northern Africa. Yet others claim the Fulani came from eastern Africa. There is one point pretty much all the authors I’ve read so far agree on: the Fulani were not indigenous to the Lake Chad and western African region.  Anthropology has shown that this region had been previously settled by tribes with a far older history in the region.

There are claims that the Fulani introduced Islam to Africa. I don’t know if this is true or not. I do believe, however, they were early adopters of the Islamic faith. In turn, they made it the official religion of their empire. You can read a bit about the Fulani and Islam here: The Spread of Islam in West Africa: Containment, Mixing, and Reform from the Eighth to the Twentieth Century,  http://spice.fsi.stanford.edu/docs/the_spread_of_islam_in_west_africa_containment_mixing_and_reform_from_the_eighth_to_the_twentieth_century

The other tribes I’ve pinpointed in the Fulani-controlled area in map above were also largely Muslim. Like other Fulani-related tribes, they were active traders and I can easily imagine marriages between them. Which would explain their genetic markers in my paternal grandmother’s mtDNA.

The Fulani were also slavers. Large scale slavers – selling Africans into slavery within Africa and to Europeans. This is covered in the Wikipedia article below.

Some articles about the Fulani:

  1. Wikipedia (It’s Wikipedia – so by no means a definitive authority on the subject):  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fula_people#Timeline_of_Fulani_history
  2. Who are the Fulani People & Their Origins:  https://tariganter.wordpress.com/2011/09/17/who-are-the-fulani-people-their-origins/

Back to the Fulbe

The Fulbe were also largely Muslim. They had the designation of being free men within the Fulani. I need to do a lot more reading about this to understand what that term actually meant. I’m wondering if the Fulani had a caste system with various designations between free men and slaves. I’m definitely curious. I’m curious because I’m willing to bet, based on the map I’ve created, that my paternal grandmother’s enslaved mtDNA ancestor was Fulbe. And, if she was Fulbe, she would have been a free woman within this society. In all likelihood she would have also been Muslim. So how did her story end as a slave in the American colonies (presumably colonial Virginia)?

Looking at my father’s mtDNA connections in America, 85% are at an 8th generation level. That means the common female ancestor he shares with them lived centuries ago. Generational computation is a tricky thing. Lifespans vary from century to century and from region to region. Nor do I have any idea what the average lifespan of an African slave in America was. It’s always worth remembering this.

This being said, at an 8th generation level, I’m going to take an educated guess that the female Fulbe ancestor he shares with this 85% would have arrived in America sometime between the 1680s and the 1710s.

Genealogy – you get some definitive and probable answers…and a bunch of new questions.

The answer that’s emerging from this map project is that one of the ancestors who made that voyage from Africa to the American colonies was a woman from the Fulbe people. While this doesn’t tell me her name, or exactly when she was abducted and sold, it narrows my search. For instance, I can narrow down the number of African ports from which Fulbes were shipped to America between 1680 and 1720. From there, I can gather a list of slave ships that left western African slave ports for Virginia. And from there, I can see if any have Fulbe women were listed.

 

 

 

 

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George Murdock’s map of the Ethnolinguistic groups of Africa

This post about ethnic diversity in Africa is a companion piece to my previous post.

The renowned American anthropologist, George Murdock (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Murdock), published Africa: Its peoples and their culture history in 1959 (http://www.amazon.com/Africa-Peoples-their-Culture-History/dp/0070440522).  Despite having little experience in Africa, Murdock used resources available at the time to create a comprehensive picture of how ethnic groups were distribution throughout Africa.

Ethnicity is fluid process. This makes the study of ethnicity difficult. Various factors come into play in defining, and re-defining, ethnicity. Personal, economic and cultural factors influences how members of ethnic groups define and redefine themselves. Marriages too can alter ethnic definitions.  In short, ethnicity is a human construct. It’s worth bearing this in mind when viewing ethnic-centric maps.

The map below, like the map in my previous post, is based on linguistic categorizations:

George Murdock's Ethnolinguistic groups of Africa map, 1996

Ethnolinguistic groups of Africa, 1996 publication by the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Principal source: Africa, its peoples and their cultural history, G.P. Murdock, 1959. Tribal or ethnic names may vary, depending on source. Only large ethnolinguistic areas of intrusiveness are shown. Ethnolinguistic boundaries are generalized. Sparsely populated or uninhabited areas are shown by the absence of color.

Part of my fascination with maps like this one, and the one in my previous post, is allowing me to see my genetic connections visually.

I’m fortunate. My Genebase DNA test answered the question about how my father’s paternal DNA travelled across the African continent – from the Horn of Africa, up through Egypt, and then across the north African Mediterranean coast until it reached Morocco and then dropped down to the Western Sahara region. I can trace how this DNA later travelled into parts of Western Africa and entered into a handful of Bantu speaking populations. And, from here, how it was carried further still into the Caribbean, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay – places where I have living genetic cousins.

I can see how my mother’s maternal DNA travelled from the Horn of Africa right through the heart of central Africa, and then on to western and southern Africa. Like my father’s paternal DNA, my mother’s maternal DNA travelled from western and central Africa to the Caribbean and eastern Latin America.

Scientists are testing and sequencing more African tribal DNA. This is helping me build a picture of how my ancient African ancestors’  DNA travelled across Africa. It looks like my ancient African ancestors passed through some places quickly. These places act as small blips in my overall genetic makeup (which could also be a case that not enough people from that area just haven’t been tested yet). For instance, where my mother’s maternal DNA is concerned, I only have trace amounts of genetic links to modern Sudan.  In this scenario, Sudan looks like it was a quick pit-stop for her maternal genetic line.

Other places seem to have been long-term staging posts. Places where my parents’ ancestors settled for a considerable period of time before moving on. I have more genetic connections with modern African tribes in these places.  Staying with my mother’ s maternal DNA, I have a very significant genetic connection to the Arab population around Lake Chad and within Chad itself.  It’s only an educated guess, but this seems to indicate that her ancient ancestors remained in the Lake Chad area for generations. The Central African Republic and Nigeria also appear to have been other long-term staging posts for her maternal DNA. Cameroon looks like it was a quick pit-stop.

It’s relatively easy for me to see and understand how my Asian and European DNA moved from east to west in the Eurasian region. I have a whole family tree and documented family history that illustrates how this happened. Not so for my African ancestors. DNA is my sole resource for comprehending and understanding my African genetics. And, like other descendants of the African diaspora, I am reliant on genetics and anthropology to interpret my ancient African legacy – to catch a glimpse of the series of ancient peoples who carried that DNA from eastern Africa throughout the continent.

Who were the ancient African equivalents of my Euro-Asian Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Lombardian and Vandal ancestors? Who were the ancient African forbearers of the Fulani, the Taureg, the Berber, the Dinka, the Hausa and the Songhai?

Maps like the on above can’t answer that. However, this map pinpoints the modern descendants of these ancient tribes. Which, for the moment, provides some glimpses into that unrecorded ancient past…and the monumental journey of African DNA across that continent.

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A fascinating color-coded map of Africa’s diversity

AfricaMap

A screen grab of the interactive AfricaMap. click for larger image

Harvard University has created an interactive map which illustrates the ethnic diversity within the African continent. The map is based on data from a 2001 book edited by anthropologist Marc Leo Felix.

I have spent hours playing around with this map. The amount of data it contains is simply staggering.

This map highlights points that I have made over the years: understanding the dispersal of human DNA within Africa is complicated.

Each color on the map roughly corresponds to an ethnic group that constitutes the majority within a region, based on how people self-identify. Ethnicity is notoriously difficult to measure and demarcate — everyone sees their own ethnic identity a little differently . The results roughly correspond to a 1959 ethnography by anthropologist George Murdock, as well as a 2002 Harvard Institute study on ethnic diversity.

For me, one key issue remains.  The migration and dispersal of ancient humans within Africa is nowhere near as well understood or studied as the dispersal of ancient humans from Africa around the globe. Science knows more about how humans migrated from the eastern Horn of Africa to Ireland than it does about how humans migrated from East Africa to Africa’s western coast.

One of indications of this is inherent within the interactive map itself. The different African ethnicities are defined by language groups (i.e. Bantu speaking, Chadic speaking, Cushtic speaking, etc). It’s like saying the Normans of France, the Cornish, the Irish and the Scots are the same ethnic group because they are historically Celtic speaking people of northwestern Europe. Or that all Arabic speaking peoples are the same because they share the same language.

However, this map project is an impressive start. If, at the very least, you come away with a sense of just how diverse the different peoples of Africa are, thee map has succeeded in its main aim. It can also give the growing number of African Americans taking  DNA tests insights into the regions of Africa they are genetically connected to.

You can read more about this project, and access the interactive map, via the following article: Fisher, Max, 2015. A fascinating color-coded map of Africa’s diversity, Voxhttp://www.vox.com/2015/11/10/9698574/africa-diversity-map

You can read my previous posts about African genetics & African American genetic genealogy here:  https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/tag/african-dna/

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The forgotten complexity & diversity of European genetic admixtures

In genealogy it’s always a good practice to re-visit the various records collected and compiled. The same holds true for re-visiting articles and studies. Chances are, you’ll stumble across something new. Or you gain a new perspective. I’ve been re-reading DNA related articles and studies that I’ve saved over the years.

Armed with a larger family tree that stretches back eons on two of its branches, I’ve been able to see the facts presented in these studies and articles in a fresh light.

Empire expansion and empire building were bloody, disruptive and traumatic forces. There’s no two ways about it. However, it seems that once the proverbial dust settled, the peoples that we would class as ancient Europeans , at least, seemed to get on with the business of living, trading and exchanging DNA with the new cultures they came into contact with. The cultural divisions erected only a few centuries ago just don’t seem to have been present further back in history. There were no silos of classification, not as we would recognize them today. Divisions were based pretty much on the perception of a people being ‘barbarians’ or ‘civilized’. Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Pausinas, Herodotus and their contemporaries have much to say on the matter.

I’ve wondered how Han and Gelao Chinese as well as various Central Asian tribes came to make significant contributions to my autosomal, YDNA and mtDNA. The genealogy of two families in my tree partially answered it. The Scythians and the Huns. My Matthews and Roane ancestors were descendants of both of these cultures. I know this because I have a few of these ancestors’ names.

a map showing the Tribes and kingdoms of the Western Roman Empire in the 4th Century.

Tribes and kingdoms of the Western Roman Empire in the 4th Century. click for larger image

The Scythian culture and kingdom existed roughly between 300BCE to 600CE. The map below shows the extent of their territory. I note that around a dozen or so of my oldest known direct ancestors on the Matthews and the Roane lines were born in present day Croatia, Ukraine and Bulgaria – the western fringe of the Scythian territory.

Map of Scythian Empire in the 4th Century

Map of Scythian Empire in the 4th Century

Looking at the maps above, I can understand why there are Han, Gelao, Khazak, Dagan, Tuvan, Alatai, etc results present in my DNA.

How?

The Scythians and the Huns both came to occupy this territory. I have found a handful of union between my Scythian ancestors and Huns. The descendants of these Scythian-Hun unions married the various Roman, Scandinavian and Franco-Germanic people. When my 54th great grandfather Gratian (Gratianus Funarius) “The Elder” , a Scythian, married Constantia Constantine, a Lombard – that union produced children with an admixture encompassing Mediterranean, Balkan, near Eastern and Asiatic DNA. Two generations down the line, their descendants had married into the various Frano-Germanic tribes…and the Vandals, a North African people, and Scandinavians. And their descendants intermarried.

It is from this rich and ancient line that every single European royal family is descended. And they aren’t alone. This exchange of DNA happened throughout Europe. I look at it like this: a Vandal princess wasn’t sent to marry an Ostrogtoth king on her own. She went with a retinue of courtiers, servants and soldiers. Marriages like this were social as well as political. Trade routes would be established which meant Ostrogoth and Vandal merchants would go back and forth supplying all manner of goods and servants. Mutual protection treaties were agreed, which meant Vandal and Ostrogoth soldiers would go back and forth as needed if one or the other of the two kingdoms were engaged in war. In other words, swathes of people moved from one place to another.

Picture this, if you will. You’re going about your lord and/or lady’s business. Scrubbing kitchen floors, preparing food for some feat that you’ll never see, polishing the silver, sweeping the floors – and of the myriad of tasks servants had to do to keep their rulers and their court happy, sated and comfortable. You like the look of that foreign stranger brought into your midst by some royal marriage or another. You can’t speak the same language, not yet at any rate. However, through various charades-worthy gesticulations, you manage to convey the essentials: “I like the look of you. Do you fancy meeting up after that lot upstairs has passed out? We can knick some wine, maybe some bread and cheese if we’re lucky…and have a laugh?” Transfer the setting to the local marketplace, a shop, the local temple – pretty much anywhere people came into contact with one other in ancient times. You get the idea.

Boiled down, significant numbers of people moved back and forth, marrying and exchanging admixtures along the way. These admixtures are part and parcel of the overall modern European genetic makeup – and the makeup of European-descended people scattered around the globe.

This brings me quite nicely to four articles that are definitely worth a read. They specifically cover the British Isles and Ireland. They touch on various aspects of this post quite nicely. I cite them specifically due to the remoteness of these islands in the Roman era and the two to three centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe. Despite their remoteness, these islands have a simply staggering genetic admixture legacy.

  1. 10 Surprising Ancestral Origins Revealed by DNA Testing
    http://www.abroadintheyard.com/surprising-ancestral-origins-revealed-by-dna-testingOr:  never judge a book by its cover.
  2. The Guardian’s Scottish people’s DNA study could ‘rewrite nation’s history’ http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/aug/15/scotland-dna-study-projectDespite a long-held belief that its ethnic make-up was largely Scots, Celtic, Viking and Irish…Scotland was in fact “one of the most diverse nations on earth”. There’s a pretty interesting reason why.
  3. Prospect Magazine’s Myths of British ancestry
    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/mythsofbritishancestrySo it turns out that the ancient ancestors of the (non-Cornish) British and the Irish looks like it was the Basques, not Celts. And that the Celts probably weren’t wiped out by the Anglo-Saxons. And that neither the Celts nor the Anglo-Saxons had much impact on the genetic stock of these islands.
  4. Blood of the Irish: What DNA Tells Us About the Ancestry of People in Ireland. http://hubpages.com/hub/Irish-Blood-Genetic-IdentityIreland’s pre-historic peopling, it turns out, is far more interesting and complicated than previously thought.

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Finding the right DNA testing company for your requirements

This post is a follow on from yesterday’s post Can you really pinpoint DNA Ancestry in Africa to one tribe? and an earlier post Using the right DNA testing tool to answer the right ancestry question.

I took my first DNA test to answer one basic question: who in the world am I genetically connected to? I knew the question I wanted to have answered. This, in turn, helped me research a mind-bewildering option of DNA testing facilities to find one that I felt could best deliver the right answer.

Researching DNA testing facilities and companies took me around 6 months. When it comes to spending money, I am exceedingly cautious. I can’t tell you how many online reviews I read through. That’s all kind of a blur now. I wanted a service that was respected in the DNA/genetics community, scientifically robust and would stand up to close scrutiny. This was partly for personal reasons – I wanted to know that the information I was paying for would be accurate. It was also for professional reasons. After all, I planned to turn this adventure into a television series. That second point was (and remains) an important consideration.

When I had a shortlist of 5 companies, I asked DNA specialists for their thoughts and opinions. In the end, the list was narrowed down to two companies. To be honest, there wasn’t that much difference between them in terms of price, service, reputation and perceived quality. And I’ll admit it, in the end, the final choice came down to me flipping a 50 pence coin. It came up heads…so that’s the company I chose.

I am in no way plugging here, but the winner was a company called Genebase. This isn’t an advertorial. I don’t get a commission. I’m citing it and providing examples to illustrate my understanding of my own DNA results specifically. As well as how I gained an understanding of human genetics, admixtures and the human journey out of Africa and around the globe in general.

Genebase, as I’ve said previously, was an excellent choice for me. It’s not suitable for everyone. It doesn’t offer handy little pie charts or percentage breakdown overviews. You have to work those out for yourself. But what it did give me was the science behind the results it provided, which was (and remains) invaluable to me.

So let’s have a gander at how this particular service works using my YDNA test results.

So here we have my YDNA test result broken down into segments.

genebase1

click for larger image

Users can analyse each segment in turn. So let’s look at my Option 12. In this option, my results are going to be compared to data sets for 19 specific populations. Here are the 19 populations this segment is being compared to and the number of YDNA samples each population contains:

  1. US African American 253 samples
  2. US Hispanic 139 samples
  3. US Caucasian 242 samples
  4. Jordan, Middle East 221 samples
  5. Iran, Middle East 80 samples
  6. Egypt, Middle East 84 samples
  7. Smyrna, Greece 45 samples
  8. Abkhaz, Caucasus 51 samples
  9. Avar, Caucasus 114 samples
  10. Chechen – Chechnya, Caucasus 108 samples
  11. Chechen – Dagestan, Caucasus 98 samples
  12. Chechen – Ingushetia, Caucasus 108 samples
  13. Dargins, Caucasus 100 samples
  14. Kaitak, Caucasus 33 samples
  15. Kubachi, Caucasus 65 samples
  16. Lezghins, Caucasus 80 samples
  17. Ossets-Digor, Caucasus 125 samples
  18. Ossets-Iron, Caucasus 226 samples
  19. Shapsug, Caucasus 97 samples

Running my analysis, these are the results. With a possibility of 19 matches, I match 14 of the populations in the list. The degrees of the matches vary wildly:

 

click for larger image

click for larger image

The report also generates various appendices, which provide additional information. I still marvel that there is an appendix which shows the number of genetic matches for this segment within the data sets used. You can see these appendices below (this is a series of images, click on each on to see the larger image).

genebase2-2genebase2-3genebase3genebase4-1genebase4-2

Last, but not least, are the peer-reviewed journal articles that analyze the various populations. These articles are scientific/academic…which is a polite way of saying very, very, very dry. Nonetheless, they have helped shape my understanding of DNA transference among various populations, the migration patters out of Africa and, in some cases, illustrate how seemingly unconnected tribes are actually offshoots of an “umbrella” tribe which reached a migration crossroads – with different groups within that tribe going off in different directions.

These were the accompanying papers for the results within this analysis. They’re freely available online, if you’d like to have a look:

US African American , US Hispanic & US Caucasian (the same paper covers all 3 populations): http://www.cstl.nist.gov/biotech/strbase/pub_pres/Schoske2004.pdf

Egypt, Jordan & Iran (the same paper covers all 3 populations):
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312577/?tool=pubmed

Smyrna (Greece) results:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068964/?tool=pubmed

Ossets-Iron , Ossets-Digor, Lezghins, Abkhaz, Chechen – Ingushetia, Avar & Shapsug populations in the Caucasus region: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21571925

With all of the different segments with their own analysis reports and reading, for my YDNA and mtDNA tests…you can imagine the level of reading that I’ve done. Which, in turn, led me to other journals and papers.

What I have is a better understanding of some of the more ‘out of the blue’ results I’ve had in my YDNA and mtDNA tests. As I’ve mentioned previously, this kind of test, the test that I was quite clear about wanting, stretches back millennia. I have a good grounding on how certain populations came to be present in these two forms of DNA. And, in some cases, some fairly sound hypothesis on when certain admixtures became part of my DNA (this will more than a little help from geneticists).

I will be the first to raise my hand and state that gaining this level of insight and understanding into my YDA and mtDNA wasn’t cheap. I didn’t want a quick fix answer and blimey, I didn’t get one. Yet, I’m thankful for the experience. It’s given me a glimpse and an understanding into the most intrinsic part of who I am. I’ve loved sharing what I’ve uncovered and discovered with my family. And, at the end of the day, it sent me down a remarkable road of discovery.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll sign off saying it again with some pointers about DNA testing.

  1. Before taking a DNA test (either autosomal or YDNA/mtDNA) – be ruthlessly clear in your own mind about what question you want to have answered. This will determine the best type of DNA test for you .
  2. Do your research on DNA testing companies and facilities. Read every comment and review. Ask family and friends or Facebook family history/genealogy groups for their opinions.
  3. Read the fine print. Find out all of the limitations for each and every DNA testing company you research. What information, exactly, can they provide. Don’t be afraid to email a company and ask for confirmation of this in writing.
  4. Understand that DNA testing is still in its relative infancy. This is a nice way of saying manage your expectations. DNA is still a relatively unknown country. If you approach your results as being indicative/relative – and not absolute truths – you won’t go too far wrong. Always be skeptical about ‘big’ claims.
  5. Keep an open mind about what you will discover. If you’ve ever been whisked away on a surprise magical mystery jaunt – think of DNA testing like that. Just sit back, buckle up and enjoy the journey without thinking too much about what the final destination is. Just know it’s going to be good/interesting.

 

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Can you really pinpoint DNA Ancestry in Africa to one tribe?

If you’re African American, can you really know what tribe you come from? It’s a question I’ve been fielding via email and through comments on my blog. My posts about Gedmatch’s admix tools seem to have prompted this question, which I’ve been happy to field. So I decided to blog about it.

I look at the question this way. Each of us has sixteen 2x great grandparents. We also have thirty-two 3x great-grandparents. Even if all of these people were 100% of African descent , the chances of all of them being from the same tribe is, well, exceedingly, incredibly, rare. To the point of being impossible.

We are the children of many tribes.

I get the psychological need for the children of former slaves throughout the Americas to identify with a tribe. It’s a pretty basic psychological need for any people without an ancestral identity to reclaim a lost and stolen past.

However, as I recently pointed out to a Mrs C from Chicago, even those from a European background aren’t off the hook either in this regard. I’ll explain using the analogy I used for her.

Say Joe Blogs, whose immediate ancestors were born and raised in Inverness, Scotland, had an Etruscan ancestor (the modern Tuscan region of Italy). That ancestor had descendants who, in turn, became Romans – still in the Tuscan region. Think about all the myriads of peoples and cultures that were a part of the Roman empire and who either moved to Italy or were brought back to Italy as slaves. The chances are, Joe Blogs’s Roman ancestors would have intermingled with any number of people and cultures without ever having to leave the region of their birth. Say, for instance, one of these Roman Tuscan descendants entered the Roman army and was sent off to Gaul (modern France) and stayed and took a wife from the local population there. Over the centuries their descendants would come to be part of the kingdoms of the Franks (proto France) and the Germanic tribes. And let’s not forget the Celts lived there too.

In a few generations, some of these Franco-Germanic-Celtic ancestors moved to Normandy, where they intermingled with the Viking populations who had settled there. And one or two descendants of these Normans hopped across the English Channel with William the Conqueror when he invaded England. They’re still Norman however, chances are, they inter-married with the conquered Anglo-Saxons to keep the local and regional peace. One or two generations down the line and some of their descendants make the move to Scotland and Ireland.

And, that’s not throwing in the added mixtures of Pict and Scandinavian that were floating around Scotland.

So what does that make Joe Bloggs, who self-identifies as Scottish? Technically, it makes him an Etruscan-Roman-Frankish-Germanic-Celtic-Norman-Anglo-Saxon-Irish-Pict-Scandinavian Scotsman. Along the road to become Scots, his ancestors would have had vastly different senses of identity.

Or to use a very simple example, even if you identify as French or German – what kind of French or German are you? Looking at the map below, it’s worth bearing in mind that most countries are relatively modern inventions. Each one of these Franco-Germanic kingdoms in the map below would have been distinctly different from one another. Each would have had its own identity, customs and tribal affiliations.

It all serves the point that Europeans can’t claim a single identity either. In all likelihood, only the most ancient and remote tribes dotted around the globe can make such a claim.

My point? There isn’t a DNA test available that can answer that one question so many African descended people in the Americas so desperately seek an answer to: what tribe do I belong to? With so many of our ancestors contributing to our DNA from all over Africa, it’s a fundamentally impossible question to answer.

America is indeed a melting pot. For those with an African heritage, it is most definitely an African melting pot.

I think the most honest answer that any such test can offer is a percentage breakdown: x% of your DNA comes from ancestors who lived in what’s now ‘Country A’, Y% of your DNA comes from ancestors who lived in what’s now ‘Country B’ – and so on and so forth. It may, in all likelihood, connect you to many tribes who share a common language (e.g Bantu speakers).

Which is why I have problems with articles like this one: Pinpointing DNA Ancestry in Africa http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2011/10/tracing_dna_not_just_to_africa_but_to_1_tribe.html

My African DNA has travelled from East Africa through Northern Africa (YDNA) and through Central Africa (mtDNA). If I limited myself to the era when Africans were first transported to the Americas, I’m still genetically connected to an area spanning from Angola, up the western coastline, and all the way around to Tunisia. That’s the result of generations of marriages among my African-American ancestors whose ancestors came from so many different parts of Africa. I honestly believe that as more African descended people from the Americas test their DNA, a more reflective picture of the African diaspora will emerge.  Western Africa may have been the main egress point for Africans to the New World. That, however, doesn’t  mean the vast majority of slaves had to come solely from this region.

The various images below show long-established ancient land and sea trade routes within Africa. People, spices, precious metals, minerals, food, etc were all transported throughout the continent.

African trade routes in the early Islamic Era

I’m going to use a simple analogy.  It’s a crass analogy and a bit brutal. Followers of this blog are pretty savvy readers, so I trust that you’ll get why I’ve used it. In it’s heyday, the Mississippi River transported all manner of goods from the northern states to ports in the south. Just because the goods left from a major port like New Orleans, doesn’t mean that all of the goods were produced in Louisiana, Alabama or Arkansas.

I would be highly skeptical of any company making claims it can provide a sole tribal result. Again, DNA just doesn’t work that way.

All I do know is where I would have been born In Africa, had my ancestors not been enslaved, is anybody’s guess. There are some cool places that are contenders. I’m resolved to never knowing a specific country or tribe. I’m just enjoying finding out more about the African countries my DNA is tied to. Understanding this, my sense of identity doesn’t come from a tribe, but through uncovering my family’s American history. It comes from re-connecting lost branches of my parents’ families to the overall family tree. And meeting relations from these lost branches. This, in and of itself, has been a powerful and transformative experience.

Being able to slowly and steadily undo what centuries of American slavery accomplished – the breakdown and destruction of enslaved families – has been largely cathartic. It’s like giving slavery the finger: My enslaved ancestors do have a history. I am connected to something far greater than myself. Try as hard as the American slavery system did to erase their identities, my African descended ancestors did leave footprints. Those footprints may have been hard (sometimes nigh on impossible!) to find…but I found them. And I’ve shared them so they’ll never be forgotten. For me, this is as valuable, more valuable, than having the name of a tribe. It’s what I mean by giving slavery the finger.

The video below has the worst title imaginable. Bear with me and just ignore the poorly thought-through title. The video itself makes a good point. You can visibly see how important reclaiming identity is for African Americans. DNA testing companies need to provide far more transparency about the information they provide in terms of African results.

DNA testing is an invaluable tool. I’ve written often enough about my own experience. The value of the outcome depends on what your objectives are. You could be stitching your family tree together and re-connecting with lost family. Or you might want to have an understanding of the peoples and cultures you’re connected to through your DNA . Testing is a powerful experience for either of these goals.

If, however, you are seeking a tribal identity, it’s best not to spend your money.

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Filed under AfAm Genealogy, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Genetics

The online etiquette of meeting newly discovered relations from different ethnic groups

So you take a DNA test. And you discover that you have fairly close relations of a different race/culture. What on earth do you do? Ok, what I actually mean is what do you do if you’re American. Emily Post and The Lady didn’t see this one coming. They offer no pearls of wisdom.

You can always start with a friendly ‘Hello’.

There are no etiquette guides to steer one through making contact with newly found family members when they’re of a different ethic group or culture from your own. Especially for Americans. So I let that stalwart of British virtues guide my hand – good old fashioned common sense.

Meeting Sheffey and Roane relations from the white side of the family tree has been a most excellent adventure. And affirming. All those quirks and foibles I thought were inherently my family’s is, actually, fairly common among the Sheffey clan: free thinking & outspokenness (sometimes to our detriment), the fighters of good fights, an entrepreneurial drive and a bent towards being socially minded…and a seemingly mystical  reverence for the Sheffey name. All of these qualities are shared on the European descended and African descended sides of the family. Both sides of the family have embraced one another. It’s been a brilliant thing to see so many branches of the family meeting each other online and sharing laughs as well as family stories.

I haven’t met many Roanes from the European descended side of the family. Those that I have met online have freely shared what they know about their Roane ancestors. By that, I mean wills and tax lists which cite the names of the slaves that their ancestors owned. This has made my family research a thousand times easier. With each new document, I continue to  narrow down the potential candidates that could be my 4x Roane great-grandfather. The Roane family’s tastes for refinement, a certain élan, observance of proper conduct and again, a pride in the family name, also resonates strongly with me. If this is indeed part of my Roane family inheritance, it probably explains my ability to get on rather well in Britain.

I haven’t met many European descended Joseys online. The few I’ve met live in Scotland, the Josey’s homeland. Oh yes, and a Josey descendant in Australia. Meeting Josey family descendants and chatting to them online leads me to believe it is from them that I inherited a fascination for science. In their day, the Joseys held some of the highest medical and scientific offices in the British Empire, generation after generation. In the tine of the Scottish and English Stuart Kings and Queens, they were also savvy courtiers and politicians.

I think the key to establishing these successful cross-ethnic contacts successful was down to my initial approach. There’s no getting around it, when it comes to my American European-descended relations, the slavery issue is an awkward one. This is largely due to how America has chosen to address it, or rather how it has chosen not to address it (oh how I can hear Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter et al gnashing their teeth!). It’s tricky enough making contact with the descendants of people who owned peoples’ African descended ancestors. But when the owners of those enslaved ancestors were also their blood kinsmen and kinswomen, well, that just adds an extra special twist. Just let that idea rattle around inside your head.

It’s like that awkward moment on a date when both parties are thinking ‘are we going to kiss or not’.  I like to get the awkwardness out of the way early on rather than have it hang like some proverbial Sword of Damocles. The longer you leave it, the longer you ignore the elephant in the room, it just becomes this thing that it shouldn’t be. It kind of takes on a life force of its own, that thing that’s ignored. So what I say usually runs along the lines of:  ‘Look, the world was what it was in those times. That was then and this is now. I’m just saying hello and I hope to find out more about our family.” And that ‘our family’ is important. For me, it sets the context of everything. It frames the conversation. And it puts the recipient at his or her ease. They understand where I’m coming from.

One thing about online etiquette, I suggest always re-reading what you want to send someone (email, in-box messages on ancestry or whatever family tree service you use, DNA testing sites, etc) before you send it. Even read it out loud. I receive so many messages – too many, actually – that have an aggressive tone. The majority of the time this tone isn’t intended. Just remember that the person on the other end of the message doesn’t know you, hasn’t ever met you and can’t see or read your facial expression when they open that message or email. Politeness, respectfulness and friendliness go a long way. See – pure Roane right there!

One last bit of genealogy etiquette advice. So you’ve done a DNA test and you’ve emailed people you’re genetically matched to. And someone doesn’t respond to your email or message. Let it go. Their silence doesn’t mean they aren’t excited or intrigued to hear from you. There’s a reason that holds them back from responding. It’s that simple. Frustrating for you, no doubt, but we have to be respectful of other people’s privacy and reasons. Focus on the people who do respond.

In closing, what’s been truly amazing is corresponding with people I’m genetically linked to who live in a completely different part of the world. My Genebase mtDNA and Y-DNA results have linked me people literally all over the globe. I’m in touch with a Jewish cousin who lives in a small town in Hungary, an Egyptian cousin who lives just outside of El-Mahalla El-Kubra, a cousin who lives in the Dominican Republic and one more who lives in Belo Horizonte in Brazil. The last two are also descendants of enslaved Africans. Given the DNA data, it would appear that I share a common Tuareg male ancestor with the chap in Brazil and a common Berber female ancestor with the lady who lives in the Dominican Republic.

We’ll never know the names of the common ancestors we share. The common ancestors I share with each of these cousins were alive anywhere from 25 generations ago (the case with the cousins in Brazil and the Dominican Republic) to 50+ generations ago (the others I mentioned). If you take a generation as being 25 years, that’s a common ancestor who lived around 625 years ago. In the case of 30 generations of separation, that’s an ancestor who lived 1,250 years ago. I have one match on my father’s side who lives in Iran and we’re separated by around approximately 99 generations – 2,475 years ago. I’d love to hear from my Iranian cousin but respect that he hasn’t replied to my email. Given that he lives in Iran, there are probably all manner of reasons why he hasn’t.

So, when making an initial approach to a newly discovered relation…how you say something is as important as what you say.

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Filed under AfAm Genealogy, ancestry, genealogy, Genetics, Race & Diversity

The problem with sub-Saharan Africa and DNA analysis tools

This is the first post in a series that covers issues I’ve experienced with reporting of sub-Saharan African results in DNA analysis. This series of posts will have a particular emphasis on DNA testing for African Americans. Over the next series of posts, I’ll be looking at the strengths and weaknesses of DNA admixture analysis tools – with tips for things to look out for.

I recently had the opportunity to upload my Ancestry.com DNA results to Gedmatch.com. And what a revelatory experience Gedmatch.com has been. To be honest, this DNA analysis service is proving fascinaing. There is just so much to explore and comprehend. I have been doing a LOT of research in order to get my head around all of the information Gedmatch has provided.

My experience with Gedmatch has better enabled me to finely tune a quibble I’ve had with my Ancestry.com results. Don’t get me wrong, Ancestry’s DNA test has done exactly what I wanted it to – put me in touch with distant (and not so distant) relations from my various family lines. It’s allowed me to find my 4x great Sheffey grandfather. And it put me on the right track towards identifying my 4 x Roane great-grandfather.

My niggle with Ancestry’s results has to do with my admixtures and the countries it genetically tied me to. These results were always going to be general in nature. Ancestry.com states as much. The quibble I had has to do with Africa. And my recent experience with Gedmatch has allowed me to better understand the nature of my quibble.

DNA test results are based on data sets. These data sets are compiled by DNA test result databases. A database can only be as precise as the data that’s put into it. In this case, precision DNA results rely on large numbers of a population 1) having a DNA test and 2) those results being added to a data set which is imported into a database. For instance, a data set with 200,000 DNA results from the Baltic region of Eastern Europe will provide more precise insights than a data set of 50,000 individuals from the same region. It also depends on how each individual is classified and sub-classified (i.e. Bulgarian, Caucasian Bulgarian, Central Asian Bulgarian, Altaic Bulgarian, etc).

This brings me to my quibble about Africa. The way African DNA test results are classified, you would thing Africa was one large country populated by a homogenous people. This simply is not the case. The continental African population is arguably one of the most heterogenous populations. The admixture analysis tools and reports I’ve used on Ancestry.com and Gedmatch simply don’t reflect this diversity of African peoples.

For instance, I know that the central African pygmy populations have contributed roughly 2% to my genetic makeup. This comes from my mother’s mtDNA as well as through my paternal grandmother’s DNA as evidenced by my Genebase Y-DNA and mtDNA tests as well as my father’s mtDNA test.

Now where things get tricky is what’s classed as ‘Sub-Saharan Africa.

image of the map of African
Ancestry.com, along with a number of Gedmatch’s DNA analysis tools, takes the literal approach: all countries below the Sahara desert. Genebase, on the other hand, does not. Genebase, for instance, has categorized the territory from Western Sahara to Niger and south to Nigeria as Northwestern Africa. On its service you will also find North Central Africa, West Africa, Eastern Africa, Central Africa and so on and so forth. These sub-classifications of Sub-Saharan regions (and its peoples) allows for far more accurate interpretation for DNA analysis purposes. It’s also much more meaningful.

Based on this classification, my 18% African result is primarily spread across: Northwest (4%), Western (2%), Northern (5%), North Central (3%) and Eastern (4%) Africa. This is more meaningful that either a report that simply says 18% African or 12% sub-Saharan African, specifically.

For someone who is developing a travel-adventure series based on his DNA results, I’m a stickler for DNA reporting accuracy.

Gedcom & the MDLP DNA analysis tool

So first up is the MDLP DNA analysis tool which can be found on Gedmatch.

MDLP is a bio-geographical analysis project for the territories of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Lithuania should have been my first clue. It was only after I saw the first set of results that I discovered that MDLP was designed for individuals with European and some Eurasian ancestry (mostly Finno-Uralic and Altaic). This tool is not recommended for inferring African-American, East-Asian etc. ancestry.

You’ll see why this tool wouldn’t be particularly useful to peoples of a largely African or East Asian ancestry:

MDLP World-22 Admixture Proportions

MDLP-World-22-results

Population  
Pygmy 2.63%
West-Asian 3.99%
North-European-Mesolithic 0.53%
Indo-Tibetan
Mesoamerican
Arctic-Amerind
South-America_Amerind 0.09%
Indian 1.86%
North-Siberean 0.31%
Atlantic_Mediterranean_Neolithic 13.71%
Samoedic
Indo-Iranian 1.61%
East-Siberean
North-East-European 12.89%
South-African 0.78%
North-Amerind 1.38%
Sub-Saharian 54.86%
East-South-Asian
Near_East 5.30%
Melanesian 0.08%
Paleo-Siberian
Austronesian

The sub-Saharan results were all out of proportion to what I already knew. Which made me go back to do some more research on this particular analysis. That’s when I found it was created to actually analyze European and Eurasian admixtures. Basically, this tool takes quite a literal and generous view of what’s meant by sub-Saharan.

However, where this tool has been interesting, for me, is in analyzing exactly what it was meant to – my European and Eurasian admixtures.

Variations of this test can be found below. Each has a different emphasis. I’m still researching what the emphasis of each actually is. There isn’t much information available. My DNA contact is off doing his research about this series of tools. The basic clue is in the name: “proportions”. However, I’m in the dark about what’s being proportionally measured – or why results for each geographical region can differ so staggeringly from one sub-test to another

If anyone out there actually understands what aspects of a person’s admixtures these analysis, feel free to post in the comment section below.

MDLP World Admixture Proportions

MDLP-World-Admixture

Population
Caucaus_Parsia 5.26%
Middle_East 5.45%
Indian 2.04%
South_and_West_European 17.20%
Melanesian 0.07%
Sub_Saharian 49.22%
North_and_East_European 11.00%
Arctic_Amerind 0.74%
East_Asian
Paleo_African 8.48%
Mesoamerican 0.56%
North_Asian

 

MDLP K=5 Admixture Proportions

MDLP-K=5-Admixture

Population
East-Eurasian 24.68%
West_Eurasian 4.08%
Caucasian 32.99%
South-Asian 12.02%
Paleo_Mediterranean 26.24%

 

MDLP K=6 Admixture Proportions

MDLP-K=6-Admixture

Population
South_Asian 11.92%
Caucasian 32.59%
North_West_Eurasian 4.29%
West_Eurasian 1.85%
Paleo_Mediterranean 26.01%
East_Euroasian 23.34%

 

MDLP K=7 Admixture Proportions

MDLP-K=7-Admixture

Population
Volga_Uralic 3.78%
Paleo_Mediterranean 25.80%
Altaic_Turkic 22.87%
South_Central_Asian 11.78%
Caucasian 32.27%
Paleo_Scandinavian 1.97%
West_Eurasian 1.54%

 

 MDLP K=8 Admixture Proportions

MDLP-K=8-Admixture

Population
Altaic_Turkic 22.81%
Paleo_Scandinavian 1.38%
South_Central_Asian 11.65%
East_European
West_European 10.73%
Caucasian 25.41%
Paleo_Mediterranean 24.75%
Volga_Finnic 3.27%

My question with the above results is: Where has the Eastern European from the other results gone? It disappears from this point onwards.

MDLP K=9 Admixture Proportions

MDLP-K=9-Admixture-Proportions

Population
Paleo_Balkanic 0.39%
Caucasian 25.06%
East_European
Volga_Finnic 3.32%
South_Central_Asian 11.62%
Paleo_Mediterranean 25.54%
Altaic_Turkic 22.72%
West_European 9.97%
Paleo_Scandinavian 1.38%

 

MDLP K=10 Admixture Proportions

MDLP-K=10-Admixture-Proportions

Population
Altaic_Turkic 22.62%
South_Central_Asian 11.56%
Paleo_North_European 1.28%
Paleo_Mediterranean 25.44%
Iberian 5.23%
Caucasian 23.00%
East_European
Paleo_Balkanic 0.40%
British 7.42%
Volga_Finnic 3.05%

 

MDLP K=11 Admixture Proportions

MDLP-K=11-Admixture-Proportions

Population
Paleo_Balkanic 0.39%
Celto_Germanic 7.37%
Caucasian 22.80%
Volga_Uralic 1.22%
Iberian 5.04%
Altaic_Turkic 22.56%
Paleo_North_European 1.27%
South_Central_Asian 11.47%
East_European
Uralic_Permic 2.55%
Mediterranean 25.34%

 

 MDLP K=12 Admixture Proportions

MDLP-K=12-Admixture-Proportions

Population
East_European
Paleo_Mediterranean 25.19%
Iberian 5.08%
Caucasian 22.52%
Uralic_Permic 2.63%
Balto_Finnic 1.21%
Paleo_Balkanic 0.37%
Celto_Germanic 7.23%
Paleo_North_European 0.25%
South_Central_Asian 11.48%
Volga_Uralic 1.27%
Altaic_Turkic 22.77%

So, while not particularly insightful for my African DNA associations, it has been very insightful for others. The Paleo Mediterranean results are largely in line with my Genebase results and incorporate my results associated with Sicily, Smyrna (Greece), and what we would think of as the Phoenicians (Malta, Cyprus and present day Lebanon).

The other Paleo findings are new. So I’m definitely looking to finding out more about them.

I remain absolutely fascinated by my Altaic and Caucasus results…a probable legacy from the ancient Silk Road trade route.

If you’re African American and your Ancestry.com or 23andme results are showing European and/or Eurasian results, this DNA analysis tool is worth investigating.

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Using the right DNA testing tool to answer the right ancestry question

UPDATE: 25 June 2014. My ancestry.com DNA results are in. You can read about the results here: https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/ancestry-com-dna-test-answers-one-fundamental-question/

I’ve received a couple of emails over the past 18 months or so asking how I approached my decision to do a DNA test. I thought it would make an interesting – and hopefully helpful – blog post.

DNA tests can answer quite a few fundamental questions:

  • Who am I related to?
  • Where did my ‘immediate’ ancestors come from (e.g. ancestors within the past two to a dozen or so generations)?
  • Where did my ancient ancestors come from?
  • What countries are my ancient ancestral ‘homes’?

No one DNA test can answer all of these questions. Like any tool, we get the best performance from a specific DNA test only if we’re absolutely clear about what problem we’re seeking to solve. You wouldn’t use a screwdriver instead of a hammer to nail two planks of wood together. lol well, you might… just expect results that might be a bit different from what you intended 😉

And believe me when I say DNA tests are tools – tools from a very interesting genealogical toolbox.

When it comes to DNA testing, there are basically 3 kinds of tests to choose from. Each is a distinctly different tool which solves / answers a specific question.

So what kind of DNA tests are out there?

Autosomal DNA Tests

An Autosomal DNA test looks at both your paternal and maternal lineages together. This kind of DNA test will include results that will determine any of your direct family relations from both of your parents’ ancestral lines on your family tree. In a nutshell, this means this kind of test includes DNA results that includes you, your siblings and descendants, your parents and their siblings and descendants, your grandparents and their siblings and descendants, and even your cousins and distant cousins.

The example below from Ancestry.com displays the possible matches / results which stem from an autosomal test:

Autosomal DNA testing tree

Autosomal DNA Tree (from Ancestry.com)

Many Autosomal DNA test will provide a result for your ethnicity. Not all of them do. So it’s important to read the fine print.

None, as far as I’m aware, provide results for your ancient DNA results (e.g. ancestors who lived 3,000+ years ago, for instance). This kind of test isn’t engineered to look at your ancient admixtures. Nor will it provide clues about your ancient ancestors’ migration pathways as humans began to leave Africa and the Middle East to populate the rest of the planet.

Think of an autosomal test as a lost ‘modern’ kinsman finder. It’s a great tool to use if you have gaps in your family tree that fall within the last couple of hundred years or so.

Y-DNA Tests

A Y-DNA test looks exclusively at our direct Paternal male lineage. Basically, this means it goes from a male DNA tester to his father, to his father, to his father, and so on. This is illustrated in the tree below:

 

Y-DNA Tree (from Ancestry.com)

Y-DNA Tree (from Ancestry.com)

A Y-DNA test can only be taken by males. It’s not a sexist thing – the Y chromosome only exists in male DNA. This test provides information about your family’s ancient male ancestry by reviewing the testing male’s predicted haplogroup, which will provide information about your male lineage’s ancient origins.

Y-DNA matches are determined by the number of marker values (alleles) a man (let’s call him Male A) taking the test shares in common with another male (Male B). This kind of DNA test will tell both Male A and Male B if there is a Y-DNA match in their paternal line. As a tool, it not only provides information about ethnicity and admixtures – it can lead two men to directly trace a common ancestor.

Because this specialized tests gives you information about your direct paternal line, it limits the number of ancestors you can learn about. On the one hand it provides a wealth of information about our male ancestors’ and their descendants. On the other hand, it cuts out all of the women in our family tree.

Worry ye not, for there is the third test which addresses this…

mtDNA Tests

An mtDNA test looks specifically at our direct Maternal female lineage. Basically, this means it goes from you to your mother, to her mother, to her mother, and so on. This is illustrated in the tree below:

 

mtDNA tree (from Ancestry.com)

mtDNA Tree (from Ancestry.com)

The mtDNA test can be taken by a male OR a female. Both genders inherit mitochondrial DNA from their mother. While a mother passes her mtDNA on to all her children, only her female children, in turn, pass it on to their children.  Just to be clear, only the daughters within a family carry the mtDNA forward in perpetuity – solely through their daughters, generationafter generation. If a woman gives birth only to sons, like my paternal Roane grandmother did, her mtDNA legacy stops with her sons, who do not pass this on to their children regardless of the gender of their children. Men can do a lot of things – passing on the mtDNA they inherited from their mothers isn’t one of them.

An mtDNA test provides information about our ancient maternal ancestry. It essentially tells us where the females in the maternal line migrated to when they came out of Africa. Our maternal DNA matches provide haplogroup comparison and may not be as generation-specific as our Y-DNA test, since the mtDNA has been passed down relatively unchanged for 20,000 years. This does provide fascinating information about our maternal ancestors’ migration path, and can give you clues to commonalities between your family tree and others with which you are sharing research.

Now back to me…

I had a long think about what genealogical problem, what genealogical question, I needed answering when I decided to do my first DNA test. At the time, I was far more interested in discovering my ancient roots. I wanted to learn more about the global cultures I was linked to at the genetic level.

The question, quite literally, was: who on earth was I related to?

So I did an mtDNA and Y-DNA test at the same time. The answer these two tests provided to that question gave me a peek into my most ancient roots. It was the right tool for the right job. These specific tools provided answers which, without exaggeration, changed me forever. I see the world, my place in it, and the rich tapestry of human cultures around the globe in a fundamentally different way than I did before I took these two tests. The mind-expansion bit was a bonus. The question I had answered was only achieved because I was very clear in my mind about what it was I wanted to achieve.

An autosomal DNA test just wouldn’t have achieved this. They aren’t meant to. It’s not what they were designed for.

Autosomal time!

The time has come for me to delve into the waters of autosomal DNA tests. Why? I have spent years building an enormous family tree courtesy of Ancestry.com. By enormous, I mean there are around 13,000 so individuals are included within it. There are gaps in and amongst the various branches of this extensive tree. There are also what I refer to as ‘orphan’ branches. My orphan branches are lineages that I have researched but have been unable to connect to the main family tree. In short, I haven’t found the common ancestor within the past 150 years or so to assign an orphan branch to its rightful place on my family tree.

These orphan branches frustrate me no end. It’s like they sit there taunting me every time I log into Ancestry.com. So I’m tackling them from a different angle. If i can’t locate the records I need with the necessary information to solve these genealogy puzzles…I’ll hopefully find descendants from these branches who can provide the answers. That’s where the autosomal DNA test comes into play.

Through Ancestry.com, I’m also in regular contact with a number of people that I know I share a common ancestor with…we just don’t know who that common ancestor was.

In this scenario, an autosomal DNA test is the appropriate tool to use.

My Ancestry.com DNA test kit

My Ancestry.com DNA test kit

Now I ummed and ahhed about which one of the (staggering) number of autosomal tests to use. In the end, it made sense to use Ancestry.com’s DNA test. The results will be integrated with my family tree on Ancestry.com and covers my maternal and paternal lines. It also puts me in touch the descendants of long lost kin who share a common ancestor with my kinsmen and kinswomen.

For any number of reasons, I haven’t found all of the present day descendants from all of the branches in my family tree. This kind of test can also help provide some answers to this family research problem.

If it provides even a handful of lost pieces to my Ancestry.com family tree puzzle, it will be well worth the price.

I’ve just mailed my test sample back to Ancestry.com. It will be a few weeks’ time to see what results it yields.

Last but not least…

National Geographic Society's Geneographic Project website

The National Geographic Society’s Geneographic Project website

At some point in the near future, I will be taking yet another DNA test. This DNA test is part of the National Geographic Society’s The Genographic Project https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com. This test is basically a Y-DNA and mtDNA test. So I don’t really expect to make any new discoveries through it. The information this last test provides have already been accomplished by my Y-DNA and mtDNA tests. I’m doing this last test as a kind of genetic science philanthropy – adding my own DNA sample to the database the National Geographic’s project has built and continues to build. It’s my wee bit for science.

I’ll also feel like I’ll be doing my bit to help support the Genographic Legacy Fund, which works to conserve and revitalize indigenous cultures around the world. And as you’ll know from my posts about the cultures I’m genetically linked to, I share DNA with some pretty rare and protected cultures in India, Central Asia and Africa.

So my parting words about DNA tests?

  1. Be very clear about what genealogy question you want answered or what genealogy problem you need solved. This will determine which of the 3 kinds of DNA tests covered in this post will be the right one for the job.
  2. I wouldn’t advise doing all 3 DNA tests at once. Believe me, this can be mind-bending and life altering stuff. You’ll need time to reflect and really think about what you’ve learned (it’s been almost two years between me doing my Y-DNA and mtDNA tests and then doing the autosomal DNA test that I’ve literally just done). I would suggest doing the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests at the same time.  The order you take your DNA tests should be determined by Point #1 above.
  3. Do your research on the DNA test services you’re thinking about using. Google the companies for customer satisfaction reports, customer complaints, reviews and any news articles. Seriously. I did nearly four months of research before committing to the two companies that I ultimately chose. And I am so glad I did. Like anything on the internet, there are DNA testing sharks, scams and shoddy services. Will the test do everything you want and/or need it to do? Again, always read the fine print.
  4. Think about the level of disclosure you’re prepared to give online…to absolute strangers. Yes, you may share your DNA with people your DNA testing will point you towards. However, they will be strangers. Everyone has his or her own comfort levels. What’s yours?
  5. I’d advise you to never, ever give your home address. If and when you eventually meet these new relations, you will hopefully be able to gauge whether you should give this information or not – and when. I’d also suggest never giving your landline number either, not until you meet. As for mobile numbers, I have hard and fast rules which work for me and my comfort levels. As for sensitive family information (names of your children, grandchildren, family secrets, etc), each person will have his or her line in the sand / threshold.
  6. Notwithstanding Point #5 above, DO engage if you decide to use a DNA test service that puts you in touch with distant relations. If you select a privacy option that enables other members to contact you via the service, and a member you share DNA with sends you a private message through the service, acknowledge the message. If you’re not prepared to engage with people who share your DNA, you will need to ensure that you select the privacy option which prevents this from happening.
  7. Many DNA testing services provide members with a Profile Page. If you have any limits, this is a great place to (politely) put them. You can put things like: “Let’s exchange emails first before we exchange numbers” or “I prefer to use Skype rather than phoning” Use your Profile Page to politely draw your line in the sand to avoid any unintentional transgressions.
  8. Always remember your tone of voice when you’re online. Writing in caps equals shouting. Re-read everything you’ve written to ensure it is clear – and not likely to offend, isn’t open to misinterpretation, and doesn’t convey aggression, rudeness, etc.

I haven’t really found any online DNA testing service site etiquette guides…so I hope some of the points given above are helpful :O)

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Genealogy Adventures goes Pinterest!

I’ve ummed and ahhed about whether to go the Pinterest route…and I’m pretty glad I did.  Thanks to my sister for convincing me about the merits of this format.

I’ve written quite a bit about my DNA results (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/tag/dna-tests/ ). I thought it would be kind of fun to use Pinterest to cover the same topic in a more visual way. Seeing something somehow makes things much more real for people rather than just reading about them. So I’ve created one board showing the peoples & cultures I’m connected to through my mtDNA results (the DNA I inherited from my mother) and another one for my Y DNA (the DNA I inherited from my father).

In my naiveté, I thought there would be a simple and straightforward way to add the boards to this post.  No such luck.  lol and yes, I’ve looked at the tutorials and videos. As soon as WordPress fixes this oversight/glitch, I’ll come back and add the boards as nice widgets. In the meantime, please fin d the links to the individual boards below:

What’s lurking in my Y DNA Pinterest Board: http://www.pinterest.com/genealogyadvent/y-dna-so-whats-lurking-in-my-y-dna/

What’s lurking in my mtDNA Pinterest Board: http://www.pinterest.com/genealogyadvent/mtdna-so-whats-lurking-in-my-maternal-dna/

I’ll be doing a Pinterest board on my father’s mtDNA results at some point this week 🙂

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Filed under family history, genealogy