In early 2018 we made a series of posts on how to use the multiple “Shared Matches” in AncestryDNA to narrow down the DNA line that connects you to them. The challenge was that often they have no trees, or small trees that don’t come anywhere close to matching your (much more complete!) tree.
This strategy was a way to use mirror trees to match them to themselves, which should indicate a Most Recent Common Ancestor for them, and in all likelihood to be your MCRA as well. For this series we broke down a large set of matches (5000+) to Felice’s mother, to try and establish her first DNA link outside of the immediate family.
There were all of the challenges we all face with African American genealogy (fewer family histories to draw off of, smaller trees, difficulty with 3x/4xGGP’s due to the “1870 Wall”, etc.), and in this series we found the MCRA…but we failed to find the link between them and our family. However, about a year later we broke through that wall, and we’ll be following up on that shortly. In the meantime, here’s the complete series in one page:
In September we wrote about what is a common problem in the genealogy community: not enough time to balance work, family, and our research. We took a radical step and decided to stop working on our family tree, so we could instead focus on wrapping up other projects and to get our research, citations, and document/photo collections in order.
It’s been 7 months since wrote that piece (Link)…here’s how the plan’s going:
Keep blog posts to 500 words (Grade: F) – Our last post was almost 2000 words, our average since September is about 1000, AND we have been lucky to post 2 times a month instead of publishing weekly like we intend. Lots of work to do here.
Clean, scan, and store the 2000 glass plate negatives from the Home Studio Collection (Grade: B+) – We decided not to clean them, we have the storage taken care of with all of the proper archival products. However, we got to about 70 plates scanned in October and stopped. It was too much time per plate. In response, in the last 3 months we purchased a lot of equipment to scan these more quickly and we were able to process 225 plates in about 2 hours last time we tested. We are about to finish the first crate of plates (~440 images) in 10 days! We’ll publish more details when we’re done.
While we are scoring a GPA just over a C, it’s mostly because of we failed at our primary approach of stopping work on our Family Tree.
Install a temperature/humidity control solution in our archive room (Grade: A) – It’s done! Our archives have spent the last 5-6 months at 62-65 degrees, and 42-45% humidity! There will be more work to do this summer, to cool/dehumidify the space, but we already have the controls in place.
Ensure each Source in our main, Public tree is properly cited and every Fact is supported by at least one Source (Grade: Inc) – To be fair, we started on this effort, beginning with 4xGGP Royal and Eliza (Jones) Morse (whom we’ve owed this documentation to the Morse Society for 2 years now!) 4 times, but the Family Tree Maker data corruptions kept setting this effort back (MacKiev’s Family Tree Maker is garbage). Once we got past that, we’ve made some progress, but we lost a lot of effort on this one.
Properly transcribe and index all family history interviews (Grade: C) – We’re half way there! But the last set of transcripts will be the hardest.
PUBLISH! (Grade: F) – Out blog posts are lagging, and we haven’t actually published anything outside of blogging. We’ve been reading some great family histories though, to get an idea of how others publish their stories, so we have good ideas once we’re ready!
Write our autobiographies, as well as begin to write out what we know about our family (Grade: F) – Yeah, so…we’ve written nothing. Looking back, this probably should have been left off the list…we were just setting ourselves up for failure.
Ensure that we’re printing out all electronic sources, so that our paper files are complete copies of our electronic files (Grade: A) – We’ve been pretty diligent on this one, and while we’ve had to redo a lot of electronic source citations, we did print them all out as we created them.
Spend a little more time with the family! (Grade: A) – We could have made a lot more progress on this list if sacrificed this one, but we’re spending more time together as family now than when we first wrote this.
While we are scoring a GPA just over a C, it’s mostly because of we failed at our primary approach of stopping work on our Family Tree. Instead, we shattered our largest brick wall (while adding nearly 40 new DNA matches) and made a huge dent in another brick wall. Much more on that will follow, but both efforts took a LOT of work, and those hours spent working on the trees directly slowed down the other work we hoped to accomplish.
That said, we’ve rededicated ourselves to getting these other tasks complete so we can finally turn our full attention to building our tree. Our properly cited and sourced family tree!
We promised to keep this series as science-free as possible, and instead focus on the practical use of AncestryDNA tests to identify your ancestors. We’re going to keep that promise here, but we want to say a few words about other types of DNA tests you can’t get from Ancestry, and how xDNA, yDNA, and mtDNA can be useful! Just remember, we’re generalizing a bit here, and if you want the detailed science behind all of this, Google has many great reads.
yDNA and mtDNA
yDNA and mtDNA come only from your father and your mother, respectively, and change very little over the generations. These tests are often written off in the genealogical community, because they won’t, by themselves, lead you to how you are matched with someone, or how many generations back you might match them.
For example, if our Michael has a yDNA test and he matches “Frank” who shares the same yDNA…it tells us next to nothing. From the test we know that on Michael’s paternal line we have proved he’s matched to Frank…but there’s no way to tell how. It could be 1000 years ago we all had a MRCA, or it could be that Frank’s 4xGGF was a brother to ours, but there’s no way that kind of range will narrow it down by itself.
There are two uses of yDNA and mtDNA, however, that makes these some of the most powerful tests you can take:
Unlike “ethnicity” estimates we see from all the major testers, yDNA and mtDNA can be very effective in pinpointing very accurately the location of your ancestors on the planet. The standard (Autosomal) DNA tests from Ancestry rely on a small global sample of historical DNA (16,000 samples currently), and human created Family Trees, to mathematically try and guess where our ancestors were 800-1000 years ago. They are looking for little shreds of DNA to trace back, and it’s very small amounts because Autosomal DNA gets cut in 1/2 for each side of a lin ever generation. However y/mtDNA doesn’t change over the generations and so we know very accurately where those ancestors were, based on where the bodies were found. This is especially important for African American genealogy, when there are nearly no records of origin before our ancestors were taken from Africa. These tests can be very accurate, and place your ancestral group in to very small physical and/or social (tribal) locations.
Brick wall research
In our example above, we know for a scientific fact that Michael and Frank share an MCRA along their paternal line. The same is true for women who have an mtDNA match. While that again doesn’t help us much if we have no information, it’s invaluable if we have a good guess on how we’re related. Let’s go back to our DNA Painter walkthrough to see how we wish we had yDNA and mtDNA tests.
To recap from last week’s post, we have two lines of DNA tests that we know are connected, and we have narrowed down the MCRA for both a cluster of AncestryDNA matches and on our line, but we don’t know how they connect. So, we have two couples (Jacob/Maria Kupsch, and Joseph/Dorothy Haasl) that we know match, most likely 2-3 generations above them. Each of them have 8 potential match relatives, and we have 4 known relatives, so we’re facing 32 ancestors that might be our MCRA.
But, if we can confirm the y/mtDNA from those 4 relatives, whom all died over 100 years ago, because that DNA doesn’t change between generations. That means a direct male relative from Jacob (say his son’s, son’s, son’s, son’s DNA) will confirm Jacob’s yDNA. Same for Maria, and a direct female relative. If we could yDNA test relatives of both Jacob and Joseph, and mtDNA for both Maria and Dorothy we would have about a 25% chance of finding an immediate match. And, if say Maria and Dorothy share the same mtDNA we just figured out we need to focus our research only on both of their maternal lines to make our match. If we don’t find that match, we just eliminated 25% of our potential match points, so now instead of building out 32 ancestors to find our match, we’re down to 24. But even better, if we can go one level up and do the same thing, we can eventually narrow this down to where we share an MCRA.
It would be highly unlikely we could ever build out a family match with xDNA, and the cM you share with someone tells you almost nothing about close of a match you are with them. The main value of xDNA is if you do match someone, it narrows down your link to that match in a very powerful way. xDNA is inherited in a unique pattern that going back several generations can eliminate more than 50% of your tree as a potential match.
Women will inherit an X chromosome from both their mother and their father, but men will inherit an X from only their mother. Going back to High School Biology, we quickly remembered that women have an XX chromosome, while men have XY!
But, the value for us comes in when we build out our potential ancestor’s chart, using that inheritance pattern. So, if we have a female test subject who has an unknown xDNA match, we know it’s not from her Father’s Father’s line because men only inherit their X from their mothers. Going back 2 generations, we just eliminated 25% of the potential matches. If you know, from other research, that this unknown match is on their father’s line, you just confirmed it’s on the father’s mother’s line.
You won’t see a lot of xDNA matches, but when you do, Google one of the many xDNA inheritance fan charts, and start to see if you can eliminate suspects in how you match. It could bring you much closer to where to hunt for your MCRA.
Just know that all of this work will have to be in GEDmatch however, since AncestryDNA doesn’t provide any information on the details of your genetic matches, and none of the tools needed to view/manage this information.
As we approach Christmas 2018, and given the massive push to have cheap DNA tests given out as gifts this season, it seems natural to finally write a series on how to make genealogical use of a DNA test you, or your loved one, may have just taken.
We’re going to start with the very basics on how DNA testing works, and walk through both how to leverage AncestryDNA to track down ancestors as well as using GEDmatch and other advanced tools to go even deeper.
Assuming you have a few weeks before the test results are in, here are a couple of things to learn and prepare before you dive into the matches.
First, understand that while the commercials like to highlight the joys of learning your ethnicity, DNA testing raises serious issues that will likely come up as your journey progresses. You may uncover family relationships, both inside and outside of your family, that could have serious negative impacts on people. We’ve uncovered children born outside of marriages that were never known to the family, and we know of adopted children who were outed by tests where their parents had never told them. We wrote about an example of this last year (Dangers of DNA Testing).
Second, they key to effectively making matches will be a good, solid family tree through the test subject’s 4x Great Grandparents. Most of your matches made will be through 3x or 4x GGP, and in a perfect world the match will also have a good tree so the link will be obvious. We can’t over state this, or stress it enough: your success/failure of matching DNA tests from unknown relatives will rely on the quality and depth of your tree. We’ve walked through how to build a good “quick and dirty” Public tree on Ancestry (Building a good Public Ancestry.com tree – Part One: sources, citations, facts, and proof), and the process would be about the same on other sites, many of which are free.
It’s also important you have the tree available publicly…many of your interactions are going to be about exchanging trees to build a match. It’s ok if you have just a skeleton tree with basic information(names, date of birth/death, locations, children, etc.), but it will be key that you have something available publicly.
The main new term/concept you’ll need for effective Genealogical DNA research is a measure of distance: centimorgan (cM). Now, it’s not technically distance…but for all intents and purposes, it’s used as a measure of distance.
What does cM measure?
Centimorgan measures length of DNA strands. More specifically, it will be used to measure the length of matching DNA segments between your test and a test that is a genetic match. For example, you have roughly 6800 cM if you take all 22 chromosomes and strung them out end-to-end, and your matches will have varying levels of matching DNA, measured by centimorgans.
How do we use centimorgans to identify matches?
Since you get about 50% of your DNA from each parent, your DNA tests will match a test from your parents with about 3400 cM. You will match a Grandparent with about 1700 cM (50% of your parent’s 50%). The more cM you match someone, the closer a relative they are, and the more likely that you will confirm a match with them.
We’ll use both charts from ISOSG (The Shared cM Project table) and an interactive version of that chart from the DNA Painter site (Shared cM Interactive Tool), which both break down the average cM to expect with various relatives, and helps us identify where to look to establish a match. For example, if a match is 311cM then we can guess they match the person with the DNA test at around a 1st or 2nd cousin…which means our common ancestor is likely a Grandparent or Great Grandparent, which narrows down our search!
So, there’s the first part of this DNA journey. There’s a little homework while you wait for the test results, a basic understanding about how we’ll actually leverage the DNA to make matches, and why your basicGenealogy and a solid family tree will be key to this process. Next week, we’ll go over what to do when you first get your DNA results!
We could see it coming…back in March of 2017, one of our first blog posts was about Ancestry.com’s new tool “We’re Related” (We’re Related app is a lot less frivolous than it first appears). It was a bit of a “hot take” about how it was less silly than it seemed and how it could be very powerful if it’s expanded to a tool that is predictive of your matches.
We’re Related is making suppositions based (apparently) on an algorithm that can draw the line between what you know, and what it guesses is true, to build a potential line for you. If this technology is ever leveraged against some of my brick walls instead a gimmick like linking me to Blake Shelton, Ancestry might really be on to something.
Before we take any victory laps…we have to admit, we were incredibly naive. We never guessed that Ancestry would take this powerful technology and use it to take it’s worst, most frustrating feature, and make it much more dangerous.
The new feature is the “Potential Father/Mother” suggestion, and I’m going to let Carolynn ni Lochlainn detail all the challenges of this new tool, and the risks, in her SPOT ON “From Paper to People” Podcast #27 (From Paper to People: What I Hate About New). Please listen, but her upshot is that this feature is an easy way for those new to genealogy to quickly build out their trees, and the tool forces you to create the ancestor without any sources attached.
One of the biggest drawbacks of Ancestry is the Public Trees that are so often inaccurate, and are often built solely on other people’s unsourced trees. Now, it’s a certainty that these trees are going to start to mushroom, and by design have NO citations attached to the new ancestor.
Ever wonder why Ancestry has delivered even more accurate admixture and even prettier graphs, but none of the tools needed to do serious genealogical research? It’s because there’s no additional revenue from genealogical tools.
The good news is that we as serious users can avoid the downfalls, and use the predictive part of this feature to do the research for us, but we must immediately attach the citations to any newly added ancestor. We, as a community, can also make sure we NEVER use a Member Tree to support a fact. You can link the Member Tree ancestor to yours, but make sure all facts are unselected before you link them. They will see your additional work, and you them, but you will not perpetuate their unsourced facts.
But, Ancestry.com isn’t packed full of serious hobbyists/professionals and “Potential Parent” is going to take the problem of Member Trees and make it explode it beyond what we could have imagined. At some point, the tree feature in Ancestry is going to be unusable. Ancestry.com will continue to be a great source of primary research, but it will be nothing more than a data repository for those of us who are serious about this work.
And, back to our naivety…the most frustrating thing is that we should have known better. Again, going back to our vaults, we saw right away that AncestryDNA is here to support genealogy ONLY because it’s a good way to gather DNA tests (Dancing with the Devil: The Tradeoffs of Modern Genealogical Research). Once Ancestry realized that pushing pretty graphs and “ethnicity” was the best way to sell more tests, they pivoted and met their true goal with these tests: the largest DNA database that will generate a tremendous amount of revenue from drug companies, etc. who can leverage your tests to understand how their drugs might work. Ancestry now (or soon will) make more money from monetizing your DNA than it does from supporting our genealogical work.
Ever wonder why Ancestry has delivered even more accurate admixture and even prettier graphs, but none of the tools needed to do serious genealogical research? It’s because there’s no additional revenue from genealogical tools, but putting more effort into the graphs will drive more people to test, which will grow the database, and grow the revenue stream.
As a community we have to get ready to accept that Ancestry is not a partner in our work, and is not in business to support us or our needs. They exist to generate revenue, and as long as that interest and ours intersect, we’re good, but as they make more money from other streams they are going to sacrifice our needs to focus on revenue. You’re already seeing that with things like “Potential Parents”, more admixture, and their new collections consisting of public records gathered at great expense by groups like Reclaim The Records and putting them behind the paywall.
The genealogy features of Ancestry are still there, for now, but the bad Member Trees we suffer through today are likely going to be remembered as the golden age of online genealogy research.