I’m going to step away from “documentary” genealogy — which focuses on written records — and talk about DNA or genetic genealogy, which is gaining much cultural attention.
Is this complicated?
One doesn’t need a biology or genetics degree to take or even understand DNA testing. Every cell in our body is made of DNA — and every single DNA segment comes from our ancestors.
We are literally the embodiment of our ancestors, randomly mixed together — and that DNA is a window into finding them. Because of this principle, you don’t need DNA from your great-great grandparents, although if you can get DNA from your parents or grandparents, you’re ahead of the game (we’ll talk about who to test later.)
One question I get asked — or you should ask yourself — is why take a test? There are a number of answers, but first it’s important to distinguish between genealogical and health reasons.
Many DNA tests offered today are for health purposes, but there’s only really four major companies that do genealogical DNA tests. Most health tests are not helpful for family history purposes — but several of the genealogy testing companies offer health results in addition to genealogy.
Health testing is mostly for testing genetic predispositions to health issues, i.e. cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc. The results are not predictions, but rather tell you about your chances of developing a medical condition or illness. It’s strongly recommended you talk with a genetic counselor about your results, regardless of what they are, unless you have a robust genetics background.
Can it really tell me where I’m from?
People interested family history take DNA tests for several reasons, but let’s first talk about what’s not a good reason. When doing genealogical DNA testing, you get back two kinds of results: ethnic estimates and matches.
Thanks to the proliferation of DNA ads on TV, most people are convinced to test to determine their ethnicity: Should you wear a kilt or lederhosen? asks one ad.
For most Jews (and others who know their ethnic background), this is not helpful, and will be disappointing. Many of us get our ethnic estimates back and it tells us we’re 95-100% Ashkenazi Jewish (AJ) or Eastern European. “Big whoop — I spent $100 to find out what I already knew? Oy.”
So don’t test just for that reason. (By the way, a lot of folks are testing and are stunned to find out they are partially Jewish, and had no idea.)
For people who have a diverse (or unknown) mixture of ethnicity, the results can be useful. The estimates are very accurate on the continental level (i.e. European, African, Asian, Native American, and so on), but it gets dicier on the regional level, let alone country specific. If you’re looking for your results to say Lithuanian, Hungarian or German — well, don’t hold your breath. For a variety of reasons, that level of specificity is not to be trusted — at least not yet (it’s improving, slowly.)
You will get to see a “heat map” of the areas your ancestors are likely from, which will show regions that are relatively trustworthy. But again, the average Jew probably already knew that.
Oh, and don’t concern yourself about the trace amounts — anything under 5% is something you’ll likely not figure out and may be even more inaccurate.
Really, why take it?
So, why do a DNA test? Reasons include adoptions or unknown parentage; to verify family connections; confirm or rule out family stories; solve family mysteries — or just find cousins. It’s that last one that can be most rewarding.
We’re trying to match ourselves to living people who have already taken a genealogy DNA test. That will hopefully lead to finding unknown branches or go back further in time to common ancestors.
So, the ethnic estimates are probably the least useful part of the test, but the match list you get (which I’ll discuss in the next part) is the most useful part.
Keep in mind that while DNA testing is a very powerful genealogical tool that can break through brick walls in the absence of records, it can’t prove anything without some documentary (or paper) genealogy. We should always be using both methods to supplement each other.
This will be a multi-part series, because there’s a lot to it, and the rewards can really be worth it. I’ll be talking about how the testing works, the different kinds of DNA and companies, which is the best test, privacy concerns and more.
For future columns (unrelated to DNA), I’m always interested in what you want to see covered. What general topics or questions do you have about researching your family history?
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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