Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Back to Adam is now passé

I received a note from a friend who is involved in DNA testing and she noted that 2.4% of her genes come from the Neanderthal Man. I haven't see this on a pedigree chart yet, but I am sure that it is only a matter of time. For the life of me, I cannot see any social advantage to proving Neanderthal ancestors. What if your test for Neanderthal DNA comes up negative? What does that mean? In any event, I think this is a pretty good response to the back to Adam pedigree claim. Oh, your ancestry only goes back to Adam? Mine goes back to the Neanderthals, John (b. appx. 10,000 B.C., d. (deceased)) See Scientific American, "Finding My Inner Neandertal."

I guess the larger question that these claims raise is what this has to do with genealogy? There are some areas of genealogy that I try to avoid writing about for the reason that they are emotionally charged issues with no clear relevance to most genealogical research. DNA testing is one of those areas.

My position on the relationship between DNA testing and genealogy is fairly simple. If your verifiable, source supported research takes you to a point where there are two or more possible ancestors and if you can verifiably locate descendants of the remote ancestors, DNA testing of the descendants may help establish which of the remote ancestors, if any, are yours. Of course, DNA testing is commonly used in both civil and criminal law cases to "prove" all sorts of relationships. In fact, all 50 states now have a law guaranteeing DNA testing to those convicted of crimes. See "With Passage of Oklahoma Bill, DNA Testing Guaranteed in All 50 States."

In the discussions about DNA testing related to questions raised in a genealogical context, I am not too sure that very many of the people obtaining the tests understand the results or even why the test may be helpful or not. The claims made for DNA testing are quite broad. Here is a sample claim:
Now, one simple DNA test can give you incredible new details about your unique ethnic origins. Recent advances in DNA science — plus the best of family history — mean you can make entirely new family history discoveries.
I guess my question is, without the groundwork of detailed, verified research into the existing records, what does this really tell me or anyone else? Let's suppose I took a DNA test and it showed I had certain percentage of an identified ethnic group. Let's further suppose that none of my research shows that particular connection. What am I supposed to do about the DNA results? Here is another statement made in the context of an advertisement for a DNA company:
I am so happy to have taken the DNA test as it solidified my findings and gave us the TRUE ancestry of my family!
With my own English, Scottish, Scotch-Irish, Irish, Welsh and Danish ancestry, I am probably related to a good portion of the entire population of the United States. I have thousands upon thousands of cousins. I don't really need DNA to tell me that I have cousins, I can walk into any gathering of people in Arizona and probably find someone I am related to.

One of my concerns in writing on this topic is that my own lack of perceived need for DNA testing will unduly influence my views on the subject. I don't see any particular downside issues with DNA testing other than occasional surprise ancestry and if you have the interest and the money to spend. Go for it. But don't stop doing basic research on your ancestry.


  1. I have to agree that a lot of people get their DNA test results with very little guidance as to how to interpret them, particularly as to how they might relate to their genealogical research. But if you’re lucky you’ll find a DNA surname project where your results are compared with others who share your line. If your DNA is a close match with someone, your surnames are the same, and your most recent common ancestor is – say – 12 generations back, then you have each confirmed your “paper trails” back through those 12 generations. Yes, verified, source-supported research is still crucial. But more often than people realize, those sources can be wrong. Y-DNA STR testing can give you the satisfaction of knowing which segments of your tree are validated.

    I am a volunteer administrator for three surname projects. We see about 1 in 5 of our Y-DNA testers who – despite good documentation – discover they are not descended from the common ancestor. With enough testers in their line we can help them narrow down where the “non-paternal event” occurred, and give them tips on where to redirect their research. The majority of our participants, though, are delighted to be able to confirm their patrilineal lines.

    -Margaret Press
    Towne, Bearse and Press Y-DNA projects (FTDNA)

    1. Thanks, I think you agree with me that the basic "paper" genealogy has to be done to validate the DNA evidence. Even if the answer from the DNA testing is negative. But without the background research into the family lines, DNA testing provides few benefits. I hope I have stated this correctly.

    2. Absolutely agree about background research. We had a DNA project participant who believed he was related to our Towne family but his paper trail had gone cold with his great-grandfather and he couldn’t find his connection to our Townes. Recently (6 years after he was tested) we finally had a new participant whose STR mutations agreed with his (more closely than with our 44 other Towne participants). Since the new participant knew his own paper trail, this helped us isolate a potential line and geographic area to investigate. I was then able to find records that provided the missing link. The problem had been a first name change along the way. We pieced together several documents (censuses, death certificates, etc) that make a good case for this being the correct line, but with the name “Towne” being so common we first needed the DNA data to point us to the right part of the haystack. DNA doesn’t give you answers. It gives you clues.

      Just one of our success stories.


    3. I think your example illustrates my point exactly. Thanks for sharing your insight.