What is a Haplogroup? Roberta Estes has provided the best explanation, I think, in her blog DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy. Ms. Estes writes, “Haplogroup are a pedigree chart of the clans of humanity.” The International Society of Genetic Genealogy defines a Haplogroup as “a genetic population group of people who share a common ancestor on the patrilineal, or matrilineal, line.” Although there are small changes, called mutations, that occur in mtDNA over time basically matrilineal DNA remains the same for generations whether it is the sixth, or sixteenth hundredth grandmother. DNA research is useful but the real issue for tracing a maternal line is determining what the maiden names of the women were generation by generation. A DNA test can match people and then the people can share information about ancestors so you learn more about those people of the past, and find a surname for the woman. But being part of such a small Haplogroup meant that my odds of finding a match were lessened.
Frustrated, but undeterred, I turned to a ninety-year old female cousin on my maternal grandfather’s side as I wanted to see if we would find matches for that maternal line. She agreed to be tested and her results arrived quickly, with over a thousand matches. Not only did she have a plethora of matches, but also a large number of the matches were on the first to fourth cousin level. This test was most helpful for my grandfather’s maternal line that I was researching. It was not the same line but the test results gave me contacts and information about my grandfather’s maternal line. The connection with other descendants of my grandfather’s maternal line provided additional information about our ancestors as we shared our research. Some of the information was locations of where people were buried, and we found relatives of these women that we did not know prior to the DNA testing because we did not have the surnames for the woman’s family members. It is easier to follow a paper trail once you have names of other family members and not just the given name of a woman.
I eventually decided to test my DNA again in December 2011. I ordered the mtHVR2toMegatest + mtFullSequence which is the most complete and highest resolution test FamilyTree offers. This test will identify “the ethnic and geographical origin of the maternal and paternal ancestry.” My results, while not as spectacular as my cousin’s, were better this time. Over the years, as genealogy DNA testing has grown in popularity, and more people tested, my matches have grown in number. DNA testing helped me with specifically finding people in my lineage by looking at others who tested and our results had matches. We compared our family lines and found names that were the same.
A person still needs to know their common ancestor so research the paper trail as well. My advice to anyone is to search not only with DNA, but research the way it has been done by people for years. Collect the names of ancestors and research the people generation by generation as far back as possible using court records, census, church and other records. People should also test with the top three companies that perform DNA tests. Matches may vary due to the fact that not everyone will test with all the DNA companies, but it is still better to test with all three I think. In fact I have tested with FamilyTree, 23andMe, and Ancestry.
A Message from HudsonAlpha, sponsor of the “Adventures in Genealogy” department of Alabama Heritage:
Two basic questions lead consumers to DNA testing for ancestry: Where do I come from? Who is in my family?
A variety of DNA ancestry test programs on the market offer to answer both of those questions; however, there are still limitations based on privacy, uptake, and the tests themselves. On the plus side, some are now bundling information about health risks for genetic disease.
- Where do I come from? To answer that question, ancestry DNA tests compare your DNA markers to those of people living in different places around the world right now. So an answer of “45% Italian” means you are like people living in Italy now and not necessarily the ancient Romans. The information is meaningful to many, but won’t answer a true origination query. Both Ancestry.com and 23andMe offer a composition breakdown by percentage.
- Who else is in my family? Once you have DNA results and a number of “matches,” the natural next step is to reach out to those long-undiscovered family members and attempt to forge relationships—or, at the very least, introduce yourself and make your new cousin aware of the rest of you. While this is possible through various DNA ancestry programs, the information won’t complete or fully build out a family tree for two simple reasons. First, not everyone is DNA-savvy or interested in genealogy; entire portions of the tree may still be undiscovered. Second, many participants prefer to keep their individual family trees hidden on programs such as ancestry.com, so even if you know how many matches you have, you may not be able to access them.
Ancestry.com recently added a new feature that does provide some additional information for users. When you click the “i” that appears next to a match, it will pop up the number of centiMorgans you share with that match. A centiMorgan is a unit used to measure genetic distance. The more centiMorgans you share, the closer the common ancestor.
Genealogy fans who have painstakingly created family histories through research will ultimately find value in DNA testing for the holes it could help fill in.
Additionally, some companies are bundling health risk analysis with the ancestry information. 23andMe offers carrier status information for specific genetic diseases including cystic fibrosis, hereditary hearing loss, sickle cell anemia and others.
Particularly after the holidays, the amount of data available to family match-seekers is likely to see a surge as new tests are purchased and given as gifts within families. To answer the question “Who am I?”—that answer will continue to evolve.
Yvonne Shelton Crumpler retired in 2008 from the Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature where she had worked as a research librarian in special collections for 34 years. She is the co-author of Researching in Alabama: A Genealogical Guide, and she serves as president of the Alabama Genealogical Society.