More often than not, when I tell people that I’m a genealogist and storyteller, the first thing most people think of is that I work for companies like AncestryDNA or 23andMe and process people’s DNA.
That’s fair, considering the number of genetic testing commercials we see on television and online ads these days. This is one of the first introductions many of us have to anything remotely related to genealogy.
Well, I definitely DO NOT do that. I am more of a paper-trail and storyteller researcher. Finding someone’s family history, their story, using documents and family storytelling. However, DNA testing results have been incredibly useful and sometimes pivotal in my research, helping people to see that they are indeed supposed to be here (#YoureSupposedToBeHere). And, I do know a bit about the basics of genetic testing when it comes to using it for my research.
The Power In The DNA
I remember when I received my first DNA kit, my stomach started to flutter. This was only early 2018, I had been researching in other ways for a while now. But this was different. Stories and papers were one thing, but the body doesn’t lie. What was I going to find out. It took more than a month for me to finally open the packet, spit into the tube and ship back to the company.
My friend was doing it to find out about her ancestral make-up (as she puts it in her own words she is a “mutt”), and I thought, why not. I also didn’t realize that I could also potentially be finding out about more cousins or family members.
DNA testing has come a long way. For starters, it used to be very expensive to get DNA testing done- going to a special lab and getting your blood tested. Today, it’s a simple as spitting into a tube.
I knew that it could take up to 8 weeks, but I still impatiently checked the company’s app daily to get the updates.
In about 5 weeks, I got my results back. Safe to say I wasn’t entirely surprised by the results of my ancestral make up (until the most recent update of the database. See what I mean below in the subsection called “DNA Databases”). But I was shocked to see how many people I was genetically related to all over the world. I don’t recognize many of them. I still have yet to integrate them into my family tree!
But as I see how many people I am related to, I realize truly how interconnected we ALL truly are, and yet share a unique lineage at the same time. How we each really are a piece of Tapestry of History. I was just looking at some of my Ancestry DNA matches, and even myself, I’m stunned to even see that I have not-so-distant relatives still in my own ancestors’ homelands.
Other people I have worked with, this has helped them to find long lost family. It has helped them to connect with a part of themselves that they felt like was lost. For some, it has unleashed unknown (and sometimes unwanted) stories about the family. It has allowed people to find each other and connect to one another. It has unleashed ancestral wounds and caused new bonds to form.
Results tap into something almost vibrational in our bodies when we see the results and the people we’re related to.
How DNA Works
Types of DNA
The 3 main types of DNA that are often tested in the bigger named companies are mtDNA, Y DNA and autosomal DNA.
mtDNA- Known as mitochondrial DNA, this type of DNA only gets passed down from the mother, however, it gets passed down to BOTH daughters and sons (but since only the mother passes it down, the daughter would be the only one to pass it on to her own children).
This type of DNA very rarely mutates or changes between generations, so testing this type of DNA can actually help researchers to recognize the relationship between different populations (such as between Northern Africa and Asia and Europe).
This type of DNA can also help you to see your ANCIENT maternal ancestors known as maternal haplogroups. If you share a maternal haplogroup, you would share the same ancient ancestors.
Y-DNA- This is passed down from the biological father to the biological son ONLY, so biological daughters do not get this from their fathers.
This type of testing can also explore ANCIENT paternal ancestors, but because Y-DNA also mutates more frequently than mtDNA, it can also help in finding genetic matches and how long ago two people shared a paternal ancestor, and testing proposed relationships on the paternal line.
For women doing this testing, if you want to know more about your Y-DNA, have a biological brother (someone who was born with a Y chromosome), a brother’s son, your father or your paternal grandfather tested to learn more about this line of the family. You can learn more about your paternal line this way by adding it to your own DNA results online.
AUTOSOMAL DNA- This type of DNA gets inherited from both parents. You receive 50% from your biological father and 50% from your biological mother. Since you don’t share the exact same 50% with your siblings, this is why you don’t look exactly the same as your brothers or sisters (unless you are identical twins). This is where 22 out of the 23 pairs of chromosomes come from (23 is the general xx or xy chromosome pair which generally determines the sex someone is assigned to at birth).
How Autosomal DNA gets passed down
I’m going to make this as simple as possible!
While Y-DNA and mtDNA are passed down pretty much unchanged between each generation as explained above, autosomal DNA is constantly changing. It undergoes a process called recombination. The DNA each parent inherited from the previous generation literally gets mix and jumbled up. Half of the mixed up DNA gets randomly “chosen” to be passed down to the next generation- either as is or and possibly recombine with the other parent’s DNA and gets passed down to the next generation.
You would share about:
50% of your DNA with your parents and full siblings/your own children
25% with grandparents/grandchildren, aunt/uncle/niece/nephew/half-sibling
12.5% with great-grandparents/children, first cousins, great-aunt/uncle/niece/nephew, half-aunt/uncle/niece/nephew
6.25% with first cousins once removed or half-first cousins
3.125% with second cousins or first cousins twice removed
1.563% with second cousins once removed or half-second cousins
.0781% with third cousins or second cousins twice removed
For most DNA databases, the results pertaining to the relationship between people, especially with today’s technology is very accurate. But, as genealogists, we’re often urged to use caution when using DNA results for ethnicity estimates for specific countries and regions since these are much less accurate.
They also can often change dramatically from company to company. The ethnicity estimates are based generally on people self-reporting, the human genome and the number of people in the database to compare certain genetic markers with. The results don’t mean they are totally wrong, it just means there is less accuracy with ethnicity estimates. However, a DNA company might have updates in results over time. What I first submitted is now slightly different than when I first submitted.
Many websites (not all) will allow you to take your DNA results from one database and upload it to another database. One person shared that one company had a very different ethnicity results than the other, even when using the exact same DNA result. It’s just something to be mindful of.
While I am not an expert of epigenetics, I didn’t wanted to finish off this blog without discussing this. Epigentics is a study of cellular memory that basically talks about how memories and experiences don’t just live in our minds, but also within the cells throughout our entire body. This can be something that happened to us many, many, many years ago AND it’s also believed that this can be passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes it manifests in emotional or psychological dis-ease, or even physical (like cancer or disease).
Twice in my life I had major abdominal surgery- once for cancer of the kidney and once for a twisted colon. And something internally told me that this was a physical manifestation of something that had happened many generations ago. I didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t mine. I felt like I was letting go of a burden someone in my family tree had been carrying for many generations.
DNA really is like an incredible code of unlocking ourselves. It is definitely a part of the puzzle to understanding who we are. Not just as physically, but relationally, emotionally and, do I even daresay, spiritually.
If this is something you’re interested in doing, here are some resources and companies for ancestral DNA testing. Each company has something different to offer so make sure you do some research of your own. And there are also sales throughout the year as well.