So you want to know more about your paternal ancestry. Maybe you don't know your dad, or paternal grandfather. Maybe you know your paternal line for the last 10 generations, but want to connect to living cousins or get an idea about your genealogy from beyond written history. And maybe you don't know what the difference is in genetic tests and expect this to do something it won't. I'm here to help.
So I've talked about it before: my father's father (my paternal grandfather) was illegitimate. We knew it, but didn't talk about it. We had a surname possibility, but no leads and the man in question definitely denied paternity. Before genetic genealogy, this branch was essentially a dead end. Now that there are relatively affordable direct-to-consumer DNA tests, I can find out more about this line.... if I can get a male in the family to agree to do some testing. I can't test myself, because I'm female.
|This is my family tree (my brother the home person). As you can see, I don't have information on my paternal grandfather's father. A Y-Chromosome test could potentially lead to some answers.|
If you don't know Bryan Sykes, you need to get on the ball! He's pretty much "The Man" in genetic genealogy. He's also written several books that can go deeper than any one blogger could even imagine on the subject of genetics. There are many in the field, but he's going to be a name you need to know (like Anjou when talking royalty). At the very beginnings of genetic genealogy, Sykes researched men with his surname and looked at four markers on the Y Chromosome to see if they matched in any significant way. They did. Another study used the Y Chromosome information for men with clear Jewish lineages from the Cohen surname. Again, it was believed that these men would be more closely related to each other than to the average man off the street. They were and this lead to more refining of the methods of mapping and grouping the mutations of the Y Chromosome. The methodology was expanded and improved until it was finally offered to regular people by a company named GeneTree in 1997. In the early days, the market (and technology) was all about paternity testing. It's grown from those four simple markers to up to 111.
So why is this a male only test? Why did research focus on men only? First, the basics: the Y Chromosome is male-only. A father passes it to his son. The son passes it down to his son. The "markers" we talk about are STRs (Short Tandem Repeats). The longer the segment, the closer the match. Because the Y Chromosome is specifically from father to son, it was a perfect way to test theories on genetic inheritance. The 22 autosomal chromosomes can swap information between pairs and pass information from both parents down to the child, leading to confusing results. The first research used good old fashioned family history and new fangled DNA testing to prove men with the same surname were related. This was then expanded to prove how small groups of men were related farther in time to other groups of men (connecting people together to a time before surnames existed).
All men are considered to be related to "Y Chromosome Adam". This is the MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestor) for all men in the entire world. Depending on the study and the theory in action, a DNA company's report will have "Adam" as living anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 years ago. As "Adam" had sons, those men separated and populated the world. Occasionally a mutation would occur. These became haplogroups. These groups further broke down into smaller communities with their own mutations. When a man is tested, he finds out his haplotype. Basically, he learns what subset of what community of what group of what branch of "Adam" he belongs to.
Let's put this another way any genealogist will understand. Consider "Adam" to be Adam Smith. Mr. Smith has two sons, John Smith and James Smith. John travels to West Africa and starts a family there. James prefers Asia. John has two sons, Caden and Casey. Caden heads to Europe; Casey sticks around in Africa. James also has two sons, Michael and Mordecai. Michael heads so far east, he ends up in North America. Mordecai heads from Asia to Australia. So you're doing your family research into the Smith line and you find out that your grandfather Moses is the son of Mordecai. You will be more closely related to the great grandsons of Michael than you will be the great grandsons of Caden. And because of this closer connection, you know more about the migratory pattern of your family. You can focus your efforts on other Smiths who have history in Australia even if they don't know how they connect to the tree of Adam. And any adoptee who uses DNA testing and finds out they are the descendant of Mordecai can compare their results to yours (if you choose to make them public). The closer you are related to the adoptee, the closer they get to knowing where their paternal line started.
Choosing What Family to Test
What Company to Choose
Family Tree DNA (ftdna.com) has a sale for their 12 marker test right now. That's only 12 markers, so it will give you cousin matches from 29 generations ago. Genealogically useless, but it's a start. And they store your tests so you can upgrade later or order a different test, so the intro price is a great way to store the DNA of older relatives who may not be around when you're actually ready to test. There are three other levels (36, 64, 111) that are progressively more expensive. The more markers tested, the closer your matches will be. The 111 marker test can match you within 4 generations.
National Geographic also has a Y Chromosome test. The bonus of their test is that for $200, they test your father's line, your mother's line and your autosomal chromosomes. The drawback is the wait. I'm on 2 months of waiting to hear if they've even received my sample. And from what friends have told me, it'll be a long time before I get my results. If you're impatient to know the truth, this isn't the test for you. Still, the value is worth the wait. While Nat. Geo. won't directly connect you to relatives (they are doing it as a scientific "how we all relate" kind of study), you can take your results to several other sites and connect to people who've taken tests on many platforms.
There are more, but these are the big two and should be the first you consider. With ANY large and important purchase like this, read as much as you can. Read their blogs, watch their videos. Find out how they test, how long results typically take, and what support they offer. Stick to sites that people know and trust. Watch out for sites with similar sounding names to popular companies. Make sure you are on the site you want to be on! Also note that some companies are strictly paternity tests. They will require two people to test to prove one is the father of the other (or that two men share a father). They aren't for genealogy research.
1. This is a male only test. If you are a woman, you can't take it. I'm sorry, I wish you could, but you can't. If you are an only child, this test will not be able to tell you about your father.
2. Because you may need to test another person, be ready to answer questions by doing a lot of research. Be able to tell that other person what company you are using. What the results may show. How they will participate (most tests require the subject not eat or drink before giving a sample). What the realistic turnaround time is. How you will use their results: Do you want to make them public so you can connect to living relatives or will you keep them private and are only satisfying your own curiosity. The more you know before you ask for their help, the more likely they will help.
3. The number of markers matters. Like I said, you can buy the introductory $49 test with 12 markers just to get your foot in the door, but you won't find much to help your research.
4. And more markers means more money. Even at the "high" prices, however, I'd like to point out how affordable DNA research has become in less than 20 years. We couldn't even dream of something like this a mere two decades ago. Be thankful that it costs as little as it does.
5. DNA test are non-refundable. Notice I used red, underlined an italicised bold-faced large font "non-refundable". If you don't like the results, tough tits. The labs aren't out to get you, that's your DNA.
Which brings me to my last caveat. The real big one.
6. Be as prepared as you can for a Non-Paternity Event (NPE). This means that someone's father isn't who you think it is. You could take the test and find out your father isn't your father. Or that your grandfather isn't your father's father. Or that a thousand years ago...... well, someone wasn't who they thought they were. And you can say all day you are ready and not be ready for it. I wish I could tell you how to prepare for such an event, but I can't. I can only tell you that it can happen and it does happen. If you can't see the man you called "father" as your father if your DNA says he isn't, then don't take this test! If you test someone else and find out they aren't related to the man they thought was their father........... God help you.
In the End
Now, I know about at least one NPE in my father's line. I've taken an autosomal test and my brother has taken the National Geographic "full service" test. When all the results are in, I'll be able to compare autosomal segments and confirm we are full siblings (really, we look like twins, and we both look like our father, so I'm not really worried). IF we are, I can then use his Y Chromosome results to connect to people who are related to our grandfather's real father. My father has no interest in knowing anything about this. In fact, he worries for everyone taking these tests, not myself specifically. He worries about those folks finding the NPE and having an identity crisis. And I tell him, "it happens". Some people can't handle it. But it's like taking a trip to a foreign country or learning to ski. You can either handle the challenge or you can't. And you don't really know until you try. Still, he doesn't want me to try. And I respect his opinions, but I'm still curious. He may not want to know about his "real" grandfather, but to be honest, neither do I. I am curious about the possibility of finding living relatives, but I asked my brother to take this particular test just to know without connecting to others. I had my brother tested via National Geographic and Family Tree DNA. Like I said, I'm still waiting on National Geographic. FTDNA, however, is a little quicker. I only did the 12 marker test, so again, not going to tell me about my great grandfather. BUT I did notice that the majority of matches had the same surname as the rumored father of my grandfather. Not conclusive proof, but encouraging. I could pay for the upgrade and know more, but I am willing to wait for the full results from National Geographic.
And what about telling dad? Well, I've decided not to. I've approached him about a test for his mother's maternal line (to be covered in the mtDNA test post to come), but even that is getting pushback. So he's not interested, fine. And if I find out my brother is not my brother? I've already made the decision to keep that to myself. My brother has no real interest, but supports my genealogy obsession. His reward will be to only hear the good stuff. I want to test some cousins on the Ancestry.com autosomal test. That isn't male specific and won't tell me about their paternal lines definitively, but could indicate they aren't related to me and/or my brother when I compare the results. Will I tell them of an NPE? NO. I may think my father is over worrying the situation, but I agree with him on one thing: it's not my place to break that news. I've asked my mother to choose some cousins on her side to test. I told her about NPEs. At first she said, "oh, well I have a half-brother, but we'll test my sisters' kids instead." I know what she was assuming. That being her sisters, we could all be sure that their mother was their mother and we weren't really worried about their father's side (at this point). I had to remind my mother that if her sisters have a different father, my cousins won't come up as a match to me. She agreed that if that happens, no one knows that but me. Even she doesn't want to know that one. But she still wants two cousins tested. If all goes well, she wants herself and two sisters (one half, one full) to be tested. And to know more about her father, we're trying to contact her father's very elderly brother. Again, with the understanding that I could find out that they aren't related and that no one but me will know that. You'll have to make that decision for your family too. Talk to your close relatives and be open to their concerns. You'll know best if they can handle the whole truth.
But first you need to know if you can handle it.