We are familiar with the use of DNA testing for forensic evidence and paternity disputes. We no doubt have also heard of situations where such tests have been used in controversial ways. But for genealogical research these tests can be helpful in tracing family, especially where the oral or documentary evidence is missing. In this second blog I would like to outline what DNA tests are and how they have helped me in my family history research.
When the historical records are not readily available
One of the most frustrating things I found with trying to trace my St Lucian heritage, was how difficult it was to find genealogical records. The country is now involved in a project to digitise this information and make it available on-line but at the time of writing it is still in progress. It is even more frustrating when you learn that friends and colleagues (in Europe, North America and some parts of the Caribbean) are able to, literally from the comfort of their homes, trace family trees going back decades and in some cases centuries.
I heard of DNA tests referred to in Genealogy programs like "Who Do You Think You Are?" or "Finding Your Roots". But I never gave doing one much thought until the day I had a conversation with a work colleague. We were talking about family history and he mentioned that he had taken a test which not only showed his ancestral roots, but listed a number of DNA relatives; these DNA relatives were potentially 1st to 4th and more distant cousins of his. This pipped my interest as it seemed to offer at least a partial solution to my research problems.
DNA and your Family Tree
We all belong to a biological family tree and it is possible to determine ancestry by analysing the DNA passed down generations. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. In the nucleus of each cell, the DNA is packaged into thread-like structures called Chromosomes.
There are different ways in which DNA can be of use in determining your ancestry. A person has 23 pairs of chromosomes containing DNA plus we have some more DNA that can be tested in something called the mitochondria (mtDNA). Mitochondria are organisms which produce a cell's energy. Chromosomes 1 through 22 recombine for reproduction. The 23rd chromosome pair are related to a person's sex and are designated as XX for a girl or an XY for a boy.
The following diagram shows the 23 pairs of chromosomes that each of us have:
Autosomal DNA passes down from all ancestors. Each person receives 50% of their DNA from each parent, but the allocation is random. So siblings born of the same parents will have different combinations of their parents DNA from each other.
Mitochrondrial DNA is inherited by all children only from their mother and provides a way to trace maternal ancestry.
Y-DNA represents the Y chromosome which men inherit only from their father. This can be used to trace paternal ancestry.
Finally X-DNA represents the X chromosome which both men and women inherit from their mother, and women only inherit from their father.
So there are DNA tests that can assess your Autosomal DNA, Y-DNA, X-DNA or Mitochrondrial DNA.
Where can you get DNA tests for Genealogy done?
A search on the Internet will provide you with a list of companies offering DNA tests. But which should you choose for genealogical research?
My first test was undertaken with 23andMe. You need to set up an account at the 23andMe website and order a testing kit. Once the kit arrives you just need to provide a sample of saliva and return the sample in a protective container. A few weeks later you will be notified that your results are available. They can only be viewed online, no certificate or other paperwork is sent out.
The second test was with AncestryDNA. As with 23andMe, you provide a sample of saliva and your results, when ready can be viewed online.
Both were Autosomal (Admixture) tests. Each providing a ethnicity breakdown showing which parts of the world my ancestors came from for both sides of my parentage. The tests also provided a list of DNA relatives - other people sharing similar elements of DNA. In addition 23andMe provided health traits and risks.
See the sections at the end of this article for a list of companies providing DNA tests for genealogy.
What my tests showed me
The Caribbean has a very diverse population. In this region you find ethnicities which include the indigenous Native American people, as well as those for people who have arrived from Africa, Asia and Europe in more recent centuries. I had no doubt of my African heritage but where on the African Continent did my ancestors come from and what else was I?
Both tests gave a fairly consistent ethnicity breakdown with 78% of my ancestry from Africa, approximately 20% from Europe and the remaining 2% representing Native American/Asian with some undetermined elements. I particularly liked that these tests also give me regional breakdowns.
23andMe only detailed the European element of my ethnicity.
AncestryDNA provided much more detail about all the elements of my ancestry.
The most surprising thing which came out of the results was how varied my regional makeup was. For instance the test suggests that I have African ancestors from the countries we now know as Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Congo. Benin/Togo, Mali and Cameroon/Congo being the main components. Wow - the "united nations" is literally written into my genes! The European variation whilst a much smaller part of my genetic makeup was no less surprising pointing to ancestry from Scandinavia and Western Europe!
Your DNA relatives
When two people share identical segments of DNA, then they share a recent common ancestor. The length and number of these identical segments can be used to determine the relationship between relatives. So it is then possible to find DNA "cousins" by comparing your DNA with others who have taken the same test. Both 23andMe and AncestryDNA tests provide such a list.
The 23andMe test put me in touch with a first cousin who I didn't know about.
Both my parents have taken a AncestryDNA test and my hope is that this will help to uncover other relatives.
But care must be taken
After a few generations (as little as three), the use of DNA to match relationships become more difficult. So test's which claim to match you with a historical figure should be treated with scepticism. Also DNA tests are estimates and the technology used is constantly evolving. So DNA test should be used to supplement other genealogical information you may have about your family or the region in the world they may have come from. It shouldn't be considered an end in itself!
So how has these tests helped me?
Seeing where in the world my ancestors came from has been very fulfilling.
Identifying a first cousin (the grandson of a paternal Aunt) has been one of the most important things to come out of my DNA tests. So as far as I am concerned, the tests can link you with relatives! I still have more work to do in communicating with the third to fourth DNA cousins identified by 23andMe and AncestryDNA, as we are very likely descendants of common second or third grandparents. My hope is that this could help me to extend by Family Tree learn more about my family history.
Organisations providing DNA tests for genealogical research
There is a wealth of information readily available about DNA testing for the purpose of uncovering your ancestors. Just carrying out a search on the Internet will return many results. Here are a list of some useful sites.
23andMe - http://www.23andme.com. Provide both genealogical and health related results.
AncestryDNA - http://dna.ancestry.com. Ancestry has possibly the largest and most widely used genealogical databases.
Family Tree DNA - https://www.familytreedna.com/.
African Ancestry - http://www.africanancestry.com/home/. Very popular with people of African decent in the west. They maintain a database of DNA samples from various Africa communities which can be used to match against.
The Genealogist DNA - https://www.thegenealogist.com/dna/.
Resources and further reading
Guide to DNA Testing: How to Identify Ancestors, Confirm Relationships, and Measure Ethnic Ancestry through DNA Testing by Richard Hill.
Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA by Richard Hill.
DNA: Family History Genealogy and Ancestry Research Through DNA Testing (Genetic Testing, Family History Genealogy, Ancestry Research, Ancestor, Roots) by Martin Arrowsmith.
In 2013 I embarked on researching the history of my family. The search for one’s past seems to be something of a hot topic nowadays. It seems that many of us are trying to understand how we have come to be where we are now. This is evidenced by the many books, courses and television programs on the subject.
Whilst some of the ‘great and good’ may have documented family histories going back decades or even centuries, most of us are not so lucky and have to work at finding our roots.
I know I arrived in the UK as a baby. My parents, both from St Lucia in the Caribbean, were just one of the many families from the former British Empire to settle in the British Isles during the twentieth century. But what else could I say about the history of my family?
In this series of blogs I will explain how and why I have undertaken this project. This will, I hope, be the first of many posts describing the work I have done and will continue to do. This will also be used to recognize the many contributions from family and friends, which has helped me in my search. Hopefully it will inspire others to start their own research.
Why did I start this work?
First, I wanted to know a little more about who I was. Not just in relation to parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. I also wanted to learn about those who have come before - my grandparents, great grandparents and so on. I asked myself - Who were my ancestors? Where did they come from? How did they live? What languages did they speak? What work did they do? What foods did they eat? What kind of music did they listen to and How did they dress?
Second, I wished to create something which I hope would be useful and interesting to other members of the family, not just those now living, but those to come after. I have always had a keen interest in history, but wouldn’t it be cool to have a view of the past in which one's own family were the main protagonist!
Last, my hope was to bring the family closer together. The number of times I’ve heard my parents talk about relatives that I’ve never met. This would be an opportunity to start communicating with those related to me living in other parts of the world.
A summary of what I did
It is very easy to start collecting family names and related dates, but the real prize is to tell a story. This only comes through doing the proper research. To learn how genealogical research was done I literally 'went back to school'. I read books and articles on the subject, attended seminars and watched videos.
Next I had to identify how I would record the genealogical information I would be collecting, and how would I share it with others. I eventually decided on two options for maintaining and sharing the family history.
Now I was ready to start recording information. I began with entering details of what I knew, namely my parents, my siblings and their families. Then I spoke with my parents about their siblings. I widened by research to cousins, uncles, aunts and I gradually started to construct a picture of my family.
I had to determine what resources I could use to help me further develop the story of my family. Subscribing to certain sites provided me with access to a worldwide searchable genealogy database of birth, marriage, death records and more. The message boards were another source of invaluable help. The St Lucian Archives were also useful as were funeral programs and obituaries as well as photographs held by family members.
We are familiar with the use DNA testing for forensic evidence and paternity disputes. But these tests can also be helpful in genealogical research. I took two tests with different companies and the results I received provided me with a picture of my genetic makeup and showed me which parts of the world my ancestors originated from. In addition these tests also made available a list of 'DNA cousins', people who had taken the same tests and had elements of matching DNA to mine. With this I was able to find a first cousin who I didn't know about!
Where am I now
I would say that whilst the research I have done so far, has been challenging and at times frustrating, it has also been very rewarding and enlightening. Just looking at the names of ancestors who were been born and lived a hundred or more years ago can really put things in perspective. I often wonder what our descendants will be saying or thinking about us in the future.
Another outcome of this work was that it has opened up avenues of communication with many members of the family. I am very indebted to those family members who have taken the time to contact me and provide items of information and photographs.
As older family members pass on, new members are born and the other thing that I have learned is that this will be a never ending task.