Saturday, February 7, 2015

Why “Autosomal” is
the Best Place to Start

If you are considering DNA testing, like me, you may have thought the first step would logically be to determine the origin of your father’s father’s father’s line. I never was quite certain, on paper, whether my genealogical research had followed the twisted trail of my now-deceased father's family history, so I thought wheedling my brother into agreeing to participate in Y-DNA testing would help. It did—to a degree. I now have scientific confirmation that seeking my paternal roots in Poland rather than Ireland is right on target. But it doesn’t guide me to others who share my genealogical paper trail.

You might also have thought the first step in DNA testing might logically be to discover the origin of your mother’s mother’s mother’s line. True, this type of pursuit presents more challenges than following a line which includes a repeated surname, generation after generation. But again, the mitochondrial DNA test—or mtDNA for short—is better equipped to give a researcher the long view rather than that of recent history.

In my own experiments with DNA testing, the last test I tried—the autosomal DNA test—turned out to be the one I wish I had tried first. Here’s why: now that I’m closing in on seven hundred thirty six distant cousins among my “matches,” I get to enter a genealogical playground stocked with all varieties of relatives, from the immediate to the remote. (My brother clearly shows up here with a count of shared centiMorgans far outclassing any other relative who matches my results.)

Because of the company I chose to test with, I now have online tools to compare and contrast these hundreds of cousins. I can eliminate all but those matching with a specific ancestral surname, for instance, and see if I can locate the surname I and a specific matching cousin share in common, allowing me to study this mass of data from the perspective of clusters of common relatives.

When I toyed with the Y-DNA and the mtDNA tests, try as I might to manipulate the data, I could not find any way to connect the dots. There were no leads to guide me to how I matched another test participant in the testing company’s database. Stumped, unsure how to proceed—even after hours of attending classes on the subject—I ended up setting the whole project aside. Those highly honed scientific tests turned out to be useless to me. How frustrating to see that outcome for such an investment in time, study and money.

Using autosomal DNA test results, I was no longer stymied with the readouts I was receiving. Working my way from the known to the unknown, I could match people with the surnames I already knew, then use their confirmed matches to work my way to the fringes of our genealogical paper trail. For every DNA match I received from the testing company that included a family tree or surname chart, I could peruse the other party’s genealogical catalog of potential relatives. I could communicate directly with the matching person, requesting further detail to determine our exact connection. Once receiving a confirmation from that other person, I could then compare that known match with others who were similar. And start the process again, probing for familiar surnames, emailing the contact person, comparing notes to find a match.

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that, by using autosomal DNA testing, I’ve been able to isolate a relative from the line of my orphan second great grandmother, Mary Rainey, and begin to compare our mutual matches from that line. If that person also matches my other Taliaferro matches, that is possible confirmation that Mary Rainey was indeed descended from that Taliaferro line as well, demonstrating the veracity of the family’s oral tradition.

Armed with a well-researched ancestral chart and a list of autosomal DNA matches, I’m able to explore the last one hundred fifty to two hundred years of my family tree. Thanks to the organization of the testing company I’m using—Family Tree DNA—I’m able to connect with these cousins I’d likely never otherwise have known I had. Thanks also to this system, I’m working with others who are as keen on knowing about their family’s genealogical past as I am—but in a tangible way, through GEDCOM comparisons, rather than a conceptual way, such as the long view of the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests. I’m measuring relationships in generations, not millennia.

This arms me with a viable roadmap to continue pushing back through the generations. As I share with each matching cousin, we contribute toward each other’s ability to build up the ancestral chart of previous generations. We can jointly test our relationship hypotheses, each one adding what he or she knows about a branch of the family less familiar to the other. Yet, we would never have met—even online—if it hadn’t been for the aggregating draw of DNA testing in general, and the tangible success of autosomal testing in particular.

For those who are thinking about taking the plunge into this new form of genealogical exploration, I heartily recommend that you begin, not with the beginning of time and the hazy origin of your far-removed paternal “surname-Adam” or your maternal “Eve,” but with the descendants of the very people your great-grandparents may have known, face to face, as cousins. And the way to take that route is to delve into one specific kind of DNA testing: the autosomal DNA test.


  1. I think I will wait on the DNA thing - until I get the sense that the US Government isn't going to "use it against" its citizens.

    1. I don't know whether it's on account of our country's current strongly-sensed political rift, or due to the proximity to atrocities of recent history, but isn't it telling, Iggy, that we can feel that way about DNA testing? I hate to say it, but I've had those same thoughts, deep in the back of my mind. And I'm not sure "waiting" is going to increase that confidence level any time soon...


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