Yesterday, I received one of those rare emails from someone reaching out on behalf of a DNA match. This wasn't one of the thousands of autosomal matches I have, nor even regarding those of my husband or in-laws for whose accounts I serve as administrator. This one was for a Y-DNA match.
The match wasn't even a close one, but that hardly matters when you consider that this particular account has absolutely no exact matches in its Y-DNA results. The closest Y-DNA connections are at what Family Tree DNA calls a genetic distance of three. In other words, don't count on my paper trail to lead me to the answer regarding the most recent common forefather. Unless this patriline suddenly becomes related to royalty, the paper trail will fall away long before the family connection could be made.
I wonder about how helpful those long-range DNA tests—both the Y-DNA and the mitochondrial DNA—can be if no one turns out to be a close match. Of course, you never know, when you send off your sample in hopes of solving a genealogical mystery, whether you'll actually find any exact matches. And even if you do find an exact match—in other words, a genetic distance of zero—that revelation can lead you on a merry chase through ten generations. Or more.
Genetic genealogy, at least for these specialized tests like Y-DNA, turns out to be a Goldilocks proposition. We hope for not too big, not too small, but just right. Right enough to find paperwork to corroborate what the science is showing us. Right enough to make sense of the family tree as it wends its way backwards through history.
I suppose it all depends on which answers we are seeking when we decide to opt for the lesser-used DNA tests. If we simply have a curiosity about the deep history of our patriline, springing for the pricey "Big Y" can give us volumes of information. Just no possibility of linking to a paper trail.
That may be just fine for the archaeologists at heart, but for me, well, I (and my brother) just wanted to know who was the father of that mystery grandfather. It is much the same for my husband's quest: looking for more details on just who that Irish man was whose sons took off for America in 1849.
As my daughter pointed out last evening as I was muttering about the lack of exact matches, perhaps that traveling Irishman "daughtered out." No sons? Then no Y-DNA to pass to the next generation. And thus, no DNA matches to find. Some of us are in such dilemmas. And that might be the case for the two Y-DNA tests I administer.
Of course, someone in Ireland may spring for a Y-DNA test in the future and provide just the results we were hoping to match. That's what we never know when we take that first step in deciding to purchase a Y-DNA test. We hope. But we're not always satisfied.
In the meantime, I keep churning out the research. The old fashioned kind of research which relies on information recorded on paper, back in those earlier generations. When I find what I think might be my answer in records, perhaps that will someday be followed up by a genetic confirmation. At least, that would be the storybook ending of our best hopes.