Posts filed under ‘Research techniques’

Using Y-chromosome DNA

DNA testing does not provide names and so is not a substitute for more traditional family history research techniques. However a genealogist can use DNA testing as another tool to answer some family history questions in the absence of other documents.

Some questions that might be answered by a Y-chromosome (Y-DNA) test include:

  • Another man with the same surname lived near my ancestor. Were they related?
  • I think my female ancestor had a lover (or a second husband). Can I determine which man fathered her son?
  • My grandfather was adopted. I have a theory about who might be his father, can I prove it?
  • Can I prove that he and his brother are sons of the same man?

Father-to-son inheritance

Y-chromosome DNA (or Y-DNA) is a particular type of genetic material that is passed largely unchanged between a father and his son. As such, comparing the Y-DNA between two men can answer questions about whether they shared ancestors on the all-male line.

A female like myself who wants to answer the same sorts of questions needs to find a willing male close relative to be tested. I have ordered Y-DNA tests for my father, his mother’s nephew and also my mother’s brother in order to examine my nearest male lines.

In theory Y-DNA follows the path of surname inheritance and so finding a close Y-DNA match with another male who has the same surname is a good indicator that those men share an ancestor.

There are many reasons why a surname might not have been inherited along with Y-DNA. Geneticists refer to these as ‘non-paternity events’, when the father is either unknown or not the person commonly believed. A Y-DNA test could confirm a theory about paternity even when the possible father and son have different surnames.

To look for relationships between men long dead I need to find a living male descendant (down all-male lines) from each of them.

Sometimes that means stepping sideways – for example, researching a brother’s line if some man in the line had no male descendants. In other words, it is necessary to combine the use of more traditional family history research techniques with the new information offered by DNA.

A male with no clue about their father could take a Y-DNA test to learn which surnames occur most frequently amongst their genetic relatives and use these names as possible clues. (Alternatively a different DNA test – an autosomal test – might locate a cousin and that might help identify the father.)

I have also had serendipitous discoveries, when someone who tested with the same company was identified as a Y-DNA match with one of my family and we were able to identify the shared ancestor. Thus I have discovered previously unknown cousins, allowing an exchange of information about family history.

How does it work?

Every cell in your body has 23 pairs of chromosomes, inherited from your parents. The 23rd pair are the sex chromosomes – males have an X- and a Y-chromosome while females have two X-chromosomes. Note that only males have a Y-chromosome.

In each generation the Y- chromosome (or Y-DNA) of the father is copied (largely unchanged) in order to be passed on to his sons. However occasionally cells make a copying error.

Sometimes the number of repeats of a group of DNA ‘letters’ (called a short tandem repeat or STR) is increased or decreased.

The other mutation occurs only very rarely, when a single DNA ‘letter’ is miscopied (rather like a typo) – this is called a single nucleotide polymorphism (or SNP, pronounced ‘snip’). As both these changes are then transferred to future generations, the Y-DNA becomes rather like an audit trail, recording inheritance on the direct paternal line.

These mutations are illustrated in the diagram below. In the example Man 1 is the father of Man 2. When the Y-DNA of Man 1 is being copied, a SNP occurs when a ‘T’ is accidentally miscopied as an ‘A’. This change is inherited by Man 2 who then passes it on to his descendants.

Man 1 also has a segment of DNA with a short tandem repeat (STR) where the ‘letters’ CTA are repeated 5 times. We say that Man 1 has a repeat count (or allele) of 5 at that point. When that repeating section was copied for passing to Man 2, the number of repeats was increased – so 5 repeats became 6 repeats. By the time that DNA was re-copied and passed to their descendant Man 3, those 6 repeats have mutated to become 7 repeats. Note that Man 3 also continues to carry the ‘A’ variation of the SNP inherited by Man 2.

A genealogical Y-DNA test reports on certain STRs on the Y-chromosome. Rather than checking the whole chromosome, a male can order a Y-DNA test of certain useful sections of DNA (or markers) – currently available tests examine between 12 and 111 markers. When the repeat counts at those markers are compared against those of another male, a close match indicates that the two men share an ancestor on their all-male or patrilineal line. Depending on how closely they match, an estimate can be made about how many generations earlier their most recent common ancestor (or MRCA) probably lived.

Genealogists should test at least 37 markers. Anything less and it could be that an indicated shared ancestor lived many hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Genetic genealogy tests also examine the SNPs (‘typos’) on the Y-chromosome. Such SNPs indicate the haplogroup – or where the male tested fits into the broad family tree of all men.

Which company to use?

The US company Family Tree DNA is the main company offering specific STR marker testing of the Y-chromosome with the required level of accuracy required by genealogists as well as having a large database of others’ Y-DNA results for comparison.  This company offers tests of between 37 and 111 markers as well as tools to interpret the results. For under US$170 (at the time of writing) it is possible for males to test their Y-DNA with sufficient accuracy to determine whether two men are likely to share a common ancestor ‘within a genealogical timeframe’ and also receive an estimate about how many generations ago that shared ancestor lived.

You can save money by ordering the Y-DNA test through a surname-specific project. Projects are managed by knowledgeable volunteers who analyse the similar DNA of large groups of people in order to draw further conclusions. By looking at the DNA of enough people with the same surname, it may be possible to identify when a particular mutation occurred. For example you may learn that ‘all those with this particular mutation descend from one brother but those without that mutation descend from the other brother’.

Many projects focus on a common surname but there are also geographic and ethnic heritage projects. Joining projects is free and you can usually join any that might be of interest – such as for other surnames that occur frequently among your DNA matches! Once you discover your Y-DNA haplogroup, I recommend you also join the relevant haplogroup project – those matches share Y-DNA heritage, whether or not they share surnames.

Family Tree DNA often has sales when significantly discounted prices are available. (The company’s Facebook page is one way to learn about such sales.)

Family Tree DNA
Projects on Family Tree DNA 
Webinars on Family Tree DNA
Family Tree DNA on Facebook
Ysearch   (for those who have tested with another company and want to compare their results against the Family Tree DNA database)

18 June, 2015 at 10:37 am Leave a comment

Introduction to using DNA with your family history research

Traditional family history research involves looking for documents that name an ancestor – and hoping that everybody told the truth! By contrast, genetic tools that are now available to genealogists tell the truth but do not name ancestors – however they can be used to find relatives and to check the accuracy of our constructed family trees.

Why use DNA testing?

Birth certificate without father's name

Birth certificate without father’s name

I have an ancestor who was adopted. When I eventually located his original birth certificate, no father was named. I developed a plausible theory about who his father might have been, but I could not find any record to prove or disprove my idea.

In another case my ancestor, John Etherington, a builder, sits at the top of one of my ancestral lines but I cannot find any documentary evidence that he was related to the John Etherington, also a builder, who lived two streets away. Another ancestor, Samuel Etherington, was reputed to also be the Samuel Holmes who fathered another family. To solve puzzles such as these I needed a different set of genealogical tools.

What is DNA testing?

Genetic genealogy testing is all about comparing our DNA with others. Closer relatives share more DNA in common with us than more distant relatives. Genetic genealogy tests examine the areas of DNA where we differ – and predict approximately how closely we are related.

Sometimes we have a particular theory to check and we know in advance the two individuals we wish to compare. At other times genealogists are ‘fishing’ in the DNA ‘nets’, hoping to find unexpected genetic matches who might share an ancestor with us and who might then have information about unknown family branches. In the latter case there are benefits in comparing with as many people as possible. One way to do this is choosing a company with a large database of other people already tested.

DNA testing companies

Currently the main options for genealogists looking for living genetic relatives are the three US companies Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA (a branch of

  • Family Tree DNA is the company chosen by most genealogists – and these tend to respond to family history enquiries. Moreover this company’s website has useful tools available for comparing DNA as well as recorded webinars freely available.
  • 23andMe offers genetic health predisposition reports as well as ancestry information. Many of their customers chose the company for those health reports and so are less interested in responding to genealogists. A dispute with the US Federal Drugs Administration (FDA) currently prevents 23andMe from providing health reports to new customers except in the United Kingdom and Canada.
  • AncestryDNA tests were released first to US consumers and so most of the people in their database are in the United States. Recently AncestryDNA began offering tests to Australians. AncestryDNA test results can be linked to Ancestry trees.

Ordering a test involves going to the company’s website, selecting a test and paying by credit card and then the kit will be posted to you. Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA tests involve swabbing inside your cheek (with something like a toothbrush) – in the way we have seen on television crime shows. The 23andMe test involves filling a test tube with saliva. In either method customers then post their completed kits back to the company and some weeks later are advised by email when their results are available online. Customers log on to the company’s website with a userID and password to find their results and matching customers predicted to be genetic relatives.

Which test should I take?

DNA testing is advancing (as well as becoming cheaper!) and so is more available for checking theories about your family history and perhaps even breaking down brick walls you might currently face. This article introduces the options currently available that might be useful to family historians.

Test 1: Y-chromosome tests, for males to test DNA inherited from their father’s fathers

For under US$200 we can test whether two males are likely to share a common ancestor ‘within a genealogical timeframe’, and how many generations ago that shared ancestor probably lived.

This test is valid for any two men who might share a male ancestor – they do not need to have the same surname. When testing with a company that has a huge database of people already tested, I might find a match with some living descendant who shares with me a common ancestor. This is useful for all genealogists but perhaps especially for adoptees.

I have used this test to discern whether two families with the same surname were actually related to each other, in the absence of documentary proof. I have also used this test to check (and refute) a theory about who might have been the biological father of an adopted male. It was necessary to find a living male descendant (down an all-male line) from the adopted male and also to find a living male descendant (down an all-male line) from the hypothesised birth father, and then compare the DNA that each inherited from their father’s fathers.

Y-chromosome tests are only available to males, as only males have a Y-chromosome. Females like me need to ask a near male relative to be tested – a brother, father, or uncle. I have ordered tests for my father and also my mother’s brother in order to examine my nearest male lines. For Y-chromosome tests, I recommend using the company FamilyTreeDNA and testing at least 37 markers.

Test 2: Mitochondrial tests, for anyone to test DNA inherited from their mother’s mothers

Useful DNA tests are no longer limited to males. We all have a different type of DNA (called mitochondria) that we inherited from our mother’s mother’s mother. Previously mitochondrial DNA could only tell us about ancient ancestors and their migratory patterns, but now it is possible to obtain much more recent information. Family Tree DNA offers a full sequence test of all our mitochondria, allowing us to identify people who share an ancestor with us on our maternal line within about 100-400 years. That test is also currently available for under US$200.

Test 3: Autosomal tests, to test the DNA inherited half from each of our parents

We are not restricted to testing only the DNA of our father’s fathers or our mother’s mothers. It is also possible to test our remaining DNA, inherited equally from both of our parents – this DNA is called ‘autosomal’. These tests compare the DNA of our ancestors regardless of gender, because we inherit half our autosomal DNA from each of our parents (and via them, from their ancestors). However as we inherit one quarter of our DNA from each of our grandparents (and so one eighth from each of our great grandparents) eventually the inherited material from any particular ancestor becomes so small as to be difficult to identify.

Consequently, when comparing this autosomal DNA with someone else, our best conclusions are when the shared ancestor lived no more than about five generations ago.

Commercial autosomal tests also report on our likely population origins or admixture, for example, ‘60% British, 20% Scandinavian and 20% Jewish’. The sample databases used for comparison are very small and currently most of these predictions are considered unreliable.

Family Tree DNA calls their autosomal test ‘Family Finder’, while 23andMe calls a similar test ‘DNA Relatives’. Both tests cost under US$100 – plus postage. (23andMe’s postage and handling charges to Australia  adds another three quarters to the price of their kit!) The AncestryDNA test costs Australians under US$150 (plus postage) but if you do not have an subscription there is an annual cost for accessing your results.

For any genetic relatives identified in their autosomal tests, Family Tree DNA and 23andMe also report on shared segments of the X-chromosome. Females have two X-chromosomes (inherited one from each parent) while males have one (inherited from their mother). When trying to work out which ancestral branch might have passed down the X-DNA we share with some match in the database, genealogists can look at pedigree charts and eliminate any father-to-son branches, as fathers do not pass any X-chromosomes to their sons.

Use the tests in conjunction

The tests can also be used in conjunction. The autosomal ‘Family Finder’ test through Family Tree DNA identifies matches with my DNA and calculates a likely relationship.

One of my matches (described as a possible 3rd to 5th cousin) seemed to have very similar Y-chromosome (father’s father’s) DNA to my mother’s brother. I made contact and by swapping names of grandparents and their parents we soon identified that he was the son of a 3rd cousin to me (and so indeed within the range of 3rd to 5th cousins).

DNA cousins tested

DNA cousins tested

Autosomal testing can be used to check your constructed family tree.

Comparing the autosomal DNA of the three female cousins (Fay, Ann and Maureen) at the bottom of this diagram confirmed my constructed family tree of their relationships back to their shared ancestors.


(Spouses omitted after the first generation to simplify the diagram.)





It is not necessary to understand how a car works in order to drive it, but it is necessary to know the functions of driving. In the same way it is unnecessary to understand much about the science of DNA – but it is necessary to understand what sorts of questions can be answered by the different DNA tests so you can use them as tools to aid your family history research.

The most recent DNA tests available to genealogists offer useful information which can supplement traditional genealogical methods. Family trees are still needed to identify ancestors and draw conclusions about relationships. DNA tests can supplement this genealogical research, filling in gaps in the paper trails. With such tools we can test our conclusions and assumptions in constructed family trees by confirming or disproving reputed relationships. As more people are tested and databases grow, commercial DNA tests are even more likely to help us find relatives that we might not have found by traditional methods.

18 June, 2015 at 9:54 am Leave a comment

Australian & NZ births, deaths & marriages

The earliest records available in the new colonies were the church records of baptisms, marriages and burials. Many people are missing from these registers – not all records have survived and not everybody had a church ceremony (especially in those places where initially only the Anglican Church was recognised).

In due time, governments needed better records of the people in the colony, so they introduced government-administered registration of births, deaths and marriages – or civil registration. District registrars were appointed and information was reported to them. In an age where many people were illiterate, registrars had to guess how to spell the names. (Remember this when searching for names in indexes – often the reason for not finding someone is because of spelling variations.)

Church ceremonies continued to take place, so it may be possible to obtain a copy of the information collected by the church, as well as the corresponding civil certificate.

As a general rule, the government asked for more information on civil certificates than was contained in the corresponding church record – but sometimes the opposite is true. For example, NSW marriage certificates (especially in the 1860s and 1870s) may not include information such as parents’ names and occupations, even though such information might be found in the corresponding church record.

As English and Welsh civil registration began on 1st July 1837, the earliest Australasian colonies to issue civil certificates (of birth, death and marriage) followed the English model:

  • Birth registrations asked for the child’s name, date and place of birth and the names of the parents
  • Marriages registrations asked for the couple’s names, ages, residences and occupations and sometimes details of the fathers
  • Death registrations included questions about the deceased’s name, age and occupation as well as the date, place and cause of death

When the Victorian government began civil registration in 1853, they requested more information on certificates. Other colonies (and Scotland) that introduced civil registration later largely followed the Victorian practice of collecting the additional information, such as:

  • Birth registrations also asked for the parents’ ages, place of birth and marriage details, and details of previous children
  • Marriage registrations asked for the couple’s birthplaces and details of both fathers and mothers
  • Death registrations asked for the deceased’s birthplace, parents’ and spouse’s names, marriage details, children’s names and burial place

Some or all of these additional fields of information on Victorian certificates were added in later years to the certificates of the regions that had earlier followed the English style of certificates.

Colonies that followed the English model were:

  • Tasmania, earlier known as Van Diemen’s Land (from 1 December 1838)
  • Western Australia (from 9 September 1841)
  • South Australia (from 1 July 1842)
  • Northern Territory was administered by South Australia from 1863 to 1911, so their civil BDM certificates (from 24 Aug 1870) follow the South Australian pattern
  • New Zealand (from 1848) – although registration was not compulsory until 1856

The colonies that followed the Victorian model were:

Even when registration was compulsory, not all births, deaths and marriages were registered and some registrations have been lost (especially in the early years). Perhaps the parties had to travel some distance to the District Registrar, and might not have bothered. They might have distrusted the government and been unwilling to supply the information.

Even if you find the certificate, just because a question is asked, does not mean that the informant knew the answer. Under such circumstances a field might be left blank, or the informant might simply have made a guess.

For example, in NSW the parents were required to register a birth, the minister registered marriages, and it was the responsibility of the owner of a house to register a death. If the parents registering a birth were unmarried, unwillingness to admit this might lead to an invented marriage date. Similarly a young couple might lie about their ages in order to marry without their parents’ permission.

Death certificates are notorious for errors and missing information. The informant might not have known the information – the son of an immigrant might never have met their grandparents, and so might not know their names. If the death took place in a hospital or institution, the owner might not know family details. There are death certificates where even the name of the deceased is unknown.

Each state and territory has their own Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. There are microfiche indexes, CD-ROM indexes and sometimes online indexes. Not all indexes contain exactly the same information, and sometimes an item is missing from one index but present in another. So if you can’t find the entry in an online index, try visiting a library or genealogy society that holds microfiche and/or CD-ROM indexes.

For privacy reasons there is restricted public access to ‘recent’ certificates of births, deaths and marriages. Each state or territory determines their own definition of ‘recent’. Generally more restrictions have been put in place for online indexes than existed at the time of the earlier microfiche and CD-ROM indexes. So if you can access these earlier indexes, you may be able to search more recent indexes than are available online.

When searching indexes, always ensure you write down reference numbers for records of interest, as certificates may be cheaper with reference numbers supplied. For NSW and South Australia it is possible to obtain transcriptions more cheaply than certificates. (Such transcriptions are not legal documents, but as they include all the information on the certificates, they may be suitable for genealogical purposes.)

Victorian online indexes cost to search, however it is possible to obtain a copy as an unofficial ‘historic document’ more cheaply than an official certificate. For New Zealand, obtaining a ‘printout’ of the information on a post-1874 document is cheaper than obtaining a standard certificate.

(This article was written for

These days many of the Australian births, deaths and marriages can be searched on and South Australian and Northern Territory BDM indexes are also available on


28 March, 2013 at 10:18 pm Leave a comment

Passenger lists leaving UK

The following is a blog post I wrote for It appeared on 30 July 2012.

It’s a common experience for genealogists – tracking ancestors forward through the UK censuses – to find that suddenly the whole family seems to vanish from the records. Eventually it might occur to us to wonder, did they migrate somewhere? If so, where did they go?

This is where the collection ‘Passenger lists leaving the UK 1890–1960’ on can be so useful. These are the digitised and indexed lists of passengers embarking on long-distance voyages made from all British ports (England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales). If the ship stopped en route at additional ports, such as in Europe, passengers disembarking at those stops are also included. The original documents are held in The National Archives UK in series BT 27 (BT = Board of Trade). Findmypast has indexed together all departures from all British ports, allowing researchers to enter their ancestor’s name of interest and determine the destination.

The most common way of searching for immigrant ancestors is to search the archives of the destination country. But which government archives to check? In the case of passengers to Australia, the individual colonies (and then states) administered immigration separately until 1922, after which immigration control became a function of the Commonwealth Government. (A further complication when looking for immigration records is that, just as today, immigration is typically handled at the first port of call.)

Using, there is a better way. Look under ‘Travel & migration’ and select the record set ‘Passenger Lists Leaving the UK 1890-1960’. I was searching for the migration of my grandmother, Olwena KELLETT, who was born in Lancashire in 1901. I entered her name (with first name variants) and searched between 1901 and 1907. It is a free search – not even requiring a subscription to do the search.

I selected ‘name variants’ – which also allows for the fact that some passenger lists only identify people by an initial. I found her in 1905, where she travelled from Britain to South Africa.


The above information is as far as you can go with a free search. It requires a subscription or PayAsYouGo credits to see the transcription of the results or full image of the page. The amount of information available on the passenger lists varies widely over time. Some only have minimal information about the passengers, while others include their dates of birth, occupations, and addresses in Britain before departure as well as their ultimate destinations overseas.

I had already found the record of the family’s arrival in Australia, and had assumed they had travelled on that same ship from London to Sydney. But instead little Olwena travelled with her mother to South Africa first, and then 2 years later the family travelled on to Sydney.

As many of the passenger indexes available in Australia concentrate on ships that came from British ports, ancestors who travelled first to places like South Africa or North America might not be included in the indexes of arrivals in Australia. Looking instead at the departures from Britain might help us understand what happened.

Just as today, not every person travelling was an immigrant. Apart from the seamen, many of our ancestors (such as merchants) travelled for work and people travelled for holidays. Families who had already migrated travelled back to Britain to visit family and friends. In other words, a surprising number of our ancestors appear in passenger lists crossing the oceans. Using the indexes of passengers leaving Britain provides a very useful additional way of tracking their journeys.

30 July, 2012 at 3:32 pm Leave a comment

DNA tools for genealogists

DNA technology is advancing so rapidly that it is difficult to keep abreast of the advances and possibilities. Moreover rapidly falling prices make genetic testing more affordable and so more accessible. Here are some current options:

Test 1: Y-chromosome tests, for males to test DNA inherited from their father’s fathers

It is now possible for under US$200 for males to test the DNA they have inherited from their father’s father’s fathers, with sufficient accuracy to determine whether two men likely share a common ancestor ‘within a genealogical timeframe’ and how many generations ago that common ancestor probably lived.

I have used this test to discern whether two families with the same surname were actually related to each other, in situations where I have not yet found documentary proof. I have also used this particular DNA test to check (and finally refute) a theory about who might have been the biological father of an adopted male. It was necessary to find a living male descendant (down an all-male line) from the adopted male and also to find a living male descendant (down an all-male line) from the hypothesised  birth father, and then compare the DNA that each inherited from their father’s fathers.

DNA is not related to surnames and so I am not restricted to testing two men with the same surname – the test is valid for any two men who might share a common male ancestor. However when I order this test, if I choose to use a commercial testing company like Family Tree DNA – which has a huge (and growing) database – I might find in their database a match with some living descendant who shares a common ancestor that I did not know about. This is especially useful for adoptees.

The above DNA test is only available to males (as only males have a Y-chromosome). Females like me need to ask a near male relative to be tested. I have asked my father and also my mother’s brother to be tested – this opens up for examination my nearest male lines.

Test 2: Mitochondrial tests, for anyone to test DNA inherited from their mother’s mothers

Useful DNA tests are no longer limited to males. We all have a different type of DNA (called mitochondria) that we inherit from our mother’s mother’s mothers. Mitochondria mutates so slowly that formerly the only conclusions we could draw from our maternal line was about ancient ancestors and their migratory patterns.

However that is no longer true. The company Family Tree DNA offers full sequence tests of all our mitochondria (DNA that is inherited from our mothers) that allow us to identify people who share an ancestor through our mother’s mother’s mothers, within about 200 years. [Thank you Bill Hurst for pointing out that while 23andMe also tests the ‘coding region’ of our mitochondria,  they do not test or give results for all 16,571 locations, so theirs is not in fact a full sequence test.]

When the above matrilineal full sequence tests first became available, they cost close to $1,000. That price has dropped now to under US$300 (sometimes under $200).

Test 3: Autosomal tests, to test the DNA inherited half from each of our parents

We are not restricted to testing only the DNA of our father’s fathers or our mother’s mothers. Since 2010 it is possible to test the remaining nuclear DNA (that is, not the sex chromosomes). This DNA is called autosomal. Family Tree DNA calls their autosomal test Family Finder, while 23andMe calls a similar test Relative Finder. (Again these tests are under US$300 and sometimes under $200.)

These particular tests can check the DNA of our ancestors regardless of gender, because we inherit about half our autosomal DNA from each of our parents (and via them, from their ancestors) and this DNA can also be compared with the DNA of others. However as we inherit about one quarter of our DNA from each of our grandparents (and so about one eighth from each of our great grandparents) – eventually the inherited material from one particular ancestor becomes so small as to be difficult to identify definitively. Consequently, when comparing this autosomal DNA with someone else, our best conclusions are when the common ancestor lived no more than about 6 generations ago.

Use the tests in conjunction

While the above  tests examine separate DNA, the tests can be used in conjunction. When looking at the summary of DNA results for people that 23andMe identified as likely to be my 3rd to 5th cousins (identified via the Relative Finder – or autosomal test), I noticed that one of the matches also seemed to have very similar Y-chromosome (father’s fathers) DNA to my mother’s brother. I sent an email and by swapping names of grandparents and their parents, we soon identified that this person was the son of a 3rd cousin to me (and so indeed within the range of 3rd to 5th cousins).

It is not necessary to understand how a car works in order to drive it, but it is necessary to know the functions of driving. In the same way it is unnecessary to understand much about the science of DNA in order to use it as a tool – but it is necessary to understand what sorts of questions can be answered by the different DNA tests so you know how to apply them as tools to aid your family history research.

This field is changing quickly

Because genetic tests available to the public are changing frequently (and certainly the prices are) readers need to beware of relying on conclusions written years ago or by someone who has not ‘kept up’ with tests currently available. This blog post is partly in response to an article I read this week entitled ‘The DNA dilemma’ – I do not agree with many of the conclusions in that piece.

It is no longer true to say that the only available information to be derived from maternal DNA (or mitochondria) is about ancient migrations of peoples – recent relatives can now be found by a full sequencing of the mitochondria (test available from Family Tree DNA for under $300).

It is no longer true that autosomal DNA can only make generalised indicators of race origins. (Autosomal DNA is sometimes referred to as ‘nuclear DNA’ but that is incorrect because the sex chromosomes are also inside the cell nucleus and the autosomes are the other pairs of chromosomes that are not the sex chromosomes.) Nor is it necessary to ‘test each generation in turn’. Autosomal DNA can identify that two people shared common ancestors within 6 generations (and possibly beyond, but it is less accurate beyond 6 generations). Many genealogists will not know all of their ancestors back even 6 generations, and so this DNA test can predict likely distant cousins who may not have been found by a paper trail.

There are differences between the DNA tests used in forensic law enforcement compared to commercial tests. Without going into too much scientific detail, legal forensics examine repeating groups of DNA at certain points on the autosomes whereas commercial autosomal tests examine the autosomal SNPs (something like ‘typo’ mutations). The tests are entirely different. Be wary about confusing the markers referred to in tests of the Y-chromosome (the DNA inherited father-to-son) – which are entirely different to the markers of autosomal DNA examined by forensic law enforcement agents.

Some people have suggested that male DNA studies are only relevant between males who share surnames. That is not true. There are many examples where family trees show a son with a different surname to his father – whether the name was changed by deed poll, by adoption, by remarriage of the mother – or for many other reasons. It is not the same surname that defines two people as father and son. Likewise DNA tests do not take surnames into account, so the test result is just as accurate whether two men share a surname or not.

In my opinion, the most recent DNA tests available to genealogists offer precise information which can supplement traditional genealogical methods. Family trees are still needed to identify ancestors and draw conclusions, however DNA tests can supplement other genealogical research, filling in gaps left by paper trails. With such tools we can test our conclusions and assumptions in constructed family trees as DNA can confirm or disprove reputed relationships. As databases grow, commercial DNA tests are more likely to help us find relatives that we might not have found by ‘traditional methods’.

5 June, 2012 at 11:22 pm 11 comments

Visit to Adelaide and Congress 2012

I’ve just returned from the 13th Australasian Congress on Genealogy & Heraldry Adelaide 2012, where I delivered one talk (on ‘Which Genealogy Program?‘) and attended more than 20 others. I thoroughly recommend attending genealogy conferences – they provide access to a wide variety of speakers, with the opportunity to ask questions and discuss particular issues in my own family history. Websites are changing daily, and as more information is published online, conferences such as these allow attendees to learn about what is available and what is coming.

In addition there is the ‘buzz’ of spending days with others who share my passion for family history research, often also learning from discussions with other conference attendees. Genealogists are generous with their knowledge and usually keen to support other enthusiasts. Once you start attending conferences, your circle of genealogy friends and contacts grows. A highlight for me at this Congress was meeting up with friends from around Australia and some internationals – some friends I had previously only ‘met’ online.

Morning and afternoon teas, lunches and dinners were all busy times. In addition to looking at the offerings of the exhibitors (purchasing books, trying out websites, asking questions of librarians and society members) I enjoyed catching up with genealogy friends and swapping contact details with ‘new friends’.

So many genealogists gathering in one place provides the opportunity for meetings with some groups, sometimes over a lunch or dinner. I am proud to be a member of ‘Genealogists for Families’, whose motto is “We care about families (past, present and future)”. Through Kiva (a non-profit organisation) genealogists worldwide (and their non-genealogist relatives and friends) are working as a team to help less fortunate families. Kiva’s motto is “empower people around the world by making a $25 loan”. When many $25 loans are combined, borrowers without access to traditional banks can expand their business or support their families, and work towards raising themselves out of poverty. When the loan is repaid we can withdraw the money or lend it again.

Some of the ‘Genealogists for Families’ group in Adelaide met for dinner on the Wednesday (first) night of Congress. The dinner was an enjoyable time, with good food, chatting and much laughter, and when we passed around a collection box for spare coins, enough money was raised for 2 more Kiva loans.

Other nights were busy too: the (Tuesday) night before Congress was a Congress Welcome, Wednesday was the above Kiva dinner, Thursday night was a Lord Mayor of Adelaide’s function for speakers and exhibitors at Congress, and Friday night was the official Congress dinner.

Taking advantage of the trip to Adelaide, I flew over several days earlier in order to have some research time. Arriving on the Saturday afternoon before Congress, I spent Sunday and Monday researching in the State Library of South Australia and Tuesday at State Records South Australia. In addition I made brief visits to the Adelaide City Council Archives, to the Probate Registry – and also to photograph an old house in Norwood where my Grubb family ancestors made soft drinks in the late 19th century (F. C. Grubb soft drinks).

If you’re interested in family history and have any occasion to travel to where ancestors lived, prepare as much as possible before you travel. The time flies when you are actually in that library or archive office. You can be much more efficient if you have already searched online catalogues, and come prepared with references for books, microfiche, microfilms or computer files that you want to check. I had my netbook with my family history database, but I also had prepared reports of all those I knew were in South Australia at some time, so that I could quickly check whether accidental discoveries were likely to be my ancestors or not.

A digital camera is a great asset in libraries and archives offices, to quickly capture images of records found. A USB flash drive is also useful, as sometimes you can scan a document directly to a file. I had my new Flip-pal portable scanner with me (only owned for a week). Although scanning is slower than taking digital photographs, the Flip-pal did an excellent job of scanning & stitching documents and even screen images from microfiche or microfilm seen in the State Library. I was not allowed to use it in the State Archives.

So I’ve returned from a week in Adelaide with many books purchased, records scanned and photographed, pages and pages of lecture notes with clues to follow up for my family history – and also a backlog of emails and work that built up while I was away. One week in Adelaide is going to take me a lot longer than that to process! But it was a most enjoyable time and an experience I would heartily recommend.

2 April, 2012 at 4:11 pm Leave a comment

The future of genealogy

There are many excited genealogists at present, partly because of the huge RootsTech conference currently running in Salt Lake City. I could not join the 3,000 people attending RootsTech live, but I can still benefit by downloading the syllabi (handouts from the talks) and also by joining the many thousands more, listening over the internet to some sessions being broadcast live.

However this set me thinking about the changes that have already happened in genealogy during my lifetime, and wondering what will happen in the future?

Marian Pierre-Louis wrote a great blog post entitled ‘Top 3 changes in genealogy‘. According to Marian, those ‘top 3 changes’ are:

  • Increased visibility, due to eg the increasing popularity of television shows like Who do you think you are? I would add to that – the online advertising of tells people how easy it is to find your ancestors and that you don’t need to be an expert. (For my views on such advertising, see my earlier post ‘You only have to look‘.)
  • Education and outreach, including courses for amateurs and professionals, some face-to-face but many now available over the internet.
  • Technology – including blogging, social media like Facebook and the digitisation of records.

When I started my family history research, access to records meant either visiting libraries, archives and genealogy societies in person, or writing letters. It was the sort of ‘hobby’ mainly undertaken by retirees with time on their hands.

Now technology brings access to digitised records and indexes, but also to opportunities to learn from others, even experts in the fields – (almost) wherever in the world you and they might be. Only a few years ago I could not have sat at my desk here in Australia and listened to a lecture being delivered in Salt Lake City.

But the changes in technology bring dangers too:

  • Not everybody is able (or willing) to embrace technology, and that will leave behind some people, as more information becomes almost only available online.
  • Just as information is made readily available online, so errors are broadcast more widely too.
  • Many seem to expect to find all information easily available online, so traditional sources that require more time to explore are being ignored (or at least until they are digitised!)
  • Because some questions are answered easily and quickly, many no longer see the need for education and learning ‘how to do research’. So they don’t learn that the first apparently matching record found might not be the right answer. The preferred solution becomes ‘whatever is quickest and easiest’ – and that could well be adopting somebody else’s family tree – warts and all.

So back to my original question – what of the future? Can the number researching their family trees continue to grow at the current rate? Is there a limit?

The average age of genealogists seems to be getting younger and perhaps that is partly because of the attractions of technology and ‘saving time’. Can the current trends continue?

More than one website has attempted to ‘stitch together’ family trees, aiming at one world-wide family tree. Mostly that has been fraught with errors – there are too many coincidentally similar people’s names, dates and places. Considered weighing of evidence and acknowledging that some conclusions are at best unreliable is needed in our own trees, and so I wonder how could any computer program reliably make that decision for us? Apparently there is already one family tree for everyone in Iceland, could that eventually be true for the rest of us?

Is DNA the answer? Certainly DNA tests can already predict the probability that we share a common ancestor with someone, but cannot tell us precisely who that common ancestor must be. More traditional methods of genealogical research are needed in conjunction with the tools provided by DNA.

So – what of the future? Technology will continue to race ahead – that is probably the only thing that is certain. It will become easier, perhaps more fun, to find more records and publish our conclusions. Will those family trees  be any more accurate than now?

What do you think? Can you make any predictions for 20 years? 50 or 100?

3 February, 2012 at 5:32 pm 5 comments

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Discoveries and musings of a family history researcher and instructor - including tips and hints.

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