The Tree: DNA Testing for Genealogy


October 12, 2012 by The Editor

DNA testing for genealogy is used by people for a variety of reasons. Some people use DNA to prove a particular lineage – for instance to attempt to prove the old family story that great-grandma was Native American. Buyer beware: Native American tribes generally do not use DNA tests as proof for membership. A paper trail indicating your ancestral connection to a tribe proves what a DNA test can only confirm.

Some people want to make family connections, using products (‘family finder’ tests) that will link them to others in a particular genomic database who are related to them within a few generations. I have taken two DNA tests out of genealogical interest, one of which was of this variety. The company I used owns a very large database of participants, allowing people to make connections with others who might want to collaborate on genealogical research. Potentially, it would allow people who were adopted to find close relatives.

This type of test helps people understand their recent genealogy – within 5-7 generations – by comparing their genetic markers with study groups that are representative of a larger population. In my case, although my French Canadian heritage forms the largest component of my ancestry, the study group that my DNA was compared to was actually Orcadian, ie., originating in the Orkney Islands. This was counterintuitive to me but upon reflection I understood why they do this.

The testing companies are limited by the scope of information in their database. Therefore, the reports they offer to customers are not specific ethnic groupings. Instead they can determine only generally that you have ancestors from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, Middle East, and so on. Over time, as the databases grow, the theory is that your results will become more detailed to reflect the increase in genetic data available.

But if you are hoping to confirm a particular ethnicity, if it is not one that is included in the company’s database, your results will not necessarily point you in that direction. And if I have Orcadian ancestry, it is news to me. But then, they’re not saying that I actually have ancestors from there, only that my DNA is similar to that population’s DNA. In the end, they’re not really saying anything about my heritage I didn’t already know.

To be fair, it did confirm a 9-12% genetic connection to the “Middle East.” I believe that must have been great-grandpa Kaplan. While I suspected this to be the case, the DNA results provide information about the man I did not have before, aside from a surname that is typically Jewish. Unless, it’s not referring to him. The family finder tests do not narrow ethnic percentages to the individual, or even to the maternal or paternal branch, so there is a level of doubt that remains.

There are also people who want to expand their understanding of their family history and approach DNA testing as a tool that will illuminate the mysteries of the past. Or provide the key to an imagined lucrative membership in an Indian tribe. Or prove a connection to royalty. And that is where my criticism of DNA testing comes in. DNA testing for genealogy, in many real ways, gives nothing more than the fantasy of information.

As an example of this, I would argue that the tests offering haplogroup information largely fall into this category. Haplogroups, based on mtDNA and Y-DNA tests, show the ancient origins (think 20,000 years ago) of your direct maternal or paternal lines respectively.  The groups are largely based, like the ‘family finder’ tests, on general geographic origins and reflect the points when major changes in human movement took place. This is what is known as ‘deep ancestry.’ It is as much the study of human migration as it is genetics. In my case this test told me that my deep maternal ancestors moved from, surprise, Africa, to Asia-Minor to the Steppes, and across the far north of Europe, before landing on the British Isles. This must be where the Orcadians came in.

On the other hand, this same type of test has been used in a way that has been extremely valuable for genealogists attempting to determine a particular ancestor’s true identity. Through mtDNA testing on several proven, direct-line, female descendants of a supposedly French woman in 17th century Quebec, it was ascertained that the origin they all shared with their common ancestor was in fact the haplogroup found among Native Americans/First Nations rather than Europeans.

These DNA results prompted historians and genealogists to look very closely at the historical records pertaining to this woman and after exhaustive research were able to confirm that she was in fact of the Huron nation, rather than French. So in this instance, murky history was clarified, shining a light on a genealogical issue that is quite common among descendants of the early French Canadians. Read this article on Catherine Pillard to see how DNA results along with historical research can reveal an accurate reading of our ancestry where before other assumptions, as in the case of Catherine, may have clouded her origins.

This brings me to my conclusion that on an individual level and on a wider social level, DNA testing for genealogical purposes is a mixed bag. Personally, it confirmed for me that one of my great-grandparents was Jewish. This knowledge will help as I study his genealogy, even if it does not affect my personal identity.

On a wider social level, DNA testing can bring people together in ways that facilitate research, it may even bring together close relatives. At the very least it may increase our awareness of the interconnectedness of the human family. On the other hand, you will more than likely receive only very general information in return for your money. Due to the nature of the business, it may not conform at all to your understanding of your heritage, and may foment more confusion than clarity.


9 thoughts on “The Tree: DNA Testing for Genealogy

  1. vanbraman says:

    I have been thinking of taking a DNA test, but still have not made up my mind to do it.

    • James LaForest says:

      I think it comes down to a factors that have little to do with finding out a lot about your family (for most people.) It’s a form of entertainment in a way.

      • I had to use DNA to find my paternal line as my Grandpa was adopted and I was an exact match to several Dion males with 99% degree of certainty that we shared a common ancestor in less than 5 generations.

      • The Editor says:

        A very positive use of the technology. I hope you are doing well Robert.

  2. My haplogroup is I –(Viking) European ancestry, but I have North American indirect maternal (undetermined) native ancestry. DNA accuracy, in my case, might work if my genome could be compared to Native American genome (not the small sample of tests available today). Otherwise, it’s true, that DNA can help point researchers in specific directions to try finding the truth. Psychology, archeology, oral stories and history, early data and records—everything possible needs to be considered as relevant in genealogy.

    • James LaForest says:

      I am increasingly inclined not to recommend DNA to anyone who does not need it for legal or health reasons. I think it is a form of entertainment, and if that is what people want to do with their money, it’s their business. I don’t necessarily regret it, but I wouldn’t do it again. I also am put off by the level to which every DNA company I’ve looked at pushed the Native American or Jewish/Ashkenazi angle. Says a lot about what they know their customers want (I guess.) They are pushing connection to identities that are both historically loaded and in their way very exclusive to which many people would like to belong. It’s a cynical business model in my opinion.

  3. I had DNA testing done of the deep genealogy variety. It revealed Celtic connections which is interesting since I am of pure French-Canadian descent (with a tiny admixture of First Nations ‘blood’ like many of our people). The Gauls were originally a Celtic people and some theories have said that the Germanic, Frankish element did not penetrate the humbler classes of people, whose DNA remained Celtic, esp. in the provinces. Perhaps this says that when our ancestors left France in the 17th c. the Gallic element in the provinces was still very strong. Interesting theory but speculative theory it remains. The overall value for money was low in my opinion. I agree with James that there is a cynicism involved in the marketing of these services and dubious conclusions may be drawn from the evidence esp. by people whose knowledge of the science is scanty. These services could be used to place a scientific veneer on identity politics with potentially toxic results. The whole question of how much ‘blood’ one has of various strains invites uncomfortable comparisons with racist, eugenics theories that historically have caused a great deal of mischief (to say the least).

    • James LaForest says:

      You put that very well David and I especially find the speculation on the Celtic origins of many of our French Canadian forebears very interesting, and I think true to a certain extent. It comes out certainly in traditional music.

      I would also say that I understand why DNA tests are so attractive, especially when they are marketed using “Jewish” or “Native American” as sales tropes. Many people feel like they don’t belong to a culture. The definable, visceral cultures that we see are largely not what most people experience. So there is a desire to connect, and people are willing to do anything they can to make that happen. There is a sense of legitimacy that comes with belonging, and in our culture people think that if you can prove it by some level of DNA, then you’re legit. It’s weird. It’s a consumerist understanding of what culture is – something you can buy.

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