DNA Testing and Family History Research Tutorial (Comprehensive)
by Cecilia Fabos-Becker — recorded and published 2018-02-02
This article was the basis of a live interview on KKUP radio on Friday, February 2nd, 2018, in which host David Stafford interviewed author Cecilia Fabos-Becker.
Click Here to listen to recording of the interview
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1: Basic explanation: What is DNA testing?
Human DNA Pre-Near Extinction
99.5% of ALL human DNA is absolutely identical. We had a mass near extinction about 72,000 years ago and the small group that survived was closely related. Where there are now two or three islands in the Sunda Straits in Indonesia, was once one big island with the ancestor of Krakatoa--a super-volcano. It blew up and caused extinctions of many large animal species and small and near- extinctions, including the immediate ancestor of modern humans.
Modern Human DNA
This small inter-related species of humans then took over from the remains of other human species including Neanderthals, Denisovans and others that existed, many earlier, a hundred thousand years or more, than our modern species.
Additionally, even counting immediate predecessors, humans are among the newest species on the earth, less than 500,000 years for what we'd recognize as a human related species, and it takes tens of millions of years to develop large numbers of genetic variations in a single species. Tyrannosaurus Rex evolved around 66 million years ago from earlier large theropods, which appeared around 80 million years ago — a period of about 14 MILLION years. This is more than 28 times longer than humans 500,000 years! Most mutations occur at a slow, predictable rate.
DNA Test Terminology
First, to understand DNA test results, when you receive them, you need to understand some of the basic terms and what part of the DNA that is being tested. When the DNA test companies, including those who test only for medical reasons, test for DNA, they are testing primarily for differences between individuals among the last .5% of DNA that is really individual. In popular DNA test results which are done for determining ancestry and degrees of relationships they also are giving people the results of the differences in just that last .5% of the DNA in humans. You are not looking at the whole of your DNA in those results. Why test the 99.5% when it is exactly the same in all humans? That .5% difference is measured in numbers and groupings of single nucleotide polymorphisms, usually called SNP's or 'snips.' (For a detailed explanation, see the National Institutes of Health article here: What are single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)?) For the purposes of understanding DNA test results, nucleotides are blocks of genetic material, four amino acids grouped together with the initials A, C, G, and T. The blocks form chains. A block may start with A, and the next with another of the four, and go back to the first block, or another order of the four amino acids. The average human has 10 million nucleotides. Of that only 500,000 or 1 in 200 to 1 in 1000 are different from one human to another. The 'snips' that are measured have a transposition of two of the four chemicals that are linked in pairs, found in these blocks of chains. Either C will change places with T, or A will change places with G. It's the beginning of a mutation, or an adaptation to something relatively new in the environment. Nucleotides are parts of a gene, and also exist between genes. Scientists have found that when the snips--the unique nucleotide polymorphs--are in genes or immediately attached to genes they can predict a tendency to, or susceptibility for, some illnesses, such as some cancers, and responses to something in a person's environment, and or medicines. Snips do NOT cause illnesses or cancer. The 'snips' occur in groups, particularly within families, and, according to sex within the families
A group of 'snips' (SNPs) linked to a person's parent is called a haplotype. A haplotype is a group of genes inherited together, (from a single parent). It includes a particular group of snips. A Haplogroup is all the people who have the same haplotype. In the hierarchy, above that, related groups of haplogroups can be a kind of super-haplogroup, called a clade. All the groups within clades are related and share a common ancestor thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. For example: my MtDNA haplotype is coded as J1c2e. 'J1' is the clade or the super haplogroup, and represents the oldest common ancestor in all the haplogroups and haplotypes within J1. She lived about 45,000 years ago, somewhere near where the Middle East and the Mediterranean come together. The c2 within the J1 is the haplogroup of related haplotypes, the next more recent ancestor, about 11,000 years ago somewhere in the southern European or islands part of the Mediterranean. The DNA of Otzi, 'the Iceman' has been extracted and analyzed and his MtDNA is also part of the J1 clade and he was from northern Italy. This clade and most of the haplogroups in it, are the oldest with the largest of a small quantity in Sardinia, Cornwall and Wales, the western Pyrenees, including the Basque region, a small area of southern Turkey near Syria and Lebanon., the 'e' indicates the haplotype linked to my mother and those females nearest her, such as her sisters and their mutual mother.
Because haplotypes, haplogroups and clades are linked to one parent of one sex, they are only determined by special DNA tests that are only offered by a few of the popular DNA testing companies. These tests are the Y-DNA test for males, since only males have the Y-chromosome; and the MtDNA, for the Mitochondrial DNA found in both males and females but comes from the mother, and in females passes from mother to daughter, largely unchanged. Women can determine the Y-DNA in their families to determine relationships if their known full brother or father is willing to be tested, or else, failing to obtain that, a paternal cousin of the brother or father. A paternal line cousin will have the same last name as the father or brother. The Y-DNA doesn't change much from father to son, just as the MtDNA doesn't change much from mother to daughter. Over thousands of years, there are small mutations that do occur in both the Y-DNA and the MtDNA but they are few, small and at a predictable rate.
DNA Test Types
There are three main DNA tests. The most commonly used one, the least expensive, offered by all the popular testing companies is called the autosomal DNA test. There are 22 pairs of 44 autosomes in all humans, regardless of whether they are male or female; each pair of autosomes is a chromosome. These are not sex-linked and are called the autosomal chromosomes. The DNA in the autosomal chromosomes can be inherited from either parent's multiple ancestral lines back to the first human ancestors and ancestresses. Most of the popular DNA testing companies only do the autosomal DNA test. Only two or three companies, including Family Tree DNA, do the Y-DNA and MtDNA tests.
The other two tests, Y-DNA and Mitochondrial (MtDNA), are only for the sex-linked chromosome inheritances, Y-DNA for father to son and MtDNA for mother to children (especially daughters) . If you have a brick wall you are trying to break through on only your mother's maternal ancestry, the autosomal test will be less helpful in figuring out which cousins listed as matches in that company's, or any other database, are on that maternal brick wall line, without also having the MtDNA test. The Y-DNA and MtDNA tests are also the only ones that are used to try to predict health. Many health conditions and illnesses occur in one sex or the other, or more so in one than the other, such as hemophilia, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, some autoimmune disorders.
Analysis is based on mathematical formulas of probability from past observations and studies of regional groups. Some universities since the 1970's, and particularly since the 1980's, have sent researchers to every continent, and nearly every nation, to obtain samples, war, religion and general politics permitting. However, they have not always been familiar with the history of the nations and regions within nations and the samples are still smaller than they need to be. There are often fewer than 50 samples for large areas within nations, or tribes. Many people have taken statistics and understand that a sample of 36 is considered minimal--for a relatively small population that is presumed to be all about the same in nature. With a minimal sample, of a relatively small population, of say 100 or a few hundred items or persons, the margin of error in a statement of probability is going to be about 4 or 5%. The margin of error in a statement of probability is reduced again when the sample is about 100, then 400 or so, again out of a relatively small population that is being sampled. There is not a reduction of margin of error, though just by doubling or tripling the sample number. However, the human species has a population of 7 BILLION. The total number of all the persons in the three largest popular DNA testing companies databases is only 16 million of these 7 billion and it is not an evenly spread sampling. By far, the largest numbers of test samples come from the United States. So the databases are skewed. Most people who have had a smattering of statistics in a math or science class even in middle school understand that a wildly skewed database of samples is going to have a lot more errors in analysis and prediction--a much higher margin of error.
Also random sampling is valid only when the entire population of a region being sampled is the same, and all the countries in a continent or regions within the countries are the same size in population. If regions differ within a country, then each region needs a decent sample. You also need a greater amount of samples from larger more populous countries. That hasn't happened yet with any company's samples testing program. This is why when a person gets a test the results do not show what countries are in a person's ancestry, only regions, and can't show specifically any districts, counties or towns within countries.
For Native American ancestry it's even worse. The most that will show in the pie charts and tables under 'results' of most testing companies is something like 'North American Native American,' 'South American Native American.' The early university testers did not realize how different regions within nations could be. When it came to tribes within Africa, Australia and the Americas, entire tribes would reject testing and forbid members under the government of tribal leaders from being tested. Thousands of skeletons were reburied in agreements with tribes and governments without any DNA testing every being done--at the insistence of the tribes who believed non-tribal scientists had no respect for the native/tribal peoples and their ancestors. There is one other additional complication for identifying Native American ancestry, particularly in North America. Not all the Native Americans in North America, and possibly to some degree Central America as well, were from North Asia and came across the Bering Strait. Somewhere between 60-70% or so of the first persons who settled in the Americas did come from North Asia and most between about 18,000 to 7,000 years ago. However, it has been proved there was another group that followed the ice sheet edges hunting seals and sea life, from the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) that came to north America about 20-25,000 years ago. These people brought a particular tool kit with them that included the Clovis point-a spear point that was finely knapped and had a very particular shape and function. It's found in only three places: the Iberian peninsula, the northwestern most parts of Africa and North America. In North America, the greatest numbers of these points have been found in the eastern U.S., not the western U.S. Canada was still covered with glaciers when these people arrived. The people who came from the Iberian peninsula were a Mediterranean group, with relatives in Northwesternmost Africa as well as the Iberian peninsula. Scientists have called them 'the Solutreans.' They were not blond-haired and blue-eyed but had a Mediterranean complexion and brown, gray or hazel eyes and brown to black hair. Blonde hair developed in Europe only in the last 8,000 years or so and blue eyes are even more recent, only about 5-6,000 years old. The haplogroups and clades of the Solutreans, however, are different from those of North Asia and are still found in Europe today. They are not North Asians. This means some real Native Americans may have a maternal or paternal haplogroup or clade that is not what is commonly associated with Native Americans, a variant of North Asian clades or haplogroups. As if that didn't complicate eastern Native American DNA enough, we now know that the Vikings were indeed in North America and had small trading posts or places to resupply their fishing and exploring fleets. Two sites, including one showing evidence of iron smelting have been found in Newfoundland and a large incised rock off of Martha's Vineyard (which fits the description of Lief Ericcson's 'Vinland') was found and photographed decades ago and recently rediscovered, which was televised on Joshua Gates' Expedition Unknown which is in Viking Runes with the name Lief Ericcson on it and the date 1001. The runes are the type used at that time with the pecular 'spelling' of Lief's name. A Harvard researcher/professor, Barry Fell, found Vatican records indicating fur tributes being paid to the church from 13 churches in what is now the northeastern U.S. and Canada prior to the Black Plague of 1348. It is very likely that some northeastern U.S. and Canadian Native Americans also have Viking DNA from roughly 1000-1348 CE, in addition to the Solutrean DNA. Of course, this will also cause some very real Native Americans to have paternal or maternal haplogroups that we commonly identify as 'European.'
We also have considerable scientific evidence that two other Mediterranean 'empires' knew of North America and sent fleets here: what we call the Minoans ('Keretuans' in ancient Egyptian records--possibly the derivation of the island name 'Crete/Krete'), and their predecessors, a mostly island empire centered on Malta and parts of the Italic peninsula, which was the first empire to smelt and use quantities of bronze--an alloy of copper and tin. The ancient Maltese and Minoans/Keretuans were the first peoples to mine for copper and tin in Ireland, Cornwall and Wales and the northwest area of the Pyrenees and adjacent areas, including the Basque regions and what was later Galicia, the Balkan peninsula (what is now Croatia, mostly)--and settled in these areas. The Maltese and Minoans/Keretuans would have also, like the Solutreans, had ancient Mediterranean haplogroups. The Maltese and Minoans/Keretuans had the monopoly on bronze, one empire after the other, for over 3,000 years. Northern Michigan is dotted with thousands of their mines for copper. A shipwreck of a Minoan/Keretuan ship in the Mediterranean was found with copper ingots. When trace element/mineral analysis was done, which is used to identify the location a metal was mined (and also used in the gem trade to identify the countries and mines from which gems come), it showed that the only exact match with the same numbers and quantities of the trace elements was in Northern Michigan. Bronze-age Mediterranean peoples were in the Americas, even if they did not leave significant numbers of their own people behind, for over 3,000 years, and stopped coming (after the explosion of the volcano at Thera/Santorini, which effectively wiped out the Minoan/Keretuan empire) over 2,000 years before the Vikings and 2,500 years before Columbus and the modern Spanish and Portuguese. A small number of ancient Bronze age Mediterranean people, though, are part of the DNA of Native Americans, too. The important fact to remember though, is the Solutreans and the North Asians were in the Americans for up to 30,000 years, evolving, before modern Europeans. Even the Maltese and Minoan/Keretuan DNA mingled with the older two, had another 2,000--5,000 years to evolve with the others together as American DNA before modern Europeans. Native American DNA is simply a bit more complex than originally thought.
When the popular DNA testing companies were started, some of the universities, who first mapped the human genome, shared their original sample tests which were done without naming individuals, for privacy purposes, but identifying a few basic things like places the samples were taken, and sex of the individuals. Some of the DNA testing companies have done their own additional sample testing since then. The quantity and quality of world-wide samples for comparisons is not the same from company to company. For the popular DNA ancestry and relationship testing, most of what is in their data bases of DNA samples for comparisons has been submitted voluntarily. This means the database is skewed, analysis is skewed, the mathematical formulas for comparison are skewed and the probability of error in the analysis is greater. The smaller the company's database, and the world-wide sample in it, the greater the chance there will be an error in analysis and results. If you want the chance of greater accuracy with an ancestry, autosomal DNA test, alone, go with the companies that have the largest databases and a reputation in reviews over the years for the best--highest accuracy--cousin matches. Ancestry.com DNA and Family Tree DNA are one and two respectively. Ancestry.com has by far the largest, even if skewed, data base: over 10 million. However, to keep accessing the database to look for cousin matches and common ancestry, it costs a monthly fee. Family Tree DNA has a database of over 2 million-roughly the same size as 23andMe-but does a better job of cousin-matching, and does not require a continuous monthly fee to have continued access to the database. Additionally, if you get an inexpensive autosomal DNA test from either Ancestry.com DNA or My Heritage, you can upload the results to Family Tree DNA and have access to TWO databases, though there will be some overlap in the two databases.
Many people will get tested by more than one popular DNA testing company to compare results and look for consistencies. Generally, the more consistencies you find in multiple tests, the more accurate the results for those consistencies. Getting tested by more than one company, though, means the most popular companies with the largest databases do have some overlap. This also means that the total world-wide sample is then smaller than the sum of all the databases. Instead of 16.5 million different individual samples for the top four databases, together, there is likely to be only somewhere between 11 and 13 million--and all of them are U.S. skewed. To have much better analysis, predictions and estimations, with much smaller 'margins of errors' the companies need to share databases and have a total world-wide sample together of at least 70 million persons and they really need to pay attention to the history and migrations, invasions, etc. of the peoples in all the 190 plus countries, in addition to population size, per country.
One question we've heard on DNA testing is, does the Mormon church own or control any of the testing companies, particularly the largest ones, such as Ancestry.com? The answer is no the Mormon church does not own the companies. However, some of the oldest of the popular companies were started by persons who often were Mormons. Ancestry.com is headquartered in Utah. The reason is the Mormons were interested in DNA testing to identify ancestors and cousins because in their religion, if you want yourself and all your relatives to live again in the hereafter together in heaven, they all must be baptized in the Mormon church. Their church rituals allow their members to baptize their long-dead ancestors in absentia by knowing who they are and announcing their names during the ritual. As individuals, Mormons developed an early interest in DNA testing to identify ancestors. Other persons who developed an early interest are those whose written records suffered great losses from wars, such as Scots-Irish descended people whose families long lived in the southern or border states and African Americans who had the fewest and least detailed written records about themselves in the first place, because they were treated as property as things, not people. Other individuals who, as individuals, started companies have been those who had serious hereditary birth-defects and known genetic linked illnesses. Anne Wojcicki once the wife of Sergey Brin, a founder of Google, and Sergey's mother has Parkinsons' Disease. When Sergey learned he had the genetic markers for it also, Anne took interest and co-founded 23andMe. Now, just because you have the markers doesn't mean you will always get some illnesses, but why this is so is not understood. DNA testing and analysis is a new, powerful tool to help understand genetic related illnesses and how to treat and even prevent them.
Relationship Measures Drawn from the Tests
When you get your autosomal test results from most popular testing companies that also do cousin matches in their databases and show you the matches, the results of most DNA test 'matches' to potential cousins are stated in numbers of centiMorgans, (cM), a 'unit of measure of genetic recombinant frequency within a single generation.' A certain amount of genes, and strings of genes, from the same two parents to all their children have a very low probability of differing among their children within a single generation. All the children will have many of the same strings and have close to the same number of centimorgans from these strings in relationship to one another. These are the gene strings being used to determine relationships. All of this is also only within the 500,000 snips of that 0.5% DNA that make individuals individual. To identify close relationships, the researchers are looking for the multiple lengths of gene pairs that have a probability of a very low recombinant frequency within a single generation (0.01% chance). The matching number of these same lengths of the same genes, in two individuals, then, roughly determines how closely they are related to one another.
The most centiMorgans of these low frequency recombinant genes a female has is about 4800 centimorgans. The most a male has is about 2800 centimorgans. The more centimorgans a person shares with another individual in that testing company's database, the more closely related the two persons are likely to be. However, the closest relationships, are identical twins and triplets who are all the same sex, and of this grouping the most centimorgans will be shared by identical twins, triplets, etc. who are all FEMALES. Even full sisters and brothers are only in the range of 2100 to 2600 shared cM for males with their siblings and 2600-3100 for females with their own female siblings. By the time you get to second cousins, where two individuals share a great-grandparent, maybe only 100 years ago, a female may share with her second cousin only 238 to 504 centimorgans and a male with his second cousin only 43 to 238 centimorgans. This all gets skewed when comparing a male and another male, or a male to female, in a relationship. A first cousin relationship between two males can be as little as 230 centimorgans. For fourth cousins, where two individuals share a 2nd great-grandparent, only about 150-160 years ago, the amount of shared centimorgans for females with their fourth cousin will be as little as 30 to 60 cM, and for males 7-30 cM with their fourth cousins.
There is a monkey wrench in the wheel spokes of all these estimates of numbers of shared DNA, and what relationships might be. When cousins have married cousins, over time, shared centiMorgans increase. It makes the relationships look closer than they might be indicated from the family Bible, church records or civil vital records. DNA tests don't know, and can't really tell that any individuals being tested descend from cousin marriages. The companies' mathematical formulas being used for comparisons and to estimate amounts of relationships don't take into account individuals who have inbred ancestors.
2: What DNA Tests Can and Cannot Do and Why
Origin Accuracy – Database sample coverage
There is one big problem with all the DNA testing companies and their databases, which causes the most conflicting and erroneous results, particularly for the smaller amounts of DNA that might be used to identify places ancestors originated before emigration. All of their databases are too small and skewed. Not one single company has obtained enough samples from all countries in the world with which individual clients can compare their DNA test results. It affects the companies' own abilities to estimate percentages of DNA from regions and countries.
Most can only identify percentages from a few countries at best. They can show you maps of regions of multiple countries where your ancestors originated. This is because almost all samples in their databases are voluntary, and from countries with large numbers of immigrants to those countries. Even if the four companies with the largest databases pooled their test results, or allowed their clients access to all of them for comparison, they will still be inadequate to determine individual countries of origins, must less counties or districts within them. First there is some overlap of the databases. People will get tests from more than one company and try to compare the results, especially for the small amounts of ancestral DNA, which vary the most in the comparative tests. Not all of the companies offer all types of testing. A few companies test for health in addition to ancestry, or offer the Y-DNA and MtDNA tests, which show haplogroups and clades and health information can be looked up from those on several sites. Two of the best known, larger database companies that test for health or offer and use the Y-DNA and MtDNA tests are Family Tree DNA and 23andMe. The latter has obtained FDA approval for its DNA testing for health.
Last, but not least, the four largest companies and thus likely to have the least errors for what they offer in mapping, combined all their data, (the 10 million samples from ancestry.com, the 2 million of Family Tree DNA and 2 million more from 23andMe and the 700,000 or so from My Heritage), three-quarters or more of all 16 million or so samples come from just a few countries: the U.S., Canada, Australia and South Africa. Because these are the largest nations of mostly immigrants and where the most of other nations' peoples mixed, these people are most interested in getting their DNA tested. It's much harder in these nations to know where your ancestors come from. There may be a half dozen or more countries where your ancestors originated and where you have cousins. Of all your ancestry, the smallest percentages of ethnicity are going to be the hardest to determine accuracy and the ancestors who contribute their DNA to those small percentages are not as far back as most people think. Each parent (two persons) of an individual contributes 50% of that individual's DNA; each grandparent (four persons) contributes 25%. Each generation is about 25-30 years. One's grandparents are two generations before an individual only about 50-60 years in the past. Each great-grandparent (of 8 persons total), only three generations before an individual are only 12.5% of an individual's DNA, and each 2nd great-grandparent (of a total of 16 persons) is only 6.25% Those 2nd great-grandparents are only 100-120 years in the past and already they each are only 6.25% of their modern descendant's DNA. The 3rd great-grandparents (32 individuals total) are each 3.125% of their modern descendant's DNA and only 120-150 years in the past. Less than 3% is often called 'trace DNA' on the charts and tables sent as test results and has the greatest potential for inaccuracy--yet it is less than 200 years in the past. While most Americans have numerous ancestors, within the most recent 200 years, who were ethnically the same; there has been intermarriage with smaller groups, such as Native Americans, or people of West Asian descent, or some southeastern Mediterranean areas/countries. Some of the smallest minority ethnicities in the U.S. originated in some of the smallest countries in Europe and West Asia who have the smallest numbers of DNA samples in all of the popular testing companies databases.
Migration Trends – 'Deep Roots' in Europe vs. Continuous Migration in the US
Using just the U.S. as an example, most people in the U.S. move three or four times in their own lifetime and their children usually don't grow up where they themselves did. Their U.S. ancestors of 250 and 300 years ago, were mostly 2,000 or 3,000 miles away on the eastern seaboard, or in Northern Mexico or the Caribbean.
Prior to emigrating to the Americas, these European ancestors were in the same places as their own ancestors for much longer periods of time—as much as thousands of years. They also married neighbors, people like themselves. Americans now marry people of many ethnicities and races and have been doing so for 300 years. The more recent, 300 years or less, and now nearly constant changes in environment and marriage patterns cause problems in predicting health and because reacting/adapting to differing environments causes genetic change. Increased frequency of long distance migration of individuals and immediate families, it makes it harder to determine where individuals had their ancestry longest.
Additionally, all the intermingling of ethnicities especially in the most recent 300 years of people in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand makes it harder to link their modern mixed DNA to particular ethnicities in the past. Americans-North and South, Australians and New Zealanders are well on their way to becoming new ethnicities of their own, very different from their European, Asian and African ancestors. We are repeating what happened 20,000-30,000 years ago when the first North Asians mixed with the Mediterranean Solutreans to create the first Native Americans. We are on our way to becoming the next race of Native Americans, though it will be at least another 1500 years or so before we're 'there.' We are already sufficiently 'different' enough by our post invention of the railroad, frequent long-distance, movements to pursue non-farming economic opportunities and intermarriage among multiple ethnicities.
A big environmental difference that affected future genetic evolution occurred when almost all modern American ancestors crossed thousands of miles of one ocean or another to get here. However, for the present, and many decades to come. Americans will share some significant degree of DNA with cousins in Europe, Africa and Asia, represented by the greatest percentages of DNA shown in test results.
Paper Records and Family History Documents
Paper Records and Documented Family History are Still ImportantThey are Cross Checks to the DNA Tests, Particularly Analysis.
With all the change in environments so often and so fast, and the increased intermarriages among ethnicities and races, we need a cross check on the snapshot of individuals on the day of the DNA test. The best Cross Check is still a well-documented family history that is prepared with original, contemporary primary and valid secondary source records of the identified ancestors. The U.S. lost a lot of records in the U.S. Civil War in southern states and border states, when occasionally overzealous junior union--and CSA--officers and enlisted men were punishing the other side by burning down, shelling or blowing up, what was important to the 'other side.' This was not a general Union policy. Most senior officers realized that the purpose of the war was to hold the union together and eventually the states were to be rebuilt and they'd need tax revenues on property to do that. It's very hard to tax property when it's been completely destroyed and the records of who owned it are gone. The U.S. also lost records in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Even without the warfare, courthouse interiors were almost all made of wood and people could be clumsy or negligent with the candles and oil lamps used for lighting. What is left of church and civil records that might help people sort out their family history is mostly not on-line or easily accessible. One has to know the county or counties where one's ancestor lived prior to 1900 and go to those counties to find the records. There are good estimates that only between 10 and 20% of the records that still exist and would be helpful to family history research are online. The rest are still in the counties, and someone, a family member or a researcher the family employs, has to go and find them and transcribe or digitize them, in person.
The African Exception
Bad as the records loss was for everyone in the southern and Border States, it was hardest on one group who had the fewest records of all - African Americans. This is why the largest ethnic group using DNA testing to find family in the U.S. and their origins in Africa are the African Americans. African families from tribes who saw parts of their families ripped away in tribal warfare and then sold by African chiefs and kings into slavery abroad are just as curious as to what happened to their cousins and hoped they lived and prospered. Nations were still forming in Africa, boundaries changing, peoples within these nations were being moved about, ripped apart or slaughtered at the same time some were coming to the U.S. as slaves--sold by the leaders building nations, ripping others apart and so on. Some Africans aren't entirely sure where their ancestors were 200 years ago, also, as well as what happened to brothers and sisters, children and cousins ripped away in warfare. They are reaching out through DNA testing just as African Americans are and the combination of both sides of the Atlantic getting tests done is building bridges, re-establishing contacts among families and doing a better job of identifying ancestry, and cousins. Of all the nations in the world, the most samples have been voluntarily submitted by Africans in several nations, particularly Nigeria and Ghana, giving those Americans whose ancestors came from these nations the greatest chance of finding their ancestry and modern distant cousins.It is African Americans, and some African nations, who demonstrate right now the potential of a good database with enough samples from both sides of the Atlantic.
After those nations, it is finally dawning on Scots, and English, and to a lesser degree some Irish, that many Americans also tour and spend tourist dollars in the areas where they think they have ancestry and might have cousins. This past year, Ancestry.com and at least one other entity has decided it can now link Americans of British descent more precisely to countries in the British Isles and even particular shires of Scotland and England.
If you are African American you will have good luck finding both modern cousins in the U.S. and in specific countries in western Africa and your ancestral countries, even tribes within them in western Africa. If you are Scottish or English and only want to know your ancestry and cousins in the U.S. and parts of Scotland and England, your best luck is with Ancestry.com because it has the largest database and is now able to begin to identify countries of origin in the UK and parts of those countries.
Cross Database Cousin Matches
There is a caveat with Ancestry.com's DNA database though. You can only look for cousin matches within it if you keep your annual subscription up to date--and it costs money to do so. Family Tree DNA has been among the best rated for several years now for the quality of its cousin matches, though its database is smaller. and the fact you don't have to keep buying an annual subscription to access the database and look for cousin matches You even get notifications when new cousin matches show up in new samples in their database. If you get an autosomal test done by either Ancestry.com or My Heritage, you can also upload the results to Family Tree DNA and then be able to use the cousin matching and mapping without having to pay a monthly subscription fee. Family Tree DNA does have a cooperative agreement of some kind with Ancestry.com and My Heritage, but it's a one way arrangement. Only Family Tree DNA accepts uploads from all three companies. Family Tree DNA also has a global map showing you where your closest cousin matches actually live right now and, if they have submitted their email addresses, give you email addresses to contact them. Many European cousins of Americans live near or in towns or counties where their families, and those of their U.S. cousins lived for centuries. Even without knowing precisely all the countries and districts within countries where ancestors originated, these cousin matches of Europeans who live near where their families long have lived, are very good clues to the ancestry of their U.S. cousins.
To help further to identify ancestry and cousins, Family Tree DNA has segments where you can list all the KNOWN surnames in your ancestry and add a few word about them, such as the states and counties where they were, a range of years. You can also fill out and upload the basics of a family tree which the program will display for a reader in either family structure or pedigree with some of the other companies as well, such as Ancestry.com. At the least, DO put in the surnames in your ancestry that you know. Most people know their biological parents and grandparents at the least, and maybe one or two great-grandparents. If a person really wants help in finding ancestry and other cousins, the best results come from all of the persons in a database reaching out a little by entering known data--data where they have copies of records of their ancestors, not just a transcription or a download of an ancestry.com tree that was copied from others and has no documentation supporting anything in it.
Most family history researchers looking to finally knock down brick walls are not going to waste their time contacting a potential 3rd, 4th or 5th cousin who has given no information about their ancestry whatsoever, or are uploading an undocumented, copied ancestry.com tree, when there are others in the database who have an equal relationship who have shared a little, documented, information to help determine how a reader might be related. Most people are looking to share information not do the work for everyone in an extended family. Most people who live in the U.S. have at least one parent or grandparent whose ancestors have been in the U.S. at least four generations or more (140 years or more) and there are hundreds of cousins or more from that family online and in the databases.
Identifying Medical Risks through DNA analysis
First of all to answer another common question, no insurance companies in nearly all states since 2008 (45 states in 2008 had state legislation on the books) can use DNA tests or themselves do DNA testing to place individuals in risk categories and deny or reduce coverage or care, or raise individuals rates. They didn't even protest much when the states began enacting these laws beginning in 1997.
DNA tests such as those from 23andMe and Family Tree DNA's Y-DNA and MtDNA tests can show you haplogroups which are linked to tendencies or susceptibilities to illness and greater incidences of genetic-defects caused illness such as Sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis, etc.. People are not born with cancer, however, nor most forms of heart disease. Cancer and most forms of heart disease, and other illnesses are environmental and life-style illnesses in which people do not react well to differences in their environment, or certain new products. The reactions will not be the same to the same changes or products, even among siblings in the same family. Insurance companies did not protest most states banning the use of DNA tests to determine risks and premiums, risks classifications, etc., because the medical community and insurance companies already realized lifestyle choices and risks, and moving from one climate or one geologic environment to another, were greater factors in health and longevity.
In general, the three areas of highest numbers of cancers of multiple varieties are the United States, Oceania and Northern Europe. Only the U.S. can be said to have so much modernization and new sometimes not well tested products to cause a lot of additional environmental risks, so there is something else going on with these other areas. One thing all three areas have in common, though, is that these are the three last places colonized by peoples from outside those areas. Northern Europe could not be inhabited until the ice sheets withdrew, only about 10,000-12,000 years ago. The same with most of Canada, which has a much smaller population than the U.S.. Oceania was not inhabited until only 1,000 to 2,000 years ago when people from southeast Asia moved across the Pacific, by far the largest and most dangerous ocean, by long-distance boats and navigation. The United States, and the most Europeanized of the countries of the American continents, were only settled between 300 - 500 years ago. The environments of the Americas, Oceania and Northern Europe were thus the newest to humans and humans have had the least amount of time to adapt to them, just generally.
Besides that, many people of both sexes and all ethnicities were getting lung cancer and other forms of cancer that had once been rare, directly after years of smoking cigarettes once they were invented and widely used. Over-imbibing alcohol was clearly causing more liver illnesses, including eventually cancer. Certain chemicals like dioxin were rapidly seen as causing cancers in many animals and both sexes and all ethnicities of humans. We also now have one more inadequately studied known cancer causing phenomena world-wide. No part of the earth is unaffected by this. This is radiation exposure from the decades of intentional and sometimes unintentional, above ground atomic bomb testing done by, at this point, six nations in different parts of the world. The atomic testing, a lot like volcanoes put particulates high into the air which were carried by the winds all over the globe and settled in all the soil and water of the planet, but not equally so. There are maps of zones of amount of fallout done by the U.S. and international groups. In the U.S. zones 1 were within about 300 miles radius to the three main test sites in Washington, Nevada and Alaska. Zones 2, however, were much larger and eastward of the first zones because of the pattern of northern hemisphere winds, mountains and lakes. Zone 2 in the U.S. is roughly between the Minnesota-Iowa state line in the north to the Oklahoma-Texas state line in the south and the longitude of Cleveland in the east and Denver in the west. In Europe, the largest atomic bomb test in the world took place off the northwest coast of Russia and zone 1 was over 500 miles around that site. Zone 2 included most of western Russia, northern Ukrainia, the Baltics, all of Scandinavia except for southern Norway, and most of Germany. The Russians poisoned most of the arable land in Russia, and most of its own people. Then it allowed Chernobyl. The French and U.S. tested in the South Pacific and France also had tests in north Africa. The British had tests in Australia. China had tests in the deserts of Northwest China and Inner Mongolia. None of the long-term effects of radioactive isotopes with long half lives in soil and water and ingested by plants, animals and people have been studied, nor differences from the generations that preceded the nuclear bomb testing. Insurance companies are aware of this, and so are most governments.
Thus, an increased genetic susceptibility to developing cancer from a particular environmental exposure does not mean anyone will absolutely get cancer and the genetic component to the problem too small a consideration for insurance companies, compared with large known potential environmental problems that put billions of people at risk and are largely beyond the control of most people. Twins studies done by major U.S. and European universities in the last few decades consistently have shown this.
Last, in part because of all that is now know how cancer actually begins and the environmental causes, since 2008, most states have had the added protection of state laws specifically forbidding insurance companies to use genetic testing or results of genetic tests to determine risks, or coverage at all, the costs of premiums and more. As of 2009 only six states had yet to do this: Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Washington. If a person doesn't live in those states and wants to get a health-related test done to learn if one might have greater inherited susceptibilities, and to learn better lifestyle choices to avoid these illnesses anyway, then he or she should not be afraid to get the test. Then, when a person gets the results, he or she should go to websites like those of the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Mayo Clinic, major medical research magazines that have articles from major universities and institutes in developed countries and read. Find the consistencies in the newest research and studies about what to eat, drink and do, and what to minimize or avoid, to live a healthier lifestyle even with some small genetic susceptibility. Then there fewer things to prevent you from living a long healthy life to 80, 90 even 100 years old.
Even a genetic caused illness is no longer an automatic death sentence with increased research and development of gene therapies using stem cells and other techniques to turn off the epigenomes that trigger some illnesses or replace defective genes. Some cancers are now being cured, really cured and not just stopped for a while, with some of these therapies.
3. How Can the DNA Test Databases Be Made More Accurate?
Sharing your Tree
First, when you take a DNA test with one of the major companies be sure to also look at how their database is constructed and if there are segments in which you can either put in a list of the surnames you know your ancestors have and about when and where, or a short tree (6th cousin/4th great-grandparents or closer) can be entered, do it. Enter what you know to share information that might help everyone find more ancestors and cousins.
Lobby Your Cousins
Second, lobby your cousins, particularly first through third cousins, to get DNA tests and make sure there are males getting Y-DNA tests, as well as females getting MtDNA tests. If you have the financial means, pay for some cousins to get at least autosomal tests, which are during the holidays typically under $80 from one of the four major database companies, and if it's from Ancestry.com or My Heritage make sure that it is also uploaded to Family Tree DNA. Pool resources and make sure your paternal line DNA and your maternal line DNA (Y-DNA and MtDNA) are in the databases somehow. Identify your father's closest paternal kin and your mother's closest maternal kin to have choices.
If you have known relatives in Europe, or Asia or Africa, or on Native American reservations, persuade them to get tested, even if you have to occasionally pay for the kit yourself. We need to expand the non U.S. parts of the databases, all of them. Urge governments and the companies to help each other together to set up thorough sampling of all countries worldwide. Urge them to also spend some money to help get all the remaining paper vital records on-line: the wills and probate/administration records, the civil records, church records with the baptisms and marriages, estate collections of transactions, family papers that were left to colleges, all of which help identify family members, show where they actually lived, how long and in what environments as the good body of paper records is a cross-check to snapshot DNA tests and mathematical formulas trying to predict responses to environments and longevity and help people what they need to do for themselves to improve their own health and longevity. Remind them that everyone wants to live as long as they can with good health and the most effective health care these days is that which can respond to individuals and families as they are, given their particular environments. Tell them the governments, families and insurance companies will all eventually save billions of dollars or euros, or whatever, annually, by having more effective health care that can respond to individuals, as needed. Tell the governments also that knowing one's ancestry and cousins promotes tourism within the U.S. and to all the countries from which people emigrated or where they have more distant cousins. It boosts the economies of all the countries and promotes greater understanding of one another, cooperation and peace.