Genetic Genealogy: it’s all in the Hill (DNA) – Part 3, No Silver Bullet

This is the third in my series of posts about my genetic genealogy journey. I ended my last post at the waiting game phase, all kits on their way. Things have progressed and I thought it helpful to provide an update.

I have included the information below of the various test stages to give some indication as to the variability of posting/processing times:

Test Type Posted Arrived Lab Processing Starts Anticipated Result Date Result Arrived
Ancestry autosomal (mum) 27 June 3 July 7 July 6-8 weeks 13 July
Ancestry autosomal (dad) 27 June 15 July 18 July 6-8 weeks
FTDNA Family Finder (me) 29 June 11 July including lab processing stage 5-19 August
FTDNA Y-DNA 37 (dad) 29 June 13 July including lab processing stage 23 Sept – 7 October
FTDNA mtFull Sequence 29 June 13 July including lab processing stage 26 August – 9 September

There is a lengthy delay in the anticipated result date of the FTDNA Y-DNA test. Hopefully this is a good sign, due to its popularity and hence the number of testers.

But the thing I found must perplexing was the difference in timescales for mum and dad’s Ancestry tests. These were both posted the same day from England to Dublin. The results for mum’s test came through significantly ahead of schedule, in fact even before dad’s vial of spit got there.

I really did suspect his was lost in the post but, when I asked, Ancestry said it allows 20 working days before a test is designated such.

More amazingly the FTDNA tests posted a couple of days after dad’s Ancestry one, and destined for Texas, arrived before his Ancestry test.

But dad’s test did finally reach its destination. So the moral of the story, which seems to be the DNA theme,  is do not give up hope and do not assume tests posted on the same day will arrive at roughly the same time! And one final thing to watch out for, there can be a delay between the test actions being annotated on the site and the email notification reaching you.

Mum’s Ancestry results came in on 13 July, a mere 17 days after posting. I have now had a quick preliminary look at them and these are my initial findings.

First thing to say is the site is easy to navigate and a pleasing mix of charts, tables and expandable “?” Boxes. It is all very intuitive and clear.

In terms of ethnicity there are no surprises. My mum has an English mother and Irish father. Her ethnicity results show 63% Great Britain, 34% Ireland. Of the four trace regions, Ancestry state “it is possible that these regions appear by chance and are not actually part of your genetic ethnicity”. So on this basis I am not claiming any tentative Armada, possibly false in any case, ancestry.

Mum's Ancestry DNA Test Ethnicity Breakdown

Mum’s Ancestry DNA Test Ethnicity Breakdown

The results correspond with all my research to date (going back to the early 17th century on mum’s maternal line). It is good to have general confirmation of my research. But this is more an interesting coffee-table talking point rather than anything more substantive.

Then onto the meaty stuff – the DNA matches. The upfront view is mum has 44 4th cousins or closer and one shared ancestor hint. The latter is like the Ancestry tree shaky leaves.

I excitedly went to the “View all DNA matches” button and immediately felt overwhelmed, but thrilled, to see 57 pages of them, with around 50 entries per page. These are split into relationship ranges and confidence levels. The 4th cousin box refers to possible 4th – 6th cousins range and this is the first batch of matches listed in mum’s case, as this is the closest identified relationship.

Mum naturally has a significantly larger distant cousin category, with a possible range of 5th– 8th cousins. This is the remaining 56 and a bit pages.

Ancestry assign the following “confidence” ratings to the matches: “Extremely High”, “Very High”, “High”, “Good” and “Moderate”.

At this point it may be worth mentioning that ISOGG has a useful piece explaining the Ancestry confidence scores and their realism. It may be that the percentages for sharing a common ancestor are set too high[1]. There is also the caveat that the “AncestryDNA database is 99% American, and it is not yet known if these ranges will apply in the same way to other populations”.

Enthused I spent an afternoon ploughing through the first page of matches, only to become increasingly frustrated. This page included all 44 4th cousin matches. Six of these had “extremely high” confidence markings and the remainder “very high”. There were also two “very high” and four “high” distant cousins on this page.

Clicking onto the individual matches brings you to the next level. There is a “Pedigree and Surnames” tab which identifies all the surnames associated with the match’s tree. Helpfully shared surnames are pinpointed at the start, so this cuts out trawling through a whole list of surnames to pick out the ones in common. There is also the tree section on the right hand side of the page.

A second tab entitled “maps and locations” has a summary column as well as a map with coloured indicators identifying your family tree locations (blue) and those of the DNA match (mustard). Any shared locations are immediately recognisable, as the pointer for these is green.

A word of caution though – the maps are not entirely accurate. I uploaded my tree via a Family Historian GEDCOM file. The Ancestry programme has some fundamental discrepancies because my descriptors do not accord exactly with the Ancestry format. For example some of my Yorkshire ancestors are placed in the Isle of Man, Kent and the North East. I have corrected this.

Of less importance, but useful to know, is that if a vague location descriptor is attached, such as England or Ireland, the pointer will appear in the middle of the country. Or some may have assigned a county level rather than place-specific location. For example I have seen several matches with County Mayo as a location, (including a couple on my tree), but no further detail as to where in Mayo. So do not take the pointers at face value.

Worth using is the “Note” box. I am entering brief details about the DNA match’s tree and any obvious connections. It is also helping me keep track of the reviewed matches.

Example of Ancestry DNA relationship/confidence levels and my notes

Example of Ancestry DNA relationship/confidence levels and my notes

However my initial enthusiasm soon evaporated as it began to feel more like an exercise in futility. Of the 44 4th cousin matches six have private trees, although some of these do have public trees elsewhere on Ancestry; 11 have no tree; and five have less than ten people in their tree. Possibly some of these are individuals trying to find their DNA roots. Though this means straightaway a significant proportion are rendered relatively meaningless for my DNA purposes, at least for the immediate future.

When I first embarked on this journey I did wonder about linking my hitherto private tree to the test. I have for several years steered clear of putting my tree in the public domain, for privacy/copying reasons, having had my fingers burned years ago when I had a public Genes Reunited tree. It was a horrid experience and that copied information is still out there on a website.  It is not something I ever wish to repeat. So I get perfectly why some trees are private. Others may, for personal family sensitivities, decide against a public tree. It is after all an individual decision.

However in the end I decided to do a reduced, skeleton-form tree specifically for DNA test purposes. My reasoning for doing this is  having a private tree might cause people to by-pass me; it might be of assistance to other potential matches and facilitate contact in the interest of a shared goal; it could eliminate protracted fishing-questions; and it hopefully will  minimise the risk of wholesale copying, my big fear.

Anyway, back to the DNA results. Of the remainder of mum’s matches with trees of more than ten individuals, a couple are of peripheral interest and I may in due course make contact. At least though there is something concrete to base any contact with the tree-owners on. For the other matches on this first page there is no obvious connection.

I will go through the remaining 56 pages of matches over the coming months. But I will prioritise my search focusing first on those with larger, accessible trees.  I will also make more judicious use of the location/surname search filters as this will indicate common data  even in private trees, although in the latter cases just at the top level. And hopefully, as I become more familiar with what the site has to offer, my frustration will decrease.

And I have not entirely given up hope. My mum’s shared ancestor hint is a distant cousin match with a “good” confidence rating. This appears on page four of the matches. There is a tree attached. And, from this, the match is at 6th cousin level. It does not break down any brick walls for me, but it is a start.

So, in summary, I am finding that genetic genealogy is no silver bullet to break through brick walls. It is more of a long game and another tool in the genealogy box. Hopefully DNA match success rates for me will improve as more and more people, especially from England and Ireland[2], sign up. I am even considering doing the test myself.

But the bottom line is you are still reliant on people linking a meaningful tree to their DNA test; or those with private trees responding to messages; and those trees being accurate. 


[2] Only available here at the start of 2015


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