July 10, 2018

The Search for our Ancestry (XLIX)

Being A Good ‘DNA Relative’
By Angelo Coniglio
AncestryDNA recently announced that over two million folks have had their DNA tested on that venue. The numbers of participants in the testing venues 23andMe and FTdna and others also continue to grow, as well as the transfers of raw DNA data to the GEDmatch.com site. 
Many participants in DNA testing do so to expand their family tree and the knowledge of their ancestors. That was my main reason for having had my DNA tested. There are many exceptions. Some need to find out critical health information that may help them understand their propensity for a given hereditary medical condition or disease. Some may be adopted, or children of unknown fathers, and want to know their biological families. And some want no more from DNA testing than to know general information about their ethnic heritage: for example, do they have Amerind or Jewish, or French ancestors?  In these latter cases, DNA testees may be protective of their identity and wary of making information about their own heritage generally available.
But of those who have tested primarily to increase their knowledge of family do themselves a great disservice by being chary of the facts they make known in their respective DNA testing venues. Here’s why.
Many participants in DNA testing have the mistaken belief that the results of a single DNA test, their own, will somehow provide a complete family tree with names and dates of birth, death, etc. of direct ancestors and collateral relatives. This is never the result, at least not from the person’s DNA test in and of itself. The value of genealogical DNA testing is in its ability to match DNA between two or more participants, give an estimate of the general relationship between them, and make it possible to collaborate with relatives designated as ‘DNA matches’ (relatives, a portion of whose DNA matches portions of your DNA).
Different venues use different techniques to make this possible. AncestryDNA shows the general ethnicity that it has calculated for any person who is a ‘match’. If that person has a family tree on Ancestry.com, and if the tree is ‘Public’ (viewable by others), the tree and a separate list of participants are available to view. 23andMe doesn’t utilize family trees, but it allows users to include in their ‘profile’ information like numerous ancestral surnames, towns of origin, and current residence. It provides ‘chromosome mapping’, a chart that shows which portions of your DNA matches others’. ftDNA utilizes features similar to those of 23andMe, plus it allows family trees to be posted. ftDNA also offers ‘projects’ like the ‘Sicily Project’; groups that can share posts regarding their ancestry. GEDmatch is not a testing site, but collects ‘raw data’ from users of the other venues and puts them all in one data base, enlarging the pool of ‘DNA relatives’. It too, provides chromosome mapping, even more detailed than that of the other venues, allowing graphical comparison of DNA with everyone in the system who has a match with you. It also allows uploading of your family tree. 
The ideal interaction between ‘DNA relatives’ in any of the testing venues would be: You see a ‘match’ and go to his/her profile.  It shows the person’s ancestral town(s), a list of ancestral surnames, and/or a pedigree chart (family tree) of direct ancestors. You see names, dates or places that are familiar to you, possibly even some that are in your own tree.  You contact the ‘relative’ privately through the message system of the venue, or in the case of GEDmatch, by using the email address that the ‘match’ has provided. The person responds and you compare notes, family memories, etc. to develop the ‘paper’ relationship you have with him/her.
The problems with this seemingly straightforward approach are many: 1) your ‘matches’ don’t provide any ancestral town or surnames in their profiles; 2) they don’t have a family tree on-line; or 3) if they do, it’s not ‘public’; or 4) if their tree is public, a great many of its members are marked ‘private’, reducing your ability to recognize known relatives; or 5) whether they have a full profile and tree or virtually none, they don’t respond to your invitation to discuss your relationship. The result can be dozens of relatives who match DNA with you, but whom you will never get to know, and they will miss out on all the information you may have on their ancestors.
So, if you have had your DNA tested for genealogical reasons be a good ‘DNA relative’. To increase your chances of finding voluminous family information that you did not previously have, take my advice: upload your family tree to the DNA venue and make it public; include your ancestral villages and surnames in your profile, and most important of all, RESPOND when contacted by someone whose DNA matches yours.
Coniglio is the author of the book The Lady of the Wheel, inspired by his Sicilian research. Order the paperback or the Kindle version at http://bit.ly/SicilianStory Coniglio’s web page at http://bit.ly/AFCGen has helpul hints on genealogic research. If you have genealogy questions, or would like him to lecture to your club or group, e-mail him at genealogytips@aol.com