In her Aging With Geekitude series, self-professed “recovering technophobe” Erica Manfred writes about her adventures with technology and shares what she’s learned as she navigates the not-so-scary waters.
DNA testing has been around for quite a while in criminal investigations and paternity suits, but only relatively recently has it been available to people who want to trace their roots, and the newer tests are far more accurate and in-depth than this type of testing used to be. Now DNA testing for genealogy has become a craze – everyone wants to know where they come from, me included. Still, I got a DNA kit from Ancestry.com’s AncestryDNA about a year ago, and because I wasn’t sure about the process and was nervous about the results, I kept putting it off.
Then I took the plunge.
I don’t know why I was so nervous. After all, I’d seen the TV show with celebrities who got their DNA analyzed and found out they had ancestors from all kinds of unexpected places. African-Americans celebs were especially surprised by their mix of white, Asian and American Indian ancestors. I was hoping for a couple of exotic roots myself.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I spit into a little tube, sealed the package, sent it off and waited to be notified by email that my results were in. No surprise – my DNA showed I am 92 percent European Jewish, but a couple of more surprising ethnicities were in the mix, too: 3 percent Caucasus, 2 percent Italy and Greece, 1 percent Irish. The Caucasus is probably from Cossacks who passed through on a pogrom; the others I can’t account for. I do happen to love moussaka and step dancing, so maybe they’re in my blood.
Ancestry.com told me that people are more diverse than they think, unless they’re like Ashkenazi Jews, a group that has inbred for so long they have a distinct marker. If you’re French or German, your signature may be a lot more diverse and harder to decipher. Think about how many times France was invaded over the centuries.
How DNA testing works
Until recently, all we had available for genealogy purposes was mitochrondrial DNA testing, which looks at the “Y” gene passed down the maternal line and gives just a general grouping or region of origin. Now a much broader test is available – the autozomal test, which tests about 700,000 markers instead of the older version’s 48. This test goes back 10 generations, and gives you ethnicity and cousin matching. (I used Ancestry.com for testing; scroll to the end to see several other options.)
All DNA testing companies provide customers with a kit that includes a test tube that you are instructed to spit into. You then mail your spit using a pre-printed label and a box that’s been provided.
Once Ancestry.com had done the analysis (which took few weeks), I got an email with my ID number and a link to a page with my results. The company claims to have the largest database of DNA matches at 500,000. They also have 16 billion historical records, including census forms that are very revealing, and 60 million family trees, so unless you were born under a rock, the database is likely to yield at least some information.
Using my DNA results, I was able to match mine with DNA from others who had sent their spit to Ancestry. I discovered a few surprise third and fourth cousins, one of whom is very active on Ancestry and has found 953 of his relatives. He messaged me about comparing our family trees, which we haven’t done yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I hope to contact other cousins in the future.
Building a family tree is the next step. You have to fill in data about all the ancestors that you’re aware of, preferably with first and last and maiden names, birth dates, siblings, spouses, children etc. You don’t need a DNA test to build a family tree, although it helps to identify relatives. Ancestry.com provides handy software for free which is pretty easy to use. A link for each relative pops up with a box where you can put in an ancestor using as much information as you have, even if it’s just a name; then the site generates a genealogical chart. You fill out as many branches as you can. The site’s system comes up with connections to some of their records and marks those on the tree. I got “leaves” for my mother and grandfather, with their birth dates, birthplaces and birth names. I put in my parents, Mikey Katzman and Freda Masin, their siblings, my cousins and anyone else I could think of.
What you can find out
Digging deeper to demonstrate what a search can unearth, an Ancestry researcher showed me the 1930 census data for my mother’s family. It showed that my grandmother Fannie was 48 in 1930, which meant she was born in 1882. Her birthplace was Russia and she emigrated to the U.S. at age 20 and married my grandfather when she was 27. Although she died before I was born, my mom had always told me she was an independent woman, and the fact that she remained unmarried and on her own in turn-of-the-century New York for seven years proves it.
My grandfather Louis, 52 in 1930, was born in 1878; he also emigrated in 1902 and became a U.S. citizen. That’s important, according to the researcher I spoke with, because it means I could look up his citizenship papers to find his original name (which I haven’t done yet). The census also showed he was a prosperous businessman, a proprietor of a book bindery, who owned his own home valued at $11,000 in 1930 – $150K today
Using expert researchers, the show “Who Do You Think You Are” discovered that Anderson Cooper’s ancestor owned 12 slaves. Sally Field is related to the man who founded Massachusetts. Cynthia Nixon’s great-great-great grandmother killed her husband with an axe. I’d heard rumors in my family that there was a horse thief somewhere back there. If I dig deep enough, maybe I’ll find him.
The nitty gritty
A DNA test costs $100 on Ancestry.com, but it is not the only site (see below). To start searching Ancestry.com’s records database, you have to pay a subscription fee of $19.99 per month for just U.S. records, or $34.00 per month for all 15 billion globally. Of course, you can sign up for a month, do your research and cancel your subscription. Or you can hire an expert genealogist through the site, but they’re not cheap.
Other DNA sites for genealogy
The autosomnal testing world changes frequently, but currently tfour sites other offer testing for genealogical purposes along with other features. The folks at Legal Genealogist have tested them all; visit that site for their 2015 reviews of where to get the most bang for your DNA buck.
- AncestryDNA – the only site that links your DNA to your family tree. $99.
- Family Tree DNA – the biggest, best and among the most expensive, according to Legal Genealogist; also, this site’s test uses a cheek swab rather than saliva – easier for the very old. $199.
- 23andMe – this Google-backed company started with a mission to crunch the DNA data it collected from individuals as a way of finding cures for diseases like Parkinson’s; on the side it could tell you what disease markers it found in your DNA. The FDA barred it from providing that depth of health information to individuals, but you can still end up with more info than who your cousins are, including some disease-related genes that you carry. Your data might also help 23andMe, working with drug companies, find cures. $199.
- Geno 2.0 – by testing through this National Geographic service, you help the National Geographic Genographic Project figure out where humans originated and how we populated the planet. $199.
Unless you’re the oldest in your family, before you start mapping your tree, make sure you talk to older family members and get as much information as you can, while you can. I wish I’d talked more extensively to my parents before they died. It would have made filling in my family tree a whole lot easier.
Have you had your DNA analyzed? What did you find out?
Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction. Friend her on Facebook.