Using the right DNA testing tool to answer the right ancestry question

I’ve received a couple of emails over the past 18 months or so asking how I approached my decision to do a DNA test. I thought it would make an interesting – and hopefully helpful – blog post. I am typically asked why I have taken different kinds of DNA tests like an autosomal test, yDNA test, and an mtDNA test. In a nutshell, it is all about using the right DNA testing tool to answer the right ancestry question.

UPDATE: 25 June 2014. My DNA results are in. You can read about the results here:

DNA tests can answer quite a few fundamental questions:

  • Who am I related to?
  • Where did my ‘immediate’ ancestors come from (e.g. ancestors within the past two to a dozen or so generations)?
  • Where did my ancient ancestors come from?
  • What countries are my ancient ancestral ‘homes’?

No one DNA test can answer all of these questions. Like any tool, we get the best performance from a specific DNA test only if we’re absolutely clear about what problem we’re seeking to solve. You wouldn’t use a screwdriver instead of a hammer to nail two planks of wood together. lol well, you might… just expect results that might be a bit different from what you intended 😉

And believe me when I say DNA tests are tools – tools from a very interesting genealogical toolbox.

When it comes to DNA testing, there are basically 3 kinds of tests to choose from. Each is a distinctly different tool which solves / answers a specific question.

So what kind of DNA tests are out there?

Autosomal DNA Tests

An Autosomal DNA test looks at both your paternal and maternal lineages together. This kind of DNA test will include results that will determine any of your direct family relations from both of your parents’ ancestral lines on your family tree. In a nutshell, this means this kind of test includes DNA results that include you, your siblings and descendants, your parents and their siblings and descendants, your grandparents and their siblings and descendants, and even your cousins and distant cousins.

The example below from displays the possible matches/results which stem from an autosomal test:

Many Autosomal DNA tests will provide a result for your ethnicity. Not all of them do. So it’s important to read the fine print.

None, as far as I’m aware, provide results for your ancient DNA results (e.g. ancestors who lived 3,000+ years ago, for instance). This kind of test isn’t engineered to look at your ancient admixtures. Nor will it provide clues about your ancient ancestors’ migration pathways as humans began to leave Africa and the Middle East to populate the rest of the planet.

Think of an autosomal test as a lost ‘modern’ kinsman finder. It’s a great tool to use if you have gaps in your family tree that fall within the last couple of hundred years or so.

Y-DNA Tests

A Y-DNA test looks exclusively at our direct Paternal male lineage. Basically, this means it goes from a male DNA tester to his father, to his father, to his father, and so on. This is illustrated in the tree below:

A Y-DNA test can only be taken by males. It’s not a sexist thing – the Y chromosome only exists in male DNA. This test provides information about your family’s ancient male ancestry by reviewing the testing male’s predicted haplogroup, which will provide information about your male lineage’s ancient origins.

Y-DNA matches are determined by the number of marker values (alleles) a man (let’s call him Male A) taking the test shares in common with another male (Male B). This kind of DNA test will tell both Male A and Male B if there is a Y-DNA match in their paternal line. As a tool, it not only provides information about ethnicity and admixtures – it can lead two men to directly trace a common ancestor.

Because these specialized tests give you information about your direct paternal line, it limits the number of ancestors you can learn about. On the one hand, it provides a wealth of information about our male ancestors and their descendants. On the other hand, it cuts out all of the women in our family tree.

Worry ye not, for there is the third test which addresses this…

mtDNA Tests

An mtDNA test looks specifically at our direct Maternal female lineage. Basically, this means it goes from you to your mother, to her mother, to her mother, and so on. This is illustrated in the tree below:

mtDNA inheritance
Diagram showing mitochondrial DNA inheritance. Squares = males | circles = females

The mtDNA test can be taken by a male OR a female. Both genders inherit mitochondrial DNA from their mother. While a mother passes her mtDNA on to all her children, only her female children, in turn, pass it on to their children.  Just to be clear, only the daughters within a family carry the mtDNA forward in perpetuity – solely through their daughters, generation after generation. If a woman gives birth only to sons, like my paternal Roane grandmother did, her mtDNA legacy stops with her sons, who do not pass this on to their children regardless of the gender of their children. Men can do a lot of things – passing on the mtDNA they inherited from their mothers isn’t one of them.

In the image above, taken from Karen Cumming’s article Demystifying DNA 3: mtDNA testing, Individuals E, F, D, C, and A are all descendants of Female B. “If A is unable to take the mtDNA test herself, you can see she has a number of options, assuming that the above represents only a bloodline. Her brother, C, could take the mtDNA test, her first cousin D, or even her second cousins, E and F. All have an unbroken line of female descent from B and all have the same mtDNA. This is an important point to note if you are looking to identify close living relative matches, say in adoption cases: a match could equally be a mother, sibling, aunt, cousin or grandparent, all of whom are descended from the same maternal ancestor, B.”

An mtDNA test provides information about our ancient maternal ancestry. It essentially tells us where the females in the maternal line migrated to when they came out of Africa. Our maternal DNA matches provide haplogroup comparison and may not be as generation-specific as our Y-DNA test, since the mtDNA has been passed down relatively unchanged for 20,000 years. This does provide fascinating information about our maternal ancestors’ migration path and can give you clues to commonalities between your family tree and others with which you are sharing research.

Now back to me…

I had a long think about what genealogical problem, and what genealogical question I needed to answer when I decided to do my first DNA test. At the time, I was far more interested in discovering my ancient roots. I wanted to learn more about the global cultures I was linked to at the genetic level.

The question, quite literally, was: who on earth was I related to?

So I did an mtDNA and Y-DNA test at the same time. The answer these two tests provided to that question gave me a peek into my most ancient roots. It was the right tool for the right job. These specific tools provided answers that, without exaggeration, changed me forever. I see the world, my place in it, and the rich tapestry of human cultures around the globe in a fundamentally different way than I did before I took these two tests. The mind-expansion bit was a bonus. The question I had answered was only achieved because I was very clear in my mind about what it was I wanted to achieve.

An autosomal DNA test just wouldn’t have achieved this. They aren’t meant to. It’s not what they were designed for.

Autosomal time!

The time has come for me to delve into the waters of autosomal DNA tests. Why? I have spent years building an enormous family tree courtesy of By enormous, I mean there are around 13,000 or so individuals were included. There are gaps in and amongst the various branches of this extensive tree. There are also what I refer to as ‘orphan’ branches. My orphan branches are lineages that I have researched but have been unable to connect to the main family tree. In short, I haven’t found a common ancestor within the past 150 years or so to assign an orphan branch to its rightful place on my family tree.

These orphan branches frustrate me no end. It’s like they sit there taunting me every time I log into So I’m tackling them from a different angle. If I can’t locate the records I need with the necessary information to solve these genealogy puzzles…I’ll hopefully find descendants from these branches who can provide the answers. That’s where the autosomal DNA test comes into play.

Through, I’m also in regular contact with a number of people that I know I share a common ancestor with…we just don’t know who that common ancestor was.

In this scenario, an autosomal DNA test is an appropriate tool to use.

My DNA test kit
My DNA test kit

Now I ummed and ahhed about which one of the (staggering) number of autosomal tests to use. In the end, it made sense to use’s DNA test. The results will be integrated with my family tree on and cover my maternal and paternal lines. It also puts me in touch with the descendants of long-lost kin who share a common ancestor with my kinsmen and kinswomen.

For any number of reasons, I haven’t found all of the present-day descendants from all of the branches in my family tree. This kind of test can also help provide some answers to this family research problem.

If it provides even a handful of lost pieces to my family tree puzzle, it will be well worth the price.

I’ve just mailed my test sample back to It will be a few weeks’ time to see what results it yields.

Last but not least…

National Geographic Society's Geneographic Project website
The National Geographic Society’s Geneographic Project website

At some point in the near future, I will be taking yet another DNA test. This DNA test is part of the National Geographic Society’s The Genographic Project This test is basically a Y-DNA and mtDNA test. So I don’t really expect to make any new discoveries through it. The information this last test provides has already been accomplished by my Y-DNA and mtDNA tests. I’m doing this last test as a kind of genetic science philanthropy – adding my own DNA sample to the database the National Geographic project has built and continues to build. It’s my wee bit for science.

I’ll also feel like I’ll be doing my bit to help support the Genographic Legacy Fund, which works to conserve and revitalize indigenous cultures around the world. And as you’ll know from my posts about the cultures I’m genetically linked to, I share DNA with some pretty rare and protected cultures in India, Central Asia, and Africa.

So my parting words about DNA tests?

  1. Be very clear about what genealogy question you want to be answered or what genealogy problem you need to be solved. This will determine which of the 3 kinds of DNA tests covered in this post will be the right one for the job.
  2. I wouldn’t advise doing all 3 DNA tests at once. Believe me, this can be mind-bending and life-altering stuff. You’ll need time to reflect and really think about what you’ve learned (it’s been almost two years between me doing my Y-DNA and mtDNA tests and then doing the autosomal DNA test that I’ve literally just done). I would suggest doing the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests at the same time.  The order you take your DNA tests should be determined by Point #1 above.
  3. Do your research on the DNA test services you’re thinking about using. Google the companies for customer satisfaction reports, customer complaints, reviews, and any news articles. Seriously. I did nearly four months of research before committing to the two companies that I ultimately chose. And I am so glad I did. Like anything on the internet, there are DNA testing sharks, scams, and shoddy services. Will the test do everything you want and/or need it to do? Again, always read the fine print.
  4. Think about the level of disclosure you’re prepared to give online…to absolute strangers. Yes, you may share your DNA with people your DNA testing will point you towards. However, they will be strangers. Everyone has his or her own comfort level. What’s yours?
  5. I’d advise you to never, ever give your home address. If and when you eventually meet these new relations, you will hopefully be able to gauge whether you should give this information or not – and when. I’d also suggest never giving your landline number either, not until you meet. As for mobile numbers, I have hard and fast rules which work for me and my comfort levels. As for sensitive family information (names of your children, grandchildren, family secrets, etc), each person will have his or her line in the sand/threshold.
  6. Notwithstanding Point #5 above, DO engage if you decide to use a DNA test service that puts you in touch with distant relations. If you select a privacy option that enables other members to contact you via the service, and a member you share DNA with sends you a private message through the service, acknowledge the message. If you’re not prepared to engage with people who share your DNA, you will need to ensure that you select the privacy option which prevents this from happening.
  7. Many DNA testing services provide members with a Profile Page. If you have any limits, this is a great place to (politely) put them. You can put things like: “Let’s exchange emails first before we exchange numbers” or “I prefer to use Skype rather than phoning” Use your Profile Page to politely draw your line in the sand to avoid any unintentional transgressions.
  8. Always remember your tone of voice when you’re online. Writing in caps equals shouting. Re-read everything you’ve written to ensure it is clear – and not likely to offend, isn’t open to misinterpretation, and doesn’t convey aggression, rudeness, etc.

I haven’t really found any online DNA testing service site etiquette guides…so I hope some of the points given above are helpful!

Free comparison report for the major DNA testing companies comparison report

Consumers Advocate – a small organization that researches with the intention to help – has produced a free report that compares the major commercial DNA testing companies. The in-depth report is available via 

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7 thoughts on “Using the right DNA testing tool to answer the right ancestry question

  1. How The Heck Did You Find Over A Thousand Relatives And How Long Did It Take? I’ve Found Nearly All On Family Search. Do You Think It Would Be Worth It To Be On More Than One Genealogy Site I. E. A Paying One Also To Possibly Dig Up More?

    1. Lol Hi Alisha. It’s taken about 6 years to build the family tree. It’s still far from complete. There are maiden names that are yet to be discovered for a number of women who married into the family. And, if course, uncovering more ancestors born in the mid 18th Century in Virginia.

      Hand on heart, I have to say both FamilySearch and the paid version of have yielded amazing but different results. Each service has its strength. Each has its weakness. I chose to host my tree on Ancestry. More of my distant relations were using it, so it made sense for me to have it hosted there. It also met more of my research needs.

      There are a myriad of online genealogy services. I tried a few if them when I was starting. In the end, based on my needs and requirements ( which won’t be the same for everyone) I made a choice that suited me.

      If you’re looking to make contact with extended family relations, testing another site out, using a free option to begin with, might be a something to consider.

      1. Too True. On Another Site I Found That 2 Ancestors Had 20 Plus Children. Each. When I Wanted To Build Up On Ancestors I Didn’t Quite Think That Was What I Had In Mind. I Knew People Had A Lot Of Kids Back Then But The Other Ancestors Had At Least 10.

  2. Then when you get the hang of using your DNA results with new cousins on one service, you can transfer it to several other ones & GEDMATCH, for even more spreadsheets & late nights!!

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