Understanding the Ancient Origins Revealed in Big Y DNA Tests
Imagine it: archeologists working an ancient site in Scandinavia uncover the remains of a man found in ruins only recently discovered. They run DNA tests on those remains and determine they date back thousands of years.
They attach that information to a database of collected DNA and with sophisticated software they are able to determine connections to the currently living members of this ancient dude’s family.
For the living, having this genetic information from a family member who lived in a time without records is very valuable.
Even though there is no way to know names or dates from such an ancient family member it can provide clues that can be useful in family history research.
This is the cutting edge of modern DNA family history research. A year ago I took this Big Y test. Here are some of the results I was given:
This image is called a time tree. It shows identified ancient people by location and the approximate dates of their birth.
On the far left is the oldest person they have so far found that I connect to – dating back more than 2800 years.
Further down the timeline we see other individuals that I share DNA with born at other times – and their locations are shown as mostly in England and Ireland.
~ What is Y-DNA? ~
At the urging of a distant cousin far more versed in Y-DNA testing I paid to take this test. It wasn’t cheap – better than $400. But I did it as a direct descendant Westover on our documented paper trail of genealogy because we all want to know more about our family history.
This test, I figured, could help us not only discover ancient roots but also to connect other family members who also engage in DNA testing.
Y-DNA testing looks for the Y-chromosome, which is passed down from father to son. This is a rather constant standard, genetically speaking. It is what allows one to trace ancestry over thousands of years.
While this standard is constant there are limitations to remember: only males can take these tests because only males have a Y-chromosome.
This makes having a testing plan critical. If your research goal is on a particular family line then a male test candidate will need to be recruited from that line in order to benefit from genetic testing.
This is why the distant cousin I referenced above contacted me. He was researching the Westover line and he needed a directly descended Westover to take the test.
~ The Burden of the Science ~
DNA testing of any type is a challenge for anyone researching family history.
In our connected world we have come to expect instant answers.
As family history research has advanced I have become rather amazed at people who think all they have to do is get an account at Family Search or Ancestry.com and they will have instant family history answers.
In some cases, that may be true. But it is only because someone in the past has put in the work of compiling and connecting all that ancestral information.
DNA advances the false expectation of instant answers.
Some actually think that if you just spit in a tube the results you get will be formatted with names, dates, stories and pictures.
DNA research is instead a more complicated course.
It’s data and data never lies. But connecting dots and understanding the data to find the names, dates, stories and pictures is actually very difficult and, sometimes, can be fraught with heartbreaking discoveries.
For me, with the first DNA test I took through Ancestry, the initial results were less than helpful. I took the most common DNA test, known as an Autosomal DNA test.
Everyone has autosomal chromosomes. This is what makes taking this DNA test so common and Ancestry claims better than 20 million testers in their database.
That’s just one tidbit of DNA testing everyone needs to remember. The more people testing the more accurate the results are for everyone.
That is because results are compared against each other. The more they get to test the stronger than information becomes. This is what Ancestry reports when you take one of these tests:
This is interesting information, to be sure, but it revealed nothing new to me. I knew all this long before ever taking this test.
A lot of people get overly excited about these kinds of results.
I’ve known people who swore to be Italian claim the test results are faulty because they don’t show any Italian ancestry results. Others seem to take pride in being, say, 25% Italian.
What they fail to understand is that these are merely “Ethnicity Estimates”, the operative word there being “estimates”.
Others are chagrined to learn that years after taking this test their ethnicity estimate changes.
At one time the report shows them being 25% Italian and then years later it shows them only being 9% Italian.
Some opt to take DNA tests from other companies such as 23 and Me or FTDNA. Frequently, those tests show a different result than what Ancestry shows.
What gives? I thought this was science, right?
There’s nothing wrong with the science.
All results are tied to the database of the company they buy the test from. If Ancestry has 20 million testers but another company only has a fraction of that it is reasonable to assume the results are going to look different.
That is why getting DNA testing requires some investment in the science.
One needs to understand just what the test is actually testing for and how big the DNA sample pool might be – and then take the results only as “clues” instead of proof of ancestry.
~ Investing in DNA Research ~
I’m sharing my DNA test results here because I’m not afraid to admit this is all over my head.
The same thing happens to me every time I sit in a presentation attempting to explain DNA. The presenter inevitably ends up being a geeky, overly-excited scientist who slings terms around like everyone works for NASA.
These aren’t normal people.
So let’s just say our purposes here are NOT to be yet another resource for explaining all this stuff. There are plenty of websites out there to do that.
I’ll just say you are going to spend a lot of investment in DNA family history work that goes beyond the money. It takes time to learn and understand this stuff.
But there is value here, depending upon your situation. I know many, especially those who are adopted or who have run into 19th century brick walls, that have overcome hurdles through DNA tests.
But every single one of them have had to take a deep dive into the science and the data to get where they are. Forget about instant answers.
For me, it has taken a year of less than consistent effort to begin to wrap my head around that $400 Y-DNA test.
It will remain a work in progress. It will remain a target to especially help with the long-range family history work beyond that 500-year level. It will, like all family history work, remain an ever-changing, never-finished project.
I welcome feedback. I welcome help. I welcome lots of Tylenol when it comes to this stuff.
I also welcome learning through your experiences with DNA testing. I do encourage testing of all types, even expensive tests like these. Through these tests we help not only ourselves but we can help others with them – both now and in the future.