I have to admit that I haven’t had a lot of time for family tree research over the last few years. The result is that progress has been slow.
But as more and more people are sharing their own research on Ancestry.com, I was able to stumble upon some proof that confirmed the theory I posited in my last entry way back in March 2016. (Has it really been that long?)
The crux was that the inscription on the headstone for my third great grandmother (my mother’s father’s father’s mother), Feige or Fannie Berman, included the words “our beloved aunt and grandmother.” At the time, I was unaware of Feige having any siblings. And research was difficult because sources (her son’s marriage certificate and her own death certificate) gave her two different maiden names (Short, and Slobus, respectively). Continue reading “The Slawitz family: Feige Slawitz Berman and Chaia Sarah Slawitz Stein”
Where do I come from? The DNA analysis aspect of genealogy keeps trying to answer this question. By comparing an individual’s DNA with the same from a number of control groups, science is trying really hard to come up with an answer. The more I look into these DNA analyses, the less I think they hold any relevance to identity. And the explanation for this lack of relevance is completely clear, and if more people understood this, they’d probably stop using DNA as a gateway to how they are composed as an individual.
The problem is that every human inherits about half of his or her DNA from each of his or her parents, but it’s impossible to predict which half, or what DNA markers are included in that half. This is how this problem manifests itself over two generations in an incredibly simplified example.
Let’s say you know the birth locations of your four grandparents, and they happen to be Germany (father’s father), England (father’s mother), Lithuania (mother’s father), and Romania (mother’s mother). If you were to describe myself with just this information, taking the notion of Jewish heritage out of the mix, you would say you’re quarter German, quarter English, quarter Lithuanian, and quarter Romanian.
This assumes that each of these grandparents are completely “full booded” in their geographic make-up — and that’s not just unlikely, but impossible, and is yet another fault with searching for some kind of genetic explanation of geographic heritage.
Even if the grandparents represented some kind of perfection, your genetic makeup would more than likely not contain four equal components. Your father inherited roughly half his DNA from each of his parents, so he is roughly half German and half English. Your mother did the same, so she is roughly half Lithuanian and Romanian. That’s only because in this strange hypothetical example, the grandparents are each homogeneous. The succeeding generation, everything falls apart.
You inherit half your DNA from your father, who is half German and half English. But the half you inherit is not necessarily split evenly between your father’s German half and his English half. The DNA you inherit — your admixture — could be only his English DNA, it could be only his German DNA, it could be precisely 50% each side, but it most likely is some kind of unbalanced mix. So half of your DNA is most likely an unbalanced mix of German and English, and the other half is most likely an unbalanced mix of Lithuanian and Romanian. Your sibling could have inherited a different mix from each of your parents, and could thus have a significantly different geographical genetic fingerprint than you. But why should your sibling be different? He or she had the precisely the same family history through the centuries and the same migration patterns.
By the time you look back to your sixty-four fourth great grandparents, the chances are high that one is not reflected at all in your DNA today. I increasingly believe that while ancestral maps based on autosomal DNA tests are interesting to look at, they can’t really tell you the full story people really want to see.
Above is what FamilyTreeDNA’s new My Origins analysis has determined for my geographical make-up based on my autosomal (FamilyFinder) DNA test. It’s not terribly different from the analysis provided by AncestryDNA with that company’s autosomal test.
These might reflect an accurate approximation of the geographic locations some of my ancestors lived at some point in their lives, but it doesn’t tell nearly the complete story of my ancestors. Some might be completely missing from the calculation. The geographic regions may only extend to several hundred years ago. The genetic material that represents a focus in Poland may come from a different century than the material that represents Afghanistan. There is no way to turn this information into a description that has a strong relevance to who I am.
So if you decide to take a DNA test looking for some sort of insight into your genetic composition, keep these caveats in mind. These results seem to exist only to satisfy curiousity with a scientific “answer,” even if that answer doesn’t exactly answer the question people really have about who they are.
In an effort to learn more about my family’s history, I’ve ordered several DNA analyses.
First, I ordered an autosomal DNA analysis from Ancestry.com. This test was an attempt to identify missing links in my family tree. Almost every week, Ancestry.com provides me with a list of new potential matches — other customers who tested their DNA who may be third, fourth, or more distant cousins. Since the company provided me with the initial results, I’ve received hundreds of these new potential matches.
I have yet to confirm a relationship with anyone listed as a potential relative. These false positives may be a common problem among those with certain DNA associated with Ashkenazic Jewish ancestry.
The Family Finder DNA test from FamilyTreeDNA provides a similar type of analysis. Again, I have hundreds of matches; in fact, I sent a few emails to those listed as potentially being third cousins, but I’ve received no responses. This is an old service; those who received their results many years ago may no longer be checking the email addresses they provided originally, or just aren’t interested in determining whether there is a relation.
FamilyTreeDNA also offers testing of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA. The Y-DNA test focuses on patrilineal ancestry. Assuming the analysis is correct, I fall within haplogroup G2c. Or at least, that is what I assumed based on the markers when I received the data from the test. Since then, FamilyTreeDNA has changed the way it describes haplogroups. I am now categorized as G-M201. My testing did not go far enough to determine my specific subgroup within haplogroup G — that would require a more expensive test. Part of haplogroup G migrated from the Middle East into Europe while another part migrated to South Asia.
When I ordered the mitochondrial DNA test from FamilyTreeDNA, I chose to full package, which analyzes the complete mitochondrial DNA sequence. This gives me the fullest picture of my matrilineal ancestry, which I share with my mother, her sister, and her mother’s sister. The designation for my mtDNA haplogroup subclade is K2a2a1. The individual in charge of the haplogroup K community on FamilyTreeDNA contacted me soon after, helping me navigate all the information available.
The image on the right shows the migration path for haplogroup K. The “Eve” indicated on the map isn’t the biblical Eve, it’s Mitocondrial Eve. All mitochondrial DNA can be traced back to this theoretical woman, the most recent common ancestor of all living women, who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago. The K2a2a1 subclade of haplogroup K is identified as being exclusively Ashkenazi.
In addition to the proposed relatives listed among the Family Finder matches, the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests also provide a list of potential matches. Very few people provide their family trees, however, so it would be almost impossible to determine if there are any close relatives in the system without sending out mass emails.
Taking all the DNA tests into account, I appreciate the idea that I can trace the historical migration of my patrilineal and matrilineal ancestors back to practically the origin of the species, but those two lines make up a small portion of me. Going back four generations, my Y-DNA and mtDNA represent 12.5% of my ancestry (two ancestors of sixteen). Going back eight generations, the same DNA represents only 0.4% of my ancestry (two ancestors of 256). Go back 1,000 years, about 50 generations, and my Y-DNA and mtDNA represent about one five-hundred-trillionth of my total ancestry (assuming there has been no duplication of ancestors, but is also impossible because there were only about 400 million people alive in the year 1000).
That’s the extent of my satisfaction with these DNA tests. So far, the results have done little to identify relatives who might help me build my family tree. There has been one potential close call, but my skeptical nature prevents me from agreeing to a potential relationship without some sort of documentation, or at least some fairly convincing evidence.
In order to determine more about my ancestry and genealogy, I ordered several DNA tests last year. The first was an autosomal DNA test from Ancestry.com. The purpose of this test was to find potential relatives by comparing a large portion of my DNA fingerprint to others who have also provided their DNA to the same project.
The results haven’t been very encouraging. Although the Ancestry.com DNA database seems to be growing very quickly, and I receive a list of new potential every week, since July last year the best match I’ve found so far is a potential third cousin with a confidence level of 98%. As far as I can tell, this does not mean there is a 98% chance of this individual being my third cousin. I don’t know what these numbers really mean, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m part of a community — Ashkenazic Jews — whose DNA tests are more likely to present false matches.
And that’s why I have hundreds of potential matches with Ancestry.com at a confidence level of 96% or higher, listed as potential fourth to sixth cousins. I have checked the families trees of every potential match at this confidence level, for those who make their family trees available to others in the community, and I have yet to find a single confirmed match. The results are a little disappointing, but that doesn’t mean some of these matches aren’t cousins. There are a few obstacles:
I have details going back only four or five generations for most of my ancestors.
Most of my potential DNA matches have even less information listed on their trees.
To confirm a fourth cousin you need to have a great great great grandparent in common, and I only have information about a few of mine.
That may be because many other testers have not provided enough information about their trees, or that my ancestors may have siblings I have not yet discovered, but the results are a little disappointing.
One potential DNA match is a neighbor’s family from my childhood, and we may have found a link based on what might be my second great grandmother’s maiden name, but I have several conflicting records, and there are some other location discrepancies. It might be interesting to find out the girl next door was my third cousin once removed, but this is a long way from being a verifiable fact.
Late in the year, I ordered a similar test from FamilyTreeDNA, which this particular company is branding as “Family Finder.” Because the two companies have different sets of users, in theory, I could find different potential cousins by submitting my DNA to FamilyTreeDNA. Although FamilyTreeDNA supposedly corrects their matching results to take the problem with Ashkenazic DNA into account, my results, provided at the beginning of 2013, identify 230 potential distant relatives and two close relatives — second or third cousins. For the most part, FamilyTreeDNA does not link family trees to DNA, so I can’t peruse potential cousins’ families for matches. Emails to the two potential close relatives have not yet been answered.
What is the point of all this? Why spend so much money for DNA tests to discover cousins? At this point, the discovery of new blood relatives is unlikely to change much in my life. It seems to be for the sake of curiosity only. And with what seems to be such poor results so far, I’m not sure whether there’s a point in continuing to browse through strangers’ family trees looking for a possible connection. At the same time, I haven’t exhausted all resources yet. I have very little information about my ancestors who lived in Russia and Romania.
Sources from Lithuania, England, and Germany have been helpful, but these come from records that are already available online. To go further into my ancestry, I’ll need to find records on the ground in Eastern Europe. Perhaps a potential relative’s family tree provides some clues, like a brother or sister of one of my ancestors I haven’t confirmed yet. The chances seem low, however.
This summer, I ordered a DNA testing kit from FamilyTreeDNA. Having already completed autosomal DNA testing with AncestryDNA, I opted to order a Y-DNA 37 test from a different company. Testing the Y-chromosome offers different results than autosomal testing. The latter helps you carve a picture of your entire genetic composition, roughly equal parts from each ancestor in each generation. That is, each of your eight great-grandparents contributes roughly 12.5 percent to your genetic composition with these tests.
The Y-chromosome test and the mitochondrial DNA test are different. The Y chromosome provides clues only to patrilineal ancestry, your father, your father’s father, his father, and so on, back through time, through only the male contributions. The test uses mutations in the genes to determine ancestral heritage, and through this information, can classify every male into a migration group. Any males with matching genetic markers has a good chance of being related through a recent common ancestor.
I enrolled in FamilyTreeDNA and provided the details of my furthest confirmed paternal ancestor, Moses Landes. While I do have one document indicating Moses’s father’s name was Joseph, I don’t have any birth or death dates for him, so I didn’t include that information in my profile. I joined a group on the website where other Landes (or Landis) descendants meet online to discuss their findings.
My genetic composition does not fit with the other members of this Landes group. It’s not surprising, given that our surname does not extend very far. From what I’ve been told, this family did not go by the name Landes in Romania.
The DNA indicates I am a member of haplogroup G2c, a branch of haplogroup G. This haplogroup represents Ashkenazi Jews, and some evidence suggests that the G2c branch reflects a migration out of Sicily to northeastern Europe in the Middle Ages.
FamilyTreeDNA links me to others who have had their DNA analyzed and whose DNA markers are similar to mine. There are no exact message for all 37 markers tested, but when limited to 12 markers, the site’s database offers me eight exact matches and 131 matches one step away. Evaluating 25 markers, I have two matches two steps away, one of whom is also two steps away when evaluating all 37 markers I’ve tested. There is a 91 percent chance according to FamilyTreeDNA than he and I share a common ancestor within 12 generations.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure where to go from here.
The Family Finder service, another autosomal DNA test, might provide me more insight into my relatives, considering FamilyTreeDNA’s database is more extensive than AncestryDNA’s at this time. The Mitochondrial DNA will provide migration information for my maternal ancestors. I’m not prepared at this time to spend more money on testing until I can glean more value for the tests I’ve already purchased.
Less than five weeks after returning my AncestryDNA kit to the lab via mail, I was notified that my results have been processed. With AncestryDNA, the results are a moving target. As more samples are analyzed, they will be able to provide more accurate information. As the test offered by AncestryDNA is an autosomal test, analyzing the entire genome rather than just the Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA, the results paint a picture of my full genetic make-up (rather than just patrilienal or matrilineal heritage).
AncestryDNA provides two types of results: my genetic composition and potential relatives who have genetic markers similar enough to mine. My genetic composition isn’t too surprising.
If there’s anything to be surprised about, I suppose it would be the 17 percent component of Scandinavian descent. I’m not aware of any ancestors from Denmark, Norway or Finland, but my knowledge only goes back four or five generations. Most of my ancestors lived in Russia or eastern Europe before coming to the United States and are, from what I can tell, Ashkenazi Jewish, so the assumption is that they arrived in Europe centuries ago in an early migration from the middle east. The Sturmwald family arrived in the United States a generation or two prior to most of my other ancestors, and they came from Germany. My guess is that I might be more likely to find a Scandinavian background by tracing that family back, just because it is geographically closer than Romania, Lithuania and Russia.
The 2 percent of my genetic composition that is identified as “unknown” could perhaps be identified in the future after AncestryDNA collects more samples.
AncestryDNA also includes in these results a list of potential relatives. My results presented one possible third cousin and many probable distant cousins. Many of the users on this list provide public family trees, but I was unable to find someone who shared an ancestor with whom I am familiar. There would be hundreds to look through, so I focused only on the first few pages of results. There was only one tree that included a surname I recognized from my tree, Stein, but that is an incredibly common name, and the location didn’t match up with the location of the Steins in my tree.
Here’s the closest identified relative based on DNA.
Again, this is early in AncestryDNA’s life cycle. Many users have not received their invitation to participate, let alone have had their results processed.
Over time, it’s possible my list of possible distant cousins will grow.
There’s also some concern that DNA matching programs have difficulty avoiding false positive family matches among “European Jewish.” AncestryDNA warns:
Are you surprised by the number of matches? Well, there’s a good reason. It’s a little complicated and science-y, but the bottom line is that it appears our system returns inaccurate matches for people of European Jewish descent. The good news is that our match predictions will improve over time as we grow our database of DNA signatures. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to reach out — you may just discover that distant cousin you never knew you had.
When a reason is complicated and “science-y,” it would be nice if there was some kind of link where I could learn more information. I’m not afraid of a little science.
What would have been nice would be if AncestryDNA’s matching results gave me new clues for researching my heritage, particularly the surprising Scandinavian component. Perhaps now that my information is in the system, a potential distant cousin will find my information and contact me. But, even if that does happen, what is the real value in connecting with someone who may be a fourth, fifth or more distant cousin? We might be able to identify a common ancestor — but then what?
In terms of value, I’m not convinced that AncestryDNA is a great deal for the price. It’s not that the results didn’t meet my expectations. In terms of genetic composition, there were no surprising discoveries, just a new question about the Scandinavian component. At this time, the matching section of the results hasn’t been fruitful. Even if I were presented with obvious cousins, the price is still high.
A few days before receiving notification that my results were available, I also enrolled in FamilyTreeDNA. From reviews I’ve read, FamilyTreeDNA is preferred for discovering details about Jewish ancestry. FamilyTreeDNA has many more options in terms of DNA test types, and the cost can be much more expensive than the AncestryDNA test. Overall, the value of expensive DNA tests for genealogy is suspect, but the only way to know is to participate.
In addition to my family history, I’m curious to find out what my genetics have to say about my ancestors. A few weeks ago, I ordered Ancestry.com’s new DNA analysis service. There is a dizzying array of different types of DNA tests available from many vendors, but I chose the new AncestryDNA test because I had already been using Ancestry.com for my primary family tree maintenance for the past year.
I also liked the theory behind autosomal DNA testing. Unlike Y-chromosomal testing which analyzes only patrilineal genetics or mitochondrial testing which analyzes only matrilineal genetics, autosomal testing looks at the genetic information inherited by all ancestors. This is the same type of testing featured on the popular television programs Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots.
Unfortunately, DNA analysis is not an exact science. The ability for Ancestry.com to be able to provide accurate results insofar as geography, it needs to have a wide enough database to compare users’ DNA results. In theory, Ancestry.com will update users’ test results automatically in the direction of accuracy as the comparison database continues to grow. Ancestry.com might also be able to match you with relatives you didn’t know you’ve had — if you and they have also agreed to connect DNA results to family trees hosted on the website.
To get a more complete picture of my ancestry, I will likely follow these results up with other types of DNA tests from other vendors. With Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial testing, I will be able to determine a selection of my ancestors’ migration patters.
As I mentioned, I ordered Ancestry.com’s new DNA kit a few weeks ago. It arrived fairly quickly, and within a few days of delivery, I followed the instructions for taking and preserving a sample of my DNA. Unlike many other test that require a cheek swab, this test required saliva. I spent a minute or two depositing saliva into a plastic tube. By closing the tube, a preservation chemical was released into the tube, and mixed with the saliva. I placed the tube into a biohazard bag, sealed the self-addressed envelope, and dropped it off at the post office. In a few weeks, I should see the results online.
I’m disappointed that Ancestry.com does not currently allow users to export their genome data. This information could be useful. Other services allow data imports in place of providing additional samples. The idea of a company owning rights to someone’s DNA fingerprint is a little frightening, too. You never really know what a corporate entity would do with this type of personal information. Even if their terms and conditions currently say one thing, there is often a clause allowing the company to change its terms and conditions at any time.
When I receive the results in a few weeks, I will certainly share them, and I’ll write more about my experiences with DNA testing for genealogical research. Keep reading to see Ancestry.com’s entertaining instructional video explaining how to prepare the DNA sample.