Ancestry DNA finally comes through with the discovery of Steckler cousins

This story starts years ago, back when I first began looking into my family history.

One of the first documents I ordered from the New York City records archives was the marriage certificate for my great-grandparents Jacob (Jack) Klein and Lillian Herman. My first post here at Cousinist documents the situation. Continue reading “Ancestry DNA finally comes through with the discovery of Steckler cousins”

The Slawitz family: Feige Slawitz Berman and Chaia Sarah Slawitz Stein

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”

FamilyTreeDNA’s My Origins offers a glimpse of geographic ancestry

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.

FamilyTreeDNA My Origins
FamilyTreeDNA My Origins

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.

AncestryDNA
AncestryDNA

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.

AncestryDNA results mildly interesting

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.

AncestryDNA Results

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.

DNA Matches

AncestryDNA match Info
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.

Autosomal DNA analysis

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.