My DNA Test

Last week I was idly checking for my DNA results, as I had done every day since my drool departed for Utah, even though results weren't expected until the end of August.

Well, Surrrrprise!, surrrprise!, as Gomer Pyle always said. The results were in!


I don't know why I'm blocking out my last name. Since saying sayonara to my stateside schoolmarm (ack, can't think of another s-word!), um, career, keeping my Google-ability low is no longer important. Harmless habit, I suppose.

So, what you're looking at here is the DNA status page. It shows how I'm displaying my name (choice of real name or user name) to other users; it shows who in my uploaded family tree is linked to the results (me); and it has a link to where I can control things, like if other matches can see unshared components of my predicted genetic ethnicity, etc. (The rationale behind hiding one's predicted genetic ethnicity is probably worthy of a long and dry essay by some sociologist.)

I clicked "View" and, as the page loaded, had the same two reactions I had when I received my first letter from Uncle Pat, my grandfather's uncle and - for too brief a time - one of my best friends. 1. Should I wash my hair? 2. Should I grab some chocolate?

These are, in fact, my standard reactions to anything momentous where I suspect I'm going to be settling in to the sofa for awhile, making sense of it all. Same thing happened when I realized I was going to see porn for the first time. I paused the video, went to the kitchen and made some cake batter, then returned, big bowl and spoon in hand. (I didn't worry about my hair because I was a vain teen in those days; I had stupid hair, yes, but it was always squeaky clean... palmfuls of mousse aside.)

On this occasion I soldiered through without the sensory festive accoutrements of coconut conditioner smell and milk chocolate in my throat. Would there be matches? What kind of matches? Close matches? Distant matches? Would I find out something new?

And what about my ethnicity? What would I be? Would I be Nordic? Would I be Celtic? Would I find fortune rewriting Que Sera, Sera?

There were matches! Twelve new cousins in the 4th-6th cousin range topped the list, with 95-96% probability. It looked a bit like this:


(Although not quite like that because I've matched to a third cousin since then.)

Via the dropdown box and sliding bar at the top of the page, users can filter results to show everything, or only certain degrees of probable relationship, or only unopened matches (this quickly became a critical feature), or only favourites (see the gold stars? I "fave" the ones where I know how we are related). Sorting is either by relationship (if you want to see the best/closest matches first) or by date (to just see the latest matches).

Sorting by date has also become critical for me because I keep four pages of matches "unread." That's over 200 matches. Why? Because:


Grrr. People with locked trees. Grrr. Or no tree linked at all. (Hopefully something they'll fix as they realize it affects their own results.)

True, those matches in the screenshot above are "Moderate," meaning it's pretty much a coin toss as to whether they're related. A little worse, actually. More like 40% chance of being related, 60% chance of nuh-uh. However, I've found enough matches in the "Moderate" and even "Low" and "Very Low" sections to know it's worth looking at everything.

Of my initial 12 "High" matches, three had hidden trees. I asked all of these people if they wouldn't mind looking at my tree for possible matches. (Ancestry suggests that you ask them to invite you to see their private tree, but that felt very forward.) Two of the people invited me to their tree. The other has never responded (although she logs in daily). Grumble.

I have been (block your ears because my own horn is about to toot) a vigorous beta tester (this DNA test is new for Ancestry, although the test itself has been around awhile), sending in feedback and suggestions at such a rate that I expect a job offer soon, or a visit from a couple of guys with pipe wrenches. One thing I've suggested is the option for people to make their private trees visible to DNA matches, or at least close DNA matches. This would save a lot of "Can I see your tree?" awkwardness, followed by the person having to manually verify that you're a DNA match, then having to navigate the tree-sharing interface, which apparently can be difficult if you don't know to send it to the person's user name, not their display name.

As with existing private tree sharing protocol, all information about the living would be blocked.


Further down, I'll list some of the other suggestions I've made. If you're an user who has taken the test and agrees with my suggestions, I urge you to chime in with feedback. (The feedback button is on all the DNA-related pages, upper right corner.) That way Ancestry will know what's important to users. After all, it's in our best interest for Ancestry to offer an amazing DNA test product. More customers for them = more matches for us. (Especially since Ancestry doesn't allow users to download their DNA data for use on third-party sites. That's definitely a suggestion worth making. Other companies do allow this, but their tests also cost a bunch more. Perhaps data download could be an optional extra fee?)

So, when I looked at those "High" matches, I found that one of them had a "hint" for how we related.


(This is actually a more recent match - that lone third cousin from a day or two ago. The info is blocked out because this is my mother's side of the family, and even though I never-ever give my mother's actual maiden name on all those occasions when you're asked to provide it for security purposes, and even though finding out her maiden name is quite easy, why court fuss?)

(And no, it's not "Lewis." Heh.)

At this writing, I have 16 pages of matches, or about 800 matches overall.


Subtracting 200 hidden/nonexistent trees, of the 600 matches left over, I've had about six of these hints. (Actually a few more, but they were so clearly unrelated that I reported them to Ancestry as bugs.) I think it was six. You have to open each match to see whether there is a hint, which is actually rather boggling. (Hang for a minute while I go make another suggestion...)

Here's how those Shared Ancestor Hints played out:

High3rd cousin (1R)10Brackin Lewis, greatx3 gf
High6th cousin (1R)16Jesse Stanley, greatx6 gf
Moderate6th cousin (1R)16John Simmons, greatx6 gf
Moderate6th cousin (2R)17John Stanley, greatx7 gf
Low5th cousin (1R)14Nathaniel Preston, greatx4 gf
Low5th cousin (2R)15William Coker, greatx6 gf
Low7th cousin (1R)18Edward Grantham, greatx7 gf
Low7th cousin (1R)18William Nodding, greatx7 gf
Very Low5th cousin (1R)14Benjamin Knotts, greatx5 gf
Very Low4th cousin (3R)14William Coker, greatx6 gf
Very Low7th cousin17Peter Stalcop, greatx6 gf

("1R" = "once removed," etc. By "Links," I mean how many people, total, are there starting with me, going up to the common ancestor, and then going back down to the DNA match. I was going to say "degrees of separation," but then I never know if that means counting yourself and the end person or not.)

For some of these matches, my traditional paper/oral evidence was good and likely, possibly even strong, but not quite explicit enough for my taste. The reassurance of the DNA match - especially when I see that the other researcher used a different trail to make the same conclusion - is a thrill indeed.

You might notice that William Coker is my shared ancestor with two of these matches. (Ah, good ole Buck Coker, of Turnbo's Tales of the Ozarks... a story for another time.) One match has 15 people in the "chain" between them and myself, the other has 14. However, it's the closer relative who shows up as a "Very Low" match, and not just "Low." Why, you (hopefully) ask?

Even though that closer relative is closer to Buck Coker in terms of generations than myself or the more distant match, that match and I carry a bit more of Buck's DNA. The usual luck of the draw - just like with eyes, hair colour, height, noses, and so on. If I had a sibling, they might not have enough of Buck's strand to find any Coker matches at all. That's why the more people in your family who test, the better your genetic-based genealogy research can be. You may not have a discernible speck of your greatx3 grandmother's DNA, but your brother might.

(Note also where I have two 6th cousins (1R), but one is a "High" match and the other is a "Moderate" match. Same degree of relationship, but we're talking a plunge from 96% probable match to 40% probable match, according to's explanation. I guess either I didn't inherit as much DNA from that ancestor, or my match didn't.)

I'm curious about the one "High" match with 16 people in the chain. Ancestry says the upper end of a 96% confidence match could be as high as 12 degrees of separation. I have to wonder if that person and I are related more closely in a way we don't know yet.

If Ancestry doesn't offer you a Shared Ancestor Hint, you still can see the person's tree, any surnames you have in common, and any locations you have in common (as well as the birth locations of all their ancestors on a separate tab).

Alas, even though I'm lucky to have only a few blank spots going back that many generations, my matches have even more empty patches. So, I don't know if our blank spots are in the same places or if what they already know is one of my ancestors. Unfortunately, I haven't found a link to any new ancestors, even though there's an insanely good chance I'm staring at some of them in the face. (800 matches - you just know there are unicorns and rainbows in there!) I have found just enough of a whisper of promise here and there to know that DNA results are to my research now like census pages were when I was just starting out.

These are surreal times for genealogy. Two strangers drool into vials. If all goes well, they're rewarded with a great-great-great-great-grandfather.

Some of the suggestions I've sent to

  • We need a search interface across matches. Show me all DNA matches with a "Smith" ancestor. Show me all DNA matches with a link (not just birth!) to Washington County, Arkansas.
  • We need a "DNA Match Activity" page similar to the "Member Activity" page. If one of those 200 locked trees becomes unlocked, I'd like to know. If someone adds more ancestors, I'd like to know. I'd also like to be able to click one link and see all of my DNA matches with a Shared Ancestor Hint.
  • We need a more sophisticated system for marking matches than a star, especially if we don't have search or an activity page. I have no way to tell which starred matches are definite connections and which ones are just probable, and the stars (I'm happy to say) are mounting up. Just being able to add, say, a surname tag would be a great help.
  • A separate tree privacy setting for those who are a DNA match, as discussed above.
  • I don't think this will happen, as it would probably require a separate privacy setting and people would have to be educated to opt-in to use it, but being able to see which of my matches share the same matches as me would be great. Maybe call it a "Match Cluster" and note any surnames and/or locations that all matches share.
  • The location tab for a match, when expanded, shows cities within a state and not usually counties. It also only looks for birthplace information. Given that most of us operate only on a county level after a certain point, it would be much better to show the entire location than just the city. (I understand that it's almost impossible for the program to pick out the county as the style for showing that a place is a county and not a city varies.)

Overall, I'm loving this. And it's only going to get better! I get new matches every day. Today I got a 96% confidence match to a person who is mostly West African. Wow. My mind went to the obvious place - AWKWARD TURTLE - but her European ancestry seems to be quite recent. (Although her tree is too small to say for certain.) Anyway, let me be starry-eyed and think of a time when so many people have their DNA tested that, as people find new relatives and learn more about their own genetic hodgepodge, a little more racism is chipped away by our increased sense of connectedness.

Speaking of genetic ethnicity, what were my results? Did (pick a European country) beat (pick a British isle)? Did any Native American show up to give truth to the family stories? Do my black students finally have proof that we are, as they would remind all the white-looking people in the room, all from Africa? Can I sing along to "Turning Japanese" with a glint in my eye?

The answer is that my results were...


That's another post, I think.

04 August 2012 |






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