How to Understand Your Ancestry DNA Results

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How to Understand Your Ancestry DNA Results

You got your results back from your AncestryDNA test … now what are you supposed to do with them?

Most people immediately look to see their ethnicity estimate (you know, the part which says that you’re 28% English and 14% Eastern European etc.), excitedly tell their families, and then rarely go back to the results. If you do that, you’re missing out on the majority of the benefit of doing an AncestryDNA test!

If you’re interested in tracing your roots, the ethnicity results are the LEAST interesting and least useful part of your DNA test.

In this post, I’m going to explain what you’ll find in your AncestryDNA results, and how to use them. I’m specifically talking about the Ancestry.com DNA test because that’s the test I’ve personally used and recommend.

What’s Included in AncestryDNA Results

There are 3 parts of your AncestryDNA test results:

  1. DNA Story (Ethnicity Estimate)
  2. DNA Circles 
  3. DNA Matches

Ancestry DNA Story (Ethnicity Estimate)

This is the pretty visual map and exciting result that everyone wants from their DNA test, but it’s the least accurate and least useful for genealogy purposes.

The ethnicity estimate is exactly that – an estimate of which regions your DNA came from.

Ancestry uses an algorithm they’ve developed to compare your DNA against thousands of other people with known origins. Depending on how similar your DNA segments are to those known segments, they estimate where your DNA likely originated from.

Your AncestryDNA ethnicity estimate changes over time! That’s because Ancestry improves their algorithm and gets additional data on what regional DNA looks like. So if you check back every couple of months, you’ll likely get a slightly different result as their estimates improve.

I generally use ethnicity results only for fun and conversation (and as motivation to get other family members tested “Look, you can see this cool map of where you came from!”)

But ethnicity results CAN have some genealogical value…

When we got my mother’s DNA results, we were astonished to find a large percentage of French Canadian DNA. My grandmother had done an extensive family history on both sides, and we were expecting to see German, Irish and English only. We did see those – but also that large portion of French Canadian.

We knew mom had an adopted grandmother, although the family rumor had always been she was part Native American. (Apparently, this is very common in US families, to have a rumored Native American connection). Well, there was no Native American DNA in my mother’s results at all – just that huge percentage of French Canadian. (There’s another very common occurrence – family stories are often just that, stories!)

That raised a question: if grandma wasn’t part Native American, then what was she?

It prompted me to dig into my adopted great-grandmother’s line, and using DNA match results (which I’ll talk about later in this post), I was eventually able to uncover her birth parents!

Her birth father was 100% French Canadian, recently immigrated to the USA. That explains the French Canadian heritage we didn’t know we had!

So while the ethnicity result doesn’t help you identify specific ancestors, it CAN provide a clue on where you should focus your research. (Or provide some surprises about where your ancestors originated from.)

Ancestry DNA Circles

This feature shows you groups of people who have also DNA tested and who are descended from the same ancestor as you. I haven’t found this very useful yet. I use a similar technique myself on the DNA match results, which I’ll talk about in a future post. DNA Circles are only available with an Ancestry.com subscription.

Ancestry DNA Matches

Your AncestryDNA Matches are the genealogical goldmine in your test results!

Your DNA Matches is a list of people who have taken the AncestryDNA test AND who are related to you.

Let me say that again – you are almost certainly related to all the people in your DNA Match list!

Matches are VERY useful for genealogical purposes. Because if you match, you KNOW you are related to that person, you just aren’t sure how. So you can both look at your family trees, and try to find the Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) that you share. Besides being cool to find new relatives, this is extremely useful for building your family tree.

Imagine you discover a ‘new’ cousin and after looking at your family trees, you discover that you both share the same great-great-grandparents? Now you’ll be able to learn from each other’s research, sharing information on different parts of the family line, discovering new ancestors, and possibly sharing photos, documents etc. from those ancestors. It’s a huge timesaver! (And also provides some validation that “yes, my research is right, because I know I’m related to this person – and here’s how.)

Now I said early you are “almost certainly” related to the people in your DNA match list. It depends how closely you’re related, as to how confident you can be in the results.

Ancestry presents your DNA Matches by closeness, so you’ll first see your parents and siblings, then grandparents, aunts, uncles and 1st cousins, then 2nd cousins, 3rd cousins … all the way out to 5-8th cousins!

With closer-in matches, you can be very confident you’re related. With “moderate” matches (5-8th cousins), there’s a possibility that through random chance you just happen to share a small piece of DNA, so you’re not really a match.

I only use Ancestry DNA Match results of High or better for my research. Very rarely I’ll contact a “Good” match if there’s a compelling reason to – but I’ve found it’s extremely difficult to track down the common ancestor for less than “High” matches, and at this point in my searching, it’s not worth the time invested.

You can see your DNA matches whether you have an Ancestry subscription or not. But to get the most value from your matches, you’re going to want a subscription. Then, you’re able to view your match’s family tree (if they have one on Ancestry), and Ancestry will automatically try to find your shared ancestor.

You’re also able to message your DNA matches through the clunky, internal messaging system. If you message a DNA match, it is extremely important to include an email address in your message! Providing an email address in the message lets you move the conversation into email, which is easier to manage and track and I’ve personally found you’ll get a better reply rate.

How to Use AncestryDNA Matches

So now you understand the three types of results from your AncestryDNA test, and you’re ready to use them to build your family tree.

(First, you should start your own family tree, here’s how. Then continue on with using your Matches…)

Start by getting familiar with your matches. You’ll probably have hundreds of them. You can concentrate on the first page (maybe 2 pages), and ignore the rest for now.

Look through your closest matches. Do any “Parent/Child” or “Close Family” matches appear? And if so, do you know these people? (I imagine you will unless you’re adopted or there’s an adopted sibling you didn’t know about. Yes, DNA results can unearth some pretty heavy family secrets. Be prepared!)

Then look at the 1st cousin category. Do you have 1st cousins in the list? Do you know these people? For most people, there’s a good chance you’ll know your first cousins as well.

And then move out into 2nd and 3rd cousins. This is where we often start uncovering “new” cousins, and these groups have been the most useful for my genealogy research.

Before contacting any matches, you want to look at what information is available. Do you know who this person is by their name? Do they have a tree online? Can you figure out for yourself how you’re related? As you’re investigating a match, click “View Match” and then “Shared Matches”. This shows you people who are related to both you and this match. This can help narrow down how you and a match are related, especially if you’ve had other relatives tested.

I’ve tested both of my parents, so when I look at a new match, I can quickly see which of my parents appears in the “Shared Matches” area, which narrows down this match to one side of my family tree. It’s definitely worth testing any parents or grandparents who are still living and willing to be tested – it is a huge timesaver in tracing your roots through DNA.

But even if you don’t have any parents or grandparents tested, you can still use the Shared Matches feature. As you begin to figure out how you’re related to certain matches, then when you see those same matches appear as a “Shared Match”, you know you’re related to that new person on the same line.

Tracing your shared matches can get really involved (and addictive!), so much so that I’ve created a spreadsheet to track mine! Using shared matches is THE technique that’s helped me find my adopted great-grandmother’s birth parents and solve numerous other sticking points in our family tree.

But for now, just familiarize yourself with your matches. Focus especially on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd cousins. Just from looking through these matches, you might find shortcuts to tracing your roots:

  • You might find a cousin who you already know, who has DNA tested and has built a family tree already.
  • You might discover a new cousin, and you can work together to figure out how you’re related
  • You might discover a match who intrigues you because of a name or location that reminds you of a family story… go with your gut feeling on these things. They pique your interest for a reason!
  • Or you might discover a surprise in your family tree…

Any of these results can set you off in a clear direction in your family history research.

It’s also important to know that your DNA Matches are updated over time as new people test. I have several matches I’m working on (i.e., trying to solve how we’re related), and periodically I check back into our shared matches list because new matches will appear as more test results come in. I’ve also had new 1st and 2nd cousins just pop into my Matches list when they test, which is hugely helpful. It’s always worth checking back to your AncestryDNA matches (and your Ancestry Messages) at least once a month, to see if anyone new has appeared!

Now it’s your turn. Dig into your AncestryDNA results and see what new connections you can uncover!

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