Using DNA as a tool in family history
DNA testing is more popular than ever among family historians, so how can it help with your research?
An increasing number of people buy DNA tests to help their family history research – yet a few years ago it was a different story. So what has changed?
DNA tests were first targeted at family historians over a decade ago. What began as a confusing and little understood concept has now joined the mainstream in the genealogists toolkit.
Media of all types has fed our growing knowledge of DNA testing.
Many books have been written on the subject, and newspaper headlines have brought it to our attention. On 6 March 2013, The Daily Telegraph quoted:
‘One million British men may be directly descended from the Roman legions which came, saw and conquered England and Wales almost two thousand years ago, a DNA study suggests.’
Our imagination is immediately captured – could this help shed light on the deepest corners of our family history and illuminate the way forward?
Why does a DNA test help us?
The test relies on tracing male line ancestry through DNA on the male Y chromosome, which passes from father to son almost unchanged for generations. Over a period of time small mutations occur in the DNA, and it is these that are used to determine whether two people are related. A perfect or near perfect match being required to show that they are related.
DNA results can be used to:
- Investigate surname origins and evolution, as in one name studies
- Investigate possible related families
- Show the relationship between multiple families of the same name in the same location
- Examine surname variants
- Determine your ancestors geographical origin
- Push your paper trail back further
- Test the paper theory of your research
The test kit works like this:
- You take a swab of your cheek cells and send it away for analysis.
- The results give a series of numbers from sections of your DNA, known as Short Tandem Repeats. These determine what is known as your haplotype.
- Over generations, these counts change from father to son through small DNA ‘mutations’, creating a slightly different haplotype.
- These mutations cause DNA test results to vary between people, and tell us who is part of a family tree and who is not.
- Your close male relatives will share the same or almost identical haplotype, while unrelated people will have a different one.
- If you compare your test results to another mans results, you can determine how long ago you shared a common ancestor.
Many projects are in place for surname groups, where you can compare your DNA. So if you are thinking of having a test, it seems sensible to join or start one.
There are a number of Hampshire projects which might be worth joining. Simply enter ‘Hampshire DNA‘ into your search engine to find them.
If you have a DNA success story, please feel free to share it with the HGS. It may help to inspire those yet to be convinced of the value of this research tool.