Genetic Genealogy and Native American DNA

[EDIT (7/6/2016): Razib Khan discusses the same issue here.]

I despise all politics. I suppose someone has to do it, but I always do my best to avoid discussing it either in person or online. I consider it to be a huge success when people don’t know my political leanings (is “away from all politics” a political leaning?).

Currently, however, there is a political figure who potentially has asserted that he or she might have distant Native American ancestors (specifically, Cherokee ancestors). For no real reason other than politics, some have disputed the claim, and the media is actually writing stories about it. Trust me, this whole ‘debate’ surrounding one person’s ancestry is so unbelievably unimportant that you don’t want to waste your time to look it up.

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Update to the Shared cM Project

[EDIT: PDF edited on 31 July 2016 to correct the averages for 1C and 1C1R (hat tip to Andrew Millard, thank you!)]

The Shared cM Project is a collaborative data collection and analysis project created to understand the ranges of shared centimorgans associated with various known relationships. As of June 2016, total shared cM data for more than 10,000 known relationships has been provided.

This is the first update to the original data, released in May 2015. In this update there are more than 4,000 new entries. Additionally, the data for each relationship has been analyzed statistically to remove extreme outliers and produce a histogram to show the distribution.

For more information see The Shared cM Project page, and “Autosomal DNA Statistics” page at the ISOGG Wiki. HERE is the link to provide your data for future updates.

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Charging for (Genetic) Genealogy Services

wordcloudIn our culture and economy, we place a value on the goods and services that we create or offer. Since others may not have the time or ability to create those goods or services themselves, we sell what we create to others in order to earn money. As we improve upon those goods and services, it becomes increasingly hard for others to replicate them, and thus the value increases. Similarly, as the demand for those goods and services increases, the value increases.

Unfortunately, the services offered by genealogists, including genetic genealogists, are severely undervalued in our culture. One of the most common explanations is that genealogy is a hobby and therefore subscriptions and research services are an unnecessary expense, and/or that people only use “disposable income” for genealogy. (Don’t say that outloud at a genealogy conference!).

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A Triangulation Intervention

Autosomal DNA is challenging. Although the results of atDNA testing contains vastly more information than either Y-DNA or mtDNA, it is significantly harder to utilize and understand. To wring as much information as possible out of atDNA test, genetic genealogists use every tool available.

One of those tools is triangulation. Although the topic of much debate recently, and subject to several important considerations and limitations, most genealogists agree that triangulation is a valuable tool for working with segments (especially among close relatives).

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to what is – and what is not – triangulation.

Let’s take a quick look at what triangulation means with regard to atDNA, and why it matters.

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Family Tree DNA Updates Matching Thresholds

Family Tree DNA will be updating its matching thresholds in the very near future (QC is currently being run). Here’s a flowchart of the modified matching algorithm:


From FTDNA’s announcement (modified to indicate that the changes are coming very soon):

You asked for it – we listened!

For several years the genetic genealogy community has asked for adjustments to the matching thresholds in the Family Finder autosomal test.

Currently, the current matching thresholds – the minimum amount of shared DNA required for two people to show as a match are:

– Minimum longest block of at least 7.69 cM for 99% of testers, 5.5 cM for the other one percent

– Minimum 20 total shared centiMorgans

Some people believed those thresholds to be too restrictive, and through the years requested changes that would loosen those restrictions.

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Connections to the Past

As genealogists, we often have the privilege to connect with relatives who have memories that stretch back much further than our own. Sometimes these connections are long-lasting, and sometimes they are very brief. But every one of these connections enrich our understanding of the past, and help keep alive ancestors that live on only in their memories.


A smiling Millie with her parents Hamilton and Grace (Widrig) Colwell, and her baby.

On June 1, 2002, I had the privilege to meet Mildred “Millie” Leet, who lived 3 hours away in Corning, New York. I’d briefly corresponded by mail with Millie about our shared ancestors, the Colwell Family of Ellisburg, New York. She was the great-grandchild of the immigrant couple Hamilton and Susanna (Stein/Steen) Caldwell/Colwell, my ancestors as well, and she was born just 20 years or so after their death.

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Announcing “Genetic Genealogy in Practice” – A New Book Providing Genealogists with the Skills to Understand and Apply DNA

GGPEDIT: See Debbie’s post here: “New Book Coming Soon: Genetic Genealogy in Practice” with lots more detail!

May 3, 2016 – Genetic genealogy educators and bloggers Blaine T. Bettinger, Ph.D., JD, and Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, CGL, announce Genetic Genealogy in Practice, the newest book in the National Genealogical Society’s Special Topic Series. GGP will be available for purchase in mid-summer 2016.

Genetic Genealogy in Practice is directed to genealogists of all levels, from beginner to intermediate to advanced. For the very first time, GGP offers hands-on exercises in areas of Y-DNA, mtDNA, X-DNA, atDNA, the Genealogical Proof Standard, ethics, and more. Genealogists can test their understanding and expertise in each of these subject areas via 75+ hands-on exercises, and will receive immediate feedback from an answer key that provides detailed explanations for every exercise.

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AncestryDNA Plans Update to Matching Algorithm

AncestryDNAAncestryDNA is making several changes to its matching algorithm in the next week or two (an exact time is not yet available). You may recall an announcement that was made earlier this month entitled “New Advances in DNA Science Coming Your Way” (pdf) in which they stated the following:

“These advancements are expected to deliver more-precise predictions of whom you are related to, and how closely, among the million-plus others in the AncestryDNA database.”

There were no specifics in the announcement, however. Last night, AncestryDNA provided additional information about the changes that we will be seeing in our match lists in the next week or two.

Before I launch into the specifics, here is a very high-level summary, based on the information we were provided:

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Cyndi’s List Celebrates 20 Years! Congratulations!

cyndislistCongratulations!! Cyndi’s List, the most comprehensive list of family history resources on the internet, turns 20 years old today! 20 amazing years of FREE help for genealogists.

According to the Cyndi’s List About page, the website started on March 4, 1996:

The list began as a one page set of bookmarks that I shared with my fellow genealogical society members at the Tacoma-Pierce County Genealogical Society. After that I expanded it to be a 6-page article for the society quarterly. On March 4, 1996 I published my personal web site and, as sort of an after-thought, I added my “list” of bookmarks. The original list was contained on one categorized web page with more than 1,025 links.

In addition to websites and resources in every conceivable subject area, Cyndi’s List has a very healthy list of “DNA, Genetics & Family Health” links.

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Visualizing Distributions for the Shared cM Project

[EDIT – June 26, 2016: Updated and detailed histograms are now available and should be utilized. See: “Update to the Shared cM Project.“]

Many people have benefited from the more than 6,000 submissions to the Shared cM Project, an incredible crowdsharing project (which is still collecting data HERE!).

One issue with the Shared cM Project, however, is that it is user-submitted data, meaning there are invariably two inherent problems that will affect that data: (1) data entry errors; and (2) relationships that are not accurate.

It is actually a very simple matter to resolve both of these issues, and that is to provide the distributions for the data. The distributions will show clearly where the outliers (the errors and the incorrect relationships) reside. To generate distributions, I enlisted the help of mathematician Ingrid Baade, who volunteered all of her time. I am forever in her debt for this contribution!

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