DNA Detectives (Part 2)

Facebook for the Dead?

For those of you worried about data protection: researchers choose whether to publish their tree or not. Published records do not reveal any information of anyone still living unless you opt to share it with specific persons. Archives do not disclose any information on births less than 110 years ago, marriages less than 80 and deaths less than 30.

And then along came relatively cheap DNA analyses. Driven by people’s need to find lost relatives, particularly birth parents, or curiosity about their origins, companies such as Ancestry, MyHeritage and 23andme (from the number of chromosomes) offer for around €70 your ethnicity and a list of other customers whose DNA is similar to yours. With the list of matches is the amount of DNA you share with each of those matches, measured in centimorgans. This then indicates what kind of relationship you have with the match – from child/parent to 4th cousin (meaning you share the same great-great-great-grandparent) and everything between. This is how I found my half-brother – without either of us even suspecting the other existed!

The DNA matches combined with a family tree then give you the chance of reviewing your research so far and filling gaps. To give you an idea, these are some of the probable relationships based on degree of matching:

If other researchers have some of your relatives in their trees, there is an opportunity to corroborate what you have found yourself. Ancestry produces a diagram called ThruLines combining parts of different family trees to show common ancestors like this:

JC and RC are DNA matches for me. The diagram show how we share (great) grandmothers. I did not know them before and contacted JC through Ancestry to compare notes.

What has struck me is that family research has become another social medium. Instead of boosting the number of “friends” or “likes” you have, users strive to increase the number of family members they can fit into their tree, most of them long dead. The chance of cooperating with other researchers globally broadens your network. You can contact owners of other family trees online (if the tree is public) to review and expand your own tree in the comfort of your home. In some ways this is a kind of Facebook of the Dead as I am regularly approached by people trying to get beyond their “brick wall” using what I have discovered, whether it is to compete a family line or find their great/grand/parents. Not everybody responds to requests for information, but mostly other owners of family trees are just as inquisitive as you are.

It is also like an online version of Cluedo, pooling resources and clues with others to find distant relatives across the world and figure out exactly which forefathers we have in common. As in any project work, teams pick up on each other’s inconsistencies and mistakes quicker. The appeal for me lies in the detective work of piecing together information for a plausible solution, trying out endless hypotheses until there is sufficient evidence to support it.


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