Autosomal DNA tests, like the one offered by Ancestry DNA, 23 and Me, and others, are lots of fun and can be really helpful for those of us who are trying to find biological family and build our family trees. If you want to really get the most from the DNA test that you took, read through this list of the most common mistakes people make with their DNA results.
Mistake: Only checking your results when they first came back, then forgetting about them
Many people, or maybe even most people, who take a genealogical DNA test, only check their results one time. They log in, study their pie chart or list of percentages that tells them where they ancestors lived, decide whether they like or dislike their results, and then go on about their way. Some of these people might hop over to their DNA match list and see what it’s all about, and then never check it again.
Don’t be like these people! I recommend to check your DNA results periodically.
All of the DNA testing companies are working hard to improve the methods that they use to provide you with your ethnicity estimate (also called myOrigins or ancestry composition), and when they find that they are able to provide their customers with better information and more accurate results, they update everyone’s estimates – not new customers. And the best part? It doesn’t cost anything to get your improved ethnicity estimate, you just have to make sure that you check back every once in a while to see what’s new.
But the best reason to check your DNA results every once in a while is your DNA match list. Just because there were no interesting (read: closely related) matches when you first did you test doesn’t mean that someone neat won’t show up on your DNA match list tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year. No matter which company you tested with, your DNA match list is automatically updated every day with new DNA matches as they become available.
How much can you learn from your DNA match list? Read “10 Things I learned checking my DNA matches every day for a year“.
Mistake: Taking your ethnicity estimate too seriously
As I mentioned before, your ethnicity estimate can, and likely will, occasionally change. A case in point is the major ethnicity estimate update that Ancestry DNA recently released. It should go without saying that we should take our ethnicity estimates too seriously because they are estimates. While they are based on facts and evidence, ethnicity estimates alone are not proof or hard evidence of where your family came from.
Why not? If they are based on facts and evidence, then shouldn’t they be considered to be “true”?
There are two main reasons why your ethnicity estimate should only be taken as a general guide to where the ancestors from whom you inherited your DNA came from:
- We don’t share DNA with all of our ancestors because of the way that DNA is inherited. Our grandparents inherited 50% of each of their parent’s DNA, meaning that 50% of their parent’s DNA didn’t get passed down. Then, our parents only inherited 50% of our grandparents’ DNA (more DNA lost!), and the same thing happened with you and I. 50% of each of our parent’s DNA didn’t get passed down to us. So much potential information is lost with each generation. Your DNA results can only show information about the DNA that you did inherit, and can tell us nothing about the DNA you didn’t inherit. It’s a strikingly incomplete snapshot of where our family lived over the past 500 or so years.
- The data and the technology used to test our DNA for “ethnicity” is imperfect. Companies must collect DNA samples from people who live hundreds of regions all over the world and develop reference panels that represent what DNA “looks like” at a genetic level in each region. Keep in mind that humans share more than 99.9% of their DNA with every other human, so the differences that scientists look for in these reference panels are incredibly subtle.
Despite these three reasons that you shouldn’t take your ethnicity estimate too seriously, I still believe that ethnicity estimates (or myOrigins estimates, or ancestry composition results) can still be helpful in our quest to learn where our ancestors came from. Finding expected regions in your ethnicity results, or DNA matches who share a particular ethnicity region with you can be a good way to learn something that we might have missed if we are only following the “paper trial” as we do in traditional genealogy.
Mistake: Not learning about all of the ways your DNA can help you learn about your roots
Do you want to know a secret? I feel like the DNA testing company that I used (Ancestry, btw) didn’t charge me enough for my DNA test. I got mine for $99 several years ago, and I feel like they must have made a mistake. $99 couldn’t possibly be enough money to charge me for everything that I have learned about my family, including living relatives and my ancestors, and all of the fun that I’ve had learning about DNA and my DNA results.
I’m kidding, sort of! I’m glad that my test only cost $99, and you can get them for even less than that most of the time nowadays. I just couldn’t figure out a better way to express to you how much information you have at your fingertips, literally, included within your DNA results and all of the ways that you can use them to learn more about your family tree.
Did you know that you can:
- Use your DNA matches to build your family tree?
- Download your DNA information and upload it to other sites to get more DNA matches and “second-opinion” ethnicity estimates?
- Upload your DNA to Gedmatch to get more DNA matches and access to really cool tools to analyze your own DNA? You’ll feel like a scientist, I promise!
- Learn advanced DNA analysis techniques, like chromosome mapping using DNA Painter?
My favorite aspect of DNA testing has been all of the great relationships that I have formed with my cousins along the way. I’ve found second and third cousins who are more involved in my life and are more interested in our shared family history than some of my closer relatives. Who will you find in your DNA results?
I hope that this post helped give you some insight as to what not to do with your DNA results, and all of the things that you might be able to learn from yours. If you have any questions about something that I mentioned here, or would like to share your own experience on one of these “mistakes”, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.
Thanks for stopping by!