How Do DNA Matches Help Us Learn About Ancestors

Do you want to know how DNA matches can help us learn about our ancestors? How is it possible that living relatives can provide insights into distant ancestors?

You’ll learn how in this post!

I recently sat down with a good friend to help him make sense of his DNA results. He is interested in learning more about his direct paternal line because his father told him that his grandfather was born on a Native American reservation.

How Do DNA Matches Help Us Learn About Ancestors

Genealogical records back up the information that his father told him, but we still can’t determine the modern name of the place his grandfather was born. To see if we could find additional evidence, I thought that DNA matches might help.

When we started scrolling through lists of second, third and fourth cousins, my friend stopped me in my tracks. “Hold up,” he says. “I don’t know who these people are – how are they going to help me learn about my ancestors?”

If you have arrived at this article with a similar question, I hope that this post can help you understand exactly how your DNA matches – living, breathing relatives you’ve never met – can help you learn about ancestors who lived long ago.

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DNA matches are living relatives descended from our ancestors

Every person that we find on our DNA match list, with only a few exceptions, is descended from someone from whom we are also descended. In other words, we share common ancestors with our genetic relatives that show up on our DNA match list.

The concept of a common ancestor is easy to understand when it comes to close relatives. For example, if you have a brother or sister, your common ancestor is your parent(s).

First cousin DNA matches can help us learn about our grandparents

If we find a first cousin DNA match on our DNA relatives list, this means that this person is likely descended from our grandparents or great-grandparents. If we contact this first cousin DNA match or view their family tree, we will probably spot our common ancestor.

If we follow up with this DNA match and send them a message, they might be able to share photographs, stories, and other information that we would not have been able to learn without their help.

Distant cousins on our DNA match lists can help us learn about distant ancestors

As we move further down our list, we’ll find more distant relatives who are descended from ancestors further back in our family tree. Third cousins share great-great grandparents with us, and fourth cousins share great-great-great grandparents.

These cousins, even though they are considered to be distant cousins, can help us learn about our ancestors, too. For example, a fourth cousin DNA match might have a more complete family tree on your common ancestral line than you do, and you might be able to use information from their family tree in order to build your tree a little further back.

If I knew that my great-great grandmother’s name was Sally Perkins from Illinois and I have a fourth cousin DNA match who has Perkins in her tree, I might be able to get a clue about who Sally Jenkin’s father was. If she has a Joseph Perkins who might be Sally’s brother or father, I can do additional research in order to determine if there is a family relationship between the two.

Building out a DNA match’s family tree just a few generations can also help spot the connection. It doesn’t have to be a complete, well-documented family tree – a “quick and dirty” tree will do.

The best strategy to learn about ancestors from DNA matches

The most effective way to use your DNA matches to learn as much as you can about your ancestors is to move through your DNA match list starting at the top. Most companies provide DNA matches beginning with the most closely related relative first.

As you move through your list, you should allot time to try to identify your relationship with your match. It might take only a few minutes to figure out how you are related to your closest matches. Conversely, it could take thirty minutes or more to work out your connection to more distant matches.

For each match that you examine, you will save yourself time in the future if you:

  • Add your match and their ancestral line that they share in common with you to your family tree
  • Send them a message to ask if they would like to exchange family tree information
  • Make notes, either in a dedicated notebook, about how you think you might be related and whether you have contacted them.

If you are having trouble figuring out your connection with your DNA relative, you might be interested in this post:

Which DNA testing company is best for finding DNA matches to learn about ancestors?

The best website for testing your DNA, getting quality results, and having access to lots of DNA matches with family trees is Ancestry DNA. More than 15 million people have tested with Ancestry, and this means that you are most likely to find lots of DNA matches who can help you learn about your family tree.

While you can find lots of great DNA matches on sites like 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, and My Heritage DNA, all sites I use and love, Ancestry makes it very easy to build family trees. This means that your biological relatives are more likely to have family trees attached to their accounts for you to browse and learn from.

For those interested in learning about relatively recent ancestry, it’s important to have access to relatively close DNA matches. Our 1st, 2nd, and 3rd cousins will help give insights into our family tree going back as far as our great-great grandparents.

Whether or not we are able to find these close cousins on our DNA results will depend on how many of those cousins we have, how many of them have done DNA testing, and which DNA testing company they chose to do their test with.

Ancestry DNA is still the best bet when it comes to find cousins who are also interested in genealogy. To get your test, use the link below.

You can use this sponsored link to order your Ancestry DNA kit: Discover the story AncestryDNA® can tell.


I hope that this post has helped you understand that your DNA matches truly are the most valuable aspect of your DNA match list and how these DNA matches can help you learn more about where you came from. If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you want to share a story about something that you learned from your DNA matches, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.

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