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What Can I Learn From My DNA Match List?

If you are thinking about doing a DNA test, or just got your results back, you might be wondering what you can learn from your DNA match list.  DNA matches are my favorite aspect of DNA testing, since each match has the potential to provide valuable information, help you solve a family mystery, and provide more insight into your family’s ancestry. 

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In this post, you’ll learn several things that you can learn from your DNA match list.

You might find new, relatively close relatives on your DNA match list

Whether you know your biological family, or you are searching for relatives, there is a good chance that you will find first cousins, second cousins, third cousins that were previously unknown to you on your DNA match list.  Some people are even lucky enough to find siblings, aunts, uncles (or even great-aunts and uncles) that they never knew about.  

Sometimes, these relationships come as a big surprise, so it is really important to know that this is a possibility before you decide to take a test. It is not uncommon for those who take DNA tests to discover close relatives that were previously unknown to them.

Most DNA testing companies will list your DNA matches in order from closest relationship to most distant, so those that show up at the top of the list are usually more closely related than those towards the end.  It should also be noted that, aside from parent/child relationships, DNA testing companies can’t tell you exactly how you are related to a close relative, only that you are closely related.

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Your DNA match list can help you verify your family tree research

Most companies allow their DNA testers to upload or build a family tree and connect it in some manner to their DNA results or profile.  This means that you will be able to search through your DNA matches and, many times, view the family tree of the person who tested their DNA. 

This is a fantastic way to “prove“, or corroborate, your family tree research.

By studying the family trees of your DNA matches, especially those who are 4th cousins or closer, you will be able to recognize common surnames and ancestors that you share in your trees, basically providing additional evidence that you are truly descended from the people in your family tree. 

If you have a “4th cousin” DNA match, and you can see that you share a 3rd great-grandfather, there is a good chance that you are related through this common ancestor and that this portion of your family tree is correct.

You could learn something new about your family tree

Apart from finding new close relatives you didn’t know about, you might learn that your great-great-great grandfather had a child outside of wedlock that no one ever knew about, or that some of your Slovakian cousins moved to Serbia, or that one of your great-grandparents was adopted. 

Or any number of absolutely fascinating stories about your direct ancestors, their siblings, or cousins.

And just like your DNA list can help you verify your research, it can also provide evidence that your family tree has branches you never knew about, or even that a name on your tree is incorrect – meaning that the whole line of ancestors behind that name might not really be related to you.

You will be able to better understand your ethnicity estimate

If you take a look at your DNA match list, you’ll sometimes be able to see where your DNA matches live, and maybe even their family trees.  By carefully examining their family trees, and where their ancestors were born, you can get a deeper insight into your own ethnicity results.

For example, sometimes when we have only a small percentage of a particular ethnicity, it could a) be statistical noise b) represent even smaller percentages of that ethnicity inherited from many very distant ancestors from that region, c) mean that you have single distant ancestor from that area or d) a closer ancestor from whom you only inherited a small amount of that DNA ethnicity. 

How do we know which situation applies?

Your DNA match list is  a very valuable source of information that can help you figure this out.  For example, if you had 8% Iberian Peninsula, any of the above situations could apply. 

If you check your DNA list and see that you have several 100% Iberian/Southern European DNA matches a a 4th cousin distance or closer with surnames only from the Spain and Italy, there might be a chance that the reason that you have 8% Iberian is because you have a 3rd great-grandfather from the region.

Conversely, if you have 8% Iberian and can find no evidence of DNA matches with recent ancestors from the Iberian Peninsula, there is a chance that your Iberian was inherited in smaller amounts from many ancestors who also had that DNA ethnicity.

Your DNA match list could possibly help you break through a brick wall in your family tree

Depending on how far back your brick wall is, you might have very good luck learning enough from your DNA matches to be able to break past that wall.  A good example in my own family tree is the “brick wall” of my great-grandmother, my mother’s paternal grandmother. 

The only information that I had about her was her (very common) name, which I found in my great-uncle‘s obituary.  Using this information, census records, and other data, along with my DNA matches, I was able to figure out the name of her parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and even great-great grandparents on some of her lines.

You can learn about relatives in other countries

This is the coolest thing, in my opinion, that you can learn from your DNA match list.  Prior to becoming really interested in family history, I had never really given much thought to the fact that I probably had lots of not-too-distant cousins in other countries. 

Eight out of sixteen of my great-great grandparents were born in another country, meaning that there was a possibility that some of the other children of my great-great-great grandparents didn’t come to the United States, and their descendants were likely still living in their native country.

If you have any recent immigrant ancestors, you might find that you have cousins in other countries that have always wondered about their American cousins across “the pond”.


DNA matches are a wonderful way to learn more about your family’s past and present, and I hope that this post gave you some insight into what you might be able to learn from your own unique DNA match list.  If you have any questions about anything that you read here, I encourage you to leave a comment below.

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