Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book: The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome

This book by Alondra Nelson is only tangentially about genealogy and family history and sheds no light about how to use DNA to do research. It is about how our recent knowledge of the genome has fundamentally changed how we view facts about our ancestors.

The modern popularity of genealogy research began with Roots as a mini-series being televised in 1977. Before then, genealogy in the US had been mostly an upper-class pursuit, by white people. Of course, the LDS (Mormon) church had long been encouraging their members to document their ancestry -- also a mostly white project. Roots changed that, and now there are large numbers of black Americans looking for their ancestors both black and white, slave and free. And many want to go beyond the racialized labels assigned by the culture and the records and the African continent to find ancestral countries or tribal groups of origin.

Research both archaeological and "coroner's method" removal of graves in the "Negro Burial Ground" in the 90s exposed an old, racialized way of classifying the bones, in contrast to the new archaeological research which focused on using every clue found to place the person in the context of their lives in New Amsterdam, now lower Manhattan (near Tribeca). For instance, patterns of wear on the bones reveal the nature of the work these enslaved people did, and the African birth of some of them.

Once local people became aware of the excavation of graves, groups formed of probable descendants and others interested in preserving and studying and preserving the graveyard, which is now a National Monument. Another eventual outcome was the establishment by Rick Kittles, a brilliant scholar and activist, of African Ancestry, a company founded to help slave descendants find their African origins, and reconciliation with their history. His company offers both yDNA and mtDNA tests to help people connect with a country, a tribe.

There is a great deal more in this slim volume: the use of DNA to unite grandmothers with their missing grandchildren separated by the "Dirty War" in Argentina, forensic use of DNA to solve crimes of genocide, and eventually a very nuanced discussion of reparations politics in the USA.

This is not an easy read. It made me wonder why my genealogy society is all white. It made me ponder the history of how we've made use of our new knowledge of the genome, and what is ahead. It made me think about reconciliation with the past, and how we move forward once we know the truth.

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Monday, January 30, 2017

Thinking about ordering an DNA test? What can you do with it?

If you have been considering buying a DNA test to use for genealogy, here are a few things to consider.

First, have you found most of your ancestors through old-fashioned research? If not, DNA might not yield you much information. That said, even if you are adopted and don't know much about your birth lineage, with a lot of work, you can make some matches, and learn more. However, the more you know, the better you will be able to use what you learn from DNA.

Next, what sort of test will help you learn the most? If you want to learn more about your "surname line," that of your birth father, his father, and on up -- then you want a yDNA test, and FamilyTreeDNA is the only place to get it. You will need a male of this line to do the test; daughters do not inherit their father's yDNA. Of course, you can test a male in *each* of your surname lines, but again, this only tells you about the male lines. You will want to test as many markers as you can afford; at least 67 markers if possible.

If you want to learn about all your relatives, then you want an autosomal DNA (auDNA) test from Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, or the new one on the block, MyHeritage. If you are already an Ancestry member and don't care about what your DNA says about your health, Ancestry is the right choice (Ancestry has removed some of the genes which have health implications from their testing).

Update: the newcomer is now LivingDNA. If you want to find out a lot more about your British and Irish ancestors, then it is your best bet. Their website says: If you have British or Irish ancestry then it’s the only test that shows where within Britain and Ireland your ancestry comes from.

If you are already testing at FTdna for yDNA or mtDNA, then "Family Finder" is your best choice.

If you care a bit about genealogy, but really want to know what your DNA says about your health, then 23andMe is the most popular. However, I think that their genealogy "helps" are the opposite these days, the health information seems over-simplified, and the high cost of the kits leads me to advise against using 23andMe. And yes, I tested there! At least it used to be less expensive. I found out more about health effects from Promethease than I have from 23&me.

The new choice, MyHeritage is my current favorite, since it is inexpensive ($75) and you can nearly always see a family tree, which is a problem with the others, even sometimes Ancestry. They use FTdna to do the processing, so they'll be top-notch results. They offer only autosomal DNA too.

If you want to know about your mother's ancestry, then you need mitochondial DNA (mtDNA). Taking this test follows your mother's mother's mother's line far into the past. People have gotten matches from doing this test, but since mtDNA is so stable, it is more about your deep past than present-day cousins. Again, FTdna is the only major company doing this testing.

No matter what company you choose, get your "raw results. If you do an auDNA test, you can upload to GEDMatch if you wish. GEDMatch offers a lot of interesting stuff, such as comparisons with ancient DNA on file, possible localities where your ancestors lived, and the ability to partially reconstruct the genome of a missing relative, given enough other testing. I do not yet know whether or not the MyHeritage kits will offer me the opportunity to download the raw data. I very much hope so, and that GEDMatch will find a way to let me upload this data easily.
* update -- they do.

I think it is also important, if you use Wikitree (and you should) to link in your various tests there too. You do not upload results; simply put in your tests and also report matches among your relatives you have already made. This solidifies the results for cousins who tie into your tree, and may induce them to test too! They make it very easy. Wikitree is all about collaboration, and is the main reason I love this site! Gedmatch has a page about how to make the Wikitree link as well: https://www.gedmatch.com/WikiTree.php

If you do mitochondrial DNA at FTdna, they make it easy for you to upload to Mitosearch, which allows people who have tested elsewhere to upload their raw data. I've done it, although without any hits I've not seen on FTdna already. They have a similar free service for yDNA called ysearch. One can upload a gedcom, and I think it is worth doing so, if you have done the tests.

For health effects, there is a site called Promethease, which gives you an amazing amount of information for $5.

Other options: http://regenerationnet.com/4-tools-analyze-personal-dna describes four of the best, including GEDMatch and Promethease.

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Genealogy goals for the new year

Given the way that autosomal DNA tests for genealogy work, there are two things that are important for success in using that DNA data to find matches: finding your ancestors back to ten generations, and finding all possible descendants from them.

I came to this conclusion after reading the excellent blog post, How Much of Your Family Tree Do You Know? And Why Does That Matter? where the author says,
whenever we make a conclusion about a particular ancestor or ancestral couple based on segments of DNA shared with a relative, we absolutely must address whether we do, or could, share other ancestors with that relative.

The author made a nice little chart summarizing how much he knew, so I did the same thing. Mine is not as pretty, but here it is anyway:

Key:  Generation: from me; Relationship: to me; Date of Birth: roughly averaged; Matches: description; # Poss. Anc.: total number of possible ancestors in each generation; # Identified: number of ancestors identified by name in each generation; % Identified: percent of generation identified
Totals - Total Poss: total possible ancestors; Total # Indent: total number identified of total possible additively; Total % Ident: Total number of ancestors identified of total number possible additively in each generation
As you can see, I'm missing a lot of information! So I will prioritize finding more of those ancestors, even as MyHeritage continues to make it easy to find their descendants. And I will continue to add that information to Wikitree as I find the time. I really love having all the information open to everybody. That said, if you are a cousin, and want to see what I've got on MyHeritage, just ask to join the tree. Occasionally I also download a gedcom from there and upload that to Rootsweb as well.

MyHeritage: https://www.myheritage.com/site-family-tree-263769091/cowan-mcbee
Wikitree: https://www.wikitree.com/treewidget/Cowan-1504/5
Rootsweb: http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=PED&db=cowan-zimmerman&id=I500003
Gedmatch: M186808

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