Some Questions that Arise from my Ancestry Research and DNA Results
April 16, 2016 8:05 PM   Subscribe

Like many people, I've spent some time tracing my family lineage via the crazily overpriced and submitted by DNA for an ethnicity estimate. I've discovered some curiosities and need some help in understanding them.

1) I have family branches that traces back well into previous millennium and a few into the next. For example, I've traced back to a 30th great grandfather, Geoffrey I of Anjou (938-987). How unusual is this level of connection? This seems pretty cool but how common is it? I think it's very common but does anyone actually know?

2) My DNA revealed not just the expected (Europe West & Great Britain each 36%, Ireland 16%) but many trace European regions each between 5% – 2%. The big surprise was the 1% Mali. This clearly suggests an African in my lineage but how far back? Is 1% distant or could it have been just a few generations? Does having Mali in my DNA suggest anything interesting? Are we talking traders at Timbuktu or a poor slave raped by her master? I'm most curious to learn as much as possible.
posted by Jamesonian to Human Relations (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's not unusual to find branches that go that far back on However, it's very unlikely that those are actually accurate.
posted by ilovewinter at 8:13 PM on April 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

Good point. Even though the documentation seems pretty tight, what's the track record for such things? How accurate are English records before, say, 1500 AD?
posted by Jamesonian at 8:17 PM on April 16, 2016

Keep in mind that the ethnicity data in these databases is not based in science. They took DNA from their reference samples and asked what they think their ethnicity was, then used that self reported data as the basis of the comparison. Which makes sense because race in humans is more a social construct that a genetic/scientific one anyway. Add in spontaneous mutations and that Mali thing means nothing. The only thing you can trust from your results is that you're probably white, which I think you already knew.
posted by shelleycat at 9:56 PM on April 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

Agreed with the folks above: that far back we're ALL related, whether the exact lineage you've found is correct or not.

And don't forget that people embellish things, if not outright lie --- anything from someone repeating old family stories about "we're related to Lord So-and-So" to, ahem, Daddy might not actually BE the daddy, can break the reported line.

(You ever watch that ancestry tv show with Henry Louis Gates? They surprised the heck out of LL Cool J AND his mom this last season when they came back with proof that she was adopted, something she'd never even suspected. People hide stuff.)
posted by easily confused at 1:24 AM on April 17, 2016

Yes, I have a 'problem' a few generations back, which means my prior lineage may not be what is seems, or maybe it is, but I will never know. And that is only one instance of contestable parentage that the family know about, who knows how many more there are - I think the current estimates of nominal fathers not being biological fathers is around 5% of births.

Best to not take this stuff too seriously.
posted by GeeEmm at 1:32 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Good point. Even though the documentation seems pretty tight, what's the track record for such things? How accurate are English records before, say, 1500 AD?

The records are accurate (or as far as they can be) for the kinds of families which kept them--noble and wealthy families. But people make the wrong connections between their own family and ones which existed in the past. It is important to always know what records are being used to make a link. Sometimes genealogies will present a seamless descent, whereas in truth they're several different sources grafted together by somebody who doesn't understand them.

You need to really interrogate your genealogy. Lay out everything you've researched yourself, and work backward through everything that you've taken from others. Find the join between different kinds of sources and set out to prove or disprove those links. You almost certainly do descend from famous people in the past! Proving it is the hard bit.
posted by Emma May Smith at 5:30 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

We're all related to each other. The number of people in the past was much less than it is now, and much less in even comparatively recent eras. The chances that any of us could be genetically linked to some individual in the past increase as time passes because the tree of possible connections grows quickly and rather geometrically.

So, while you do, perhaps, have a connection with Geoffrey of Anjou, so do, very likely, a significant percentage of all humans of European descent.

The links that I trust, and I also used, are the documented links. In my case, that means I can document direct family links here in the U.S. to the mid-18th century. Documenting links prior to that has proved impossible. Yet, obviously, as an American of English and German descent, I am linked, in some diaphanous genetic manner, to millions of other people scattered across the globe.

Records may never be made in the first place. Geoffrey may have had reason to record the births of his legitimate children, but he probably took a different approach to any illegitimate offspring.

Records can be bogus. The surnames of many, many people who arrived in the U.S. at places like Ellis Island were altered -- Americanized -- by the officials filling out their paperwork. I've found that colonial American officials sometimes only recorded the name of arriving migrants who spoke some English, with their non-English speaking family members going down as something like "2 brothers and 1 sister..."

Many records are, of course, lost over time. In the U.S., many records were lost to the violence of the revolution and the Civil War.

So, if turned up a millennium's worth of reliable documentation directly linking you to Geoffrey of Anjou as an actual direct grandparent, then that's great. Probably, though, they did not.
posted by justcorbly at 5:48 AM on April 17, 2016

In 1000 years there have been approximately 40 generations, which means 2**40 paths back to ancestors. 2**40 is around a trillion (US) which is way more people than lived then, or have ever lived. So it is not surprising that you might be related to Geoffrey of Anjou or, frankly, anybody else who lived in the general area your family is from and who produced offspring. "Important" people (like Charlemagne) show up more often in these genealogies because (a) their family records were more likely to be preserved and (b) everybody since then has wanted to prove they were related to them.
posted by mr vino at 7:11 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's not that unusual for a search to discover a link to research that someone else has done and that may go back a long way. My cousin tapped into one 4 or 5 generations back that went back to the Mayflower and William Penn. But it turns out that something like 12% of Americans have Mayflower ancestry so not a huge distinction.

Someone proved that, in the long run, everyone is related to everyone.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:09 AM on April 17, 2016

I am surprised that your documentation is that tight - most trees that go that far back got their information from other people's trees, as well as other user-generated content. I personally would not believe any such connection unless I had primary source documentation, ie, documents written at the time of birth/marriage/death by people who were there. Baptismal records, marriage writs, wills, Bible genealogies, censuses (censii?), ship's manifests, parish registers. These are all good sources. Is your documentation all that good?

I have also been able to "trace" my lineage back to Edward I of England, but in looking closer, I found that the trail actually stopped in the early 1700s with an ancestor that moved to Virginia with the rather bland and unsearchable name of Jacob Page. Information on how and when he came to the Americas, including any sort of documentation of his father, is nonexistent. I have a name of a father, which other people on Ancestry SAY is the father of Jacob Page, but absolutely no primary source documents on whether that is true or not. So, in my opinion, the jury is still out on my possible royal heritage.
posted by chainsofreedom at 2:00 PM on April 17, 2016

surnames... at places like Ellis Island were altered -- Americanized -- by the officials filling out their paperwork

Just a note, but names were not changed at Ellis Island.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:31 PM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

They took DNA from their reference samples and asked what they think their ethnicity was, then used that self reported data as the basis of the comparison.

I don't think this is quite right, according to their white paper [pdf]. The reference individuals are supposed to be selected such that both they and their ancestors originate from the same geographic region.

That said, if you scroll farther down in that PDF, Malian ancestry is one of the least-accurately-predicted even for individuals whose ancestors are also from Mali (i.e. people who aren't supposed to be admixed recently), and their total n is only 16 for the reference panel. The prediction figures seem to be talking about the false negative rate, not the false positive rate -- but still, I'd be a little skeptical of such a low percentage of a poorly-predicted ancestry without further evidence.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:08 AM on April 18, 2016

Professional historian and researcher here. I am seconding that surnames were NOT changed at Ellis Island.

Ellis Island Isn’t to Blame for Your Family’s Name Change
posted by kuppajava at 1:59 PM on April 18, 2016

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