Our People and Their History: The benefits of testing Y DNA

Our People and Their History: The benefits of testing Y DNA
3D DNA strands on an abstract background

By Robert Moore

I really wanted to jump right in with this article in telling about one of a few DNA discoveries in Page County I’ve played a part in analyzing, but felt it best to start first with an explanation of the DNA tests. First, while the vast majority of DNA test takers are using Ancestry, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder, and other kits, these tests are strictly for autosomal DNA. There are also two other types of DNA which you need to be aware of… mtDNA and Y DNA.

Though 23andMe will give you a basic haplogroup for both your mtDNA and Y DNA (if you are a male… but only your mtDNA if you are a female), Family Tree DNA also has tests specifically for mtDNA and Y DNA. It can be interesting to see mtDNA results, but it’s also a bit perplexing, given the fact that mtDNA is passed to both sons and daughter, but can only be continued on, over generations, through daughters to their daughters, and etc. So, in the end, the read on your mtDNA is rather more about the origin of that DNA on a timeline that is literally ancient history, and you simply can’t trace a single surname using mtDNA.

On the other hand, what I’ve found to be most revealing is Y DNA. Though, again, 23andMe will provide a basic haplogroup, it really doesn’t take you deep enough to appreciate the origins of that DNA. At present, the only company that does a truly full-blown Y DNA test is Family Tree DNA. Before you jump in, however, be aware that this can get expensive unless you wait for sales… and then, it’s still expensive, but can save you a little. Also, if you do decide to test… whether that be yourself (if you are a male), or a grandfather, brother, uncle, etc…. 1) it’s about the test taker’s surname (or known father’s line) you are targeting, and 2) you really must test 111 markers (the Y-111 test; do not rely on either Y-37 or Y-67 to give you definitive results). This test will provide you a list of men who are Y matches, which, when compared with your autosomal matches (usually in the thousands), you will notice are incredibly few (usually under 100). Some I’ve seen tested didn’t even have matches at the Y-111 level… yet (you may simply be left waiting for others to test in order to make sense of results). Additionally, reading meaning into these matches is a bit complicated, as you have to become aware of things like “genetic distance” and haplogroups and their subclades. Usually, the Y-111 test will lead to one of two follow-on tests (at least if you want to be well-equipped in interpreting the Y DNA)… either a haplogroup “backbone” test, or the Big Y-700. Indeed, you may consider the Big Y-700 to start with, and avoid the need to take any other Y test.

It might sound complicated and a real headache… and it can be… unless you’re willing to give it some time and patience.  Nonetheless, you might still be asking… “Why is the Y test so much more revealing than any other tests?” It’s because it’s almost like a precision “military extraction” into your ancestry, as it is specifically targeting one line of your ancestry… that of your male test-takers paternal surname. Y DNA is the DNA passed exclusively from father to son, over generations. In some cases, this flow of Y DNA is over thousands of years… even well before the use of surnames. In other cases, there are one or more “non-paternal” events which can really turn a genealogist’s tree on its ear, as it might totally contradict what you had on paper. Specifically, these “non-paternal” events are often where a male child is born out of wedlock, and, whereby the mother continues to carry on her surname in the male child. Remarkably, in my work, this has proven to be the norm, as one in nine Y tests of surnames that I’ve analyzed has not involved one or more non-paternal events. Even with the one case, I was able to show that a non-paternal event occurred… just that it didn’t impact the test taker’s ancestry.

I’ll talk about a few of my Y discoveries among a few Page County families in upcoming articles.

A native of Page County, Robert Moore has been writing, in various print and online outlets, about the history of Page County for nearly 35 years. He is also the author of several books and magazine articles, and has conducted extensive geneological research into the ancestry of many Page County families.

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