You’re not in this world of DNA alone. Before you start scraping cheek cells or even order a test, follow these tips from genetic genealogy experts Emanuela (Lou) I. Charlton of DNA Print Genomics; Ann Turner, founder of the Genealogy DNA mailing list and co-author of Trace Your Roots With DNA (Rodale, $14.95); Dr. Scott Woodward, head of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation; and Gina Paige, president and co-founder of African Ancestry.
- “Have a specific goal,” advises Woodward. Start by clearly identifying the question you want answered. Ask yourself, “What am I looking for, and how far can I get using traditional genealogy tools?”
- Be prepared for answers you may not expect. Learning your ancestry is different from what you always believed—you’re not related to that well-known family, or there’s an extramarital affair in your family’s past, for example—can be difficult to swallow. “Sometimes DNA testing can reveal unsuspected relationships or a flaw in previous genealogical research,” says Turner.
- Once you know your question, test the correct family member. If you’re a woman, testing yourself won’t tell you about your father’s family history because you don’t have Y-DNA. Instead, you’ll need to test a male on your father’s side—his brother, brother’s son, father, uncle, grandfather. To find out your “deep ancestry,” you’ll take a mitochondrial DNA test.
- Though it may seem logical to compare the results from different types of tests—it’s all DNA, right?—that’s not good science. “Don’t try to compare the results of genomics tests, which come from evaluating autosomes in your DNA and not sex chromosomes, with the results of Y-chromosome testing and mtDNA testing, which look at sex [X or Y] chromosomes,” advises Charlton.
- Since no one can do family history research in a vacuum, approach it as a family project. Start by having your own Y- or mtDNA profile done. Then get together with your family, share your results and start fleshing out parts of the tree. “The information you get is not just relevant to the family member who took the test,” says Paige. “If you do it together, more people can benefit from the results.”