AncestorNews: Leap of Science

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

If you’ve received the February 2005 Family Tree Magazine, you’ve probably already read Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak’s article, Demystifying DNA. In it, Smolenyak (also co-author of Trace Your Roots With DNA), does a bang-up job of explaining how DNA testing can and can’t help with genealogical brick walls—all in terms the non-scientists among us can understand.

In brief, the two major DNA tests are Y-DNA, which traces the direct male line, and mitochondrial (mtDNA) DNA, which traces your direct maternal line. Only men can take the Y-DNA test, as women don’t carry that chromosome. So, if you’re a woman and you’re interested in using DNA to trace your father’s direct paternal line, you’ll need to get a male relative to sign up. Y-DNA tests also identify your ethnic and geographic origins, both recent and distant, and enable you to check your African, Native-American or Cohanim (a Jewish tribe) ancestry.

The timing of Smolenyak’s book and article couldn’t have been better, as I’d just ordered an mtDNA kit to help trace my mom’s line, which is my least known branch of my family tree. And, as a Christmas present, my younger brother, Mark, did the Y-chromosome DNA test in hopes of proving our father’s Kentucky Hendricksons are descended from a Hendrickson who came from the Netherlands to New Jersey in the mid-1600s.

Although I’m no scientist, the whole field of genetic genealogy is fascinating, especially when you consider the years of dead-end research it may end up saving many of us. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think we’ll see more and more people line up to take DNA tests to prove or disprove certain relationships.

For my part, I was hoping I’d have something to report to you about my findings, but the results won’t be in until Jan. 23—so stay tuned.

If you’re interested in learning more about genetic genealogy, check out these Web sites:

  • Genetealogy: Using DNA to learn About Your Roots (Smolenyak’s Web site)
  • World Families Network (hosts DNA surname projects)
  • Genetic Genealogy (several interesting CNN articles on DNA and such well-knowns as Christopher Columbus, Billy the Kid and Captain Cook)