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DNA or Bust - Sat, 7 May 2016

It was Judy Russell @legalgen on our recent Unlock the Past Genealogy cruise who implored me to get my 93 year old uncle DNA tested while I still can. Judy made me realize that it was necessary.

I have always understood the importance of DNA research as a valuable science to help discover relationships that works hand-in-hand with traditional research. For the past few years, I have been learning everything there is to learn about DNA, I’ve become a member of the ISOGG and keep up with the latest advancements by following a good number of genetic genealogists through their blogs and twitter accounts. Whenever I have questions, I also go to my daughter who finished her University degree in genetics and microbiology who can set me straight.

Over the past 20 years, doing my own genealogy has taken a back seat to my day job, my family, and my development of Behold. But I realized Judy was right. Similar to talking to your oldest relatives about everything they know, doing this was different and time-urgent. My uncle is the last of my living uncles and aunts either my father or mother’s sides. This was my last chance to get a directly connected generation further back that would help me in my future research to isolate my father’s side from my mother’s site once I get around to doing a DNA test of myself and starting to ask other relatives if they would do so.

I was curious as well. My father’s (and my uncle’s) parents both originate from a small region in what is now north eastern Romania. Unless something unexpected happened somewhere along the way, their parentage should be 100% Ashkenazi and that would likely bring into play all the DNA puzzles associated with endogamy.

So I met with my uncle, I got his permission, I ordered the FamilyFinder, Y37 and mtDNA+ tests from FamilyTreeDNA. We waited a few weeks for it to come. My uncle swabbed his cheeks and we sent back the kit for analysis.

Yesterday I got an email from FamilyTreeDNA that my uncle’s autosomal results were available. How many cousins would it find?  I was hoping for at least a few. To be honest, I didn’t expect a lot. How many did it find? Well, would you believe 7,017?

Of those, 126 were suggested as 2nd cousins, 226 as 3rd cousins, 879 as 4th cousins, and the remaining 5,900 as having significant but remote relationships further than 4th cousins. For those who understand what the following means, the average match was 77.6 cM (centimorgans) with a maximum of 168.9 and a mininum of 20.0. The longest matches averaged 10.5 cM (maximum 32.7, minimum 6.9). I do understand that ancestor collapse occurs in endogenous populations and the number of cM for a match may indicate a relationship closer than the true relationship. FamilyTreeDNA does state that they adjust for this: “Beginning on April 21, 2011, we have modified our Family Finder matching algorithm to address this. The changes affect the match list for Ashkenazi Jews. The outcome is calculated Family Finder relationships that more accurately reflect relationships to other Ashkenazi Jews.” What they don’t state anywhere is whether or not they’ve applied this rule to my uncle’s results.

So let’s see what they consider my uncle to be via FamilyTreeDNA’s “my Origins” page. Will there be any surprises?


Sort of what was expected. A bit of middle eastern can originate from the deep roots of the Ashkenazi people who were in the Middle East 2000 years ago. I could see the 2% European being base people who were used for FamilyTreeDNA’s ethnic makeup who had some Ashkenazi ancestry in them but didn’t realize it.

So the next task was to see how many of those 7,017 matches I recognize as people who I know are related on my father’s side.

My first surprise was that the 3rd person listed was a fellow researcher on my father’s mother’s father’s side. I have communicated with him many times in the past number of years and we have shared much information about our common line and determined, but not proved, that we are cousins. He shows up as a suggested 2nd cousin of my uncle, and that we believe that to be true.

My second surprise was that none of the other 7,016 matches, even the others listed as 2nd cousins, were known to be related to my uncle (or me) on my father’s side.

But there were other people among the matches that very much surprised me:

1. Listed 142nd as a 3rd cousin is Brooke Shreier Ganz, a fellow genealogy software developer (of Leafseek) who I met at RootsTech 2014. There were another 5 people in my matches that are submitted with Brooke’s email address. We must be related, but I don’t yet know how.

2.  Listed 537th as a 4th cousin is someone who I’ve shared a lot of information with about our common families. The trouble is that the shared information is about my wife’s family, not my father’s family. I have no idea how he might be related to me.

3. In 1,495th spot is Gary Mokotoff, the publisher of Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy. He is a big name in Jewish Genealogy and knows a few things.

4. In 2,003rd spot was Israel Pickholtz. He is one of the speakers I had planned to see at the Ontario Genealogical Society conference on June 5th.  I’m half way through his book: Endogamy: One Family, One People. At the back of his book, he has 3 pages (2 shown below) of the people who’s DNA was used for his projects. I went through his list and found almost half of them (marked in red below) are in my list of matches, and some of them were listed as high as 2nd and 3rd cousins, so we must somehow connect. Now I’ll have a lot more to talk to Israel about when I see him in Toronto.


5. Finally, last but not least, in 2,364th spot is Lara Diamond, who I was planning to attend two of her talks at OGS on June 5. Interestingly, Lara recently blogged about her finding a connection to Israel’s family. I went to Lara’s blog post on How Endogamy Looks in Practice. Almost all the people Lara lists on that page are in my matches, and 6 of them are shown as 3rd or 4th cousins. Lara and I will also have lots to talk about.

The FamilyTreeDNA listings include ancestral surnames and places as well as ancestral trees for the people who have entered them. Other than the one relative I know of, only about a dozen of the 7,000 matches listed any of the ancestral names and places that I have already researched on my father’s side, so at the moment, I don’t know how I’m related to any of these people.

I will contact the people I mentioned above regarding our connections, and I’m going to see if I can figure out ways to make chromosome matching between 7,000 people a bit easier. This will be a very interesting adventure as I start to sort all this out. This insight could also allow me to develop some more ideas for DNA tools that I can add to Behold. I’ll keep you posted.

As CeCe Moore said in a Roots Tech 2015 interview: “People who might not think they going to find anything will be very surprised.”

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