Simply put, AncestryDNA is Ancestry’s genetic-based genealogy product, a natural extension of their robust tools to help people discover their heritage. In the past, genealogy was a tiresome process, requiring hours spent in libraries looking at microfiches and researching records and copies of records. The internet sped up the process, and services like Ancestry sprang up that made the research quick and easy. However, there is only so much that research can do for you, especially depending on how much information you have to begin with. That’s where DNA tests come in.
You’ve seen the ads. Send in your DNA and get back a comprehensive report explaining everything you want to know about your ancestors. Easy, right? Not so fast.
This is the way that AncestryDNA actually works. First, you get a package in the mail (which does come quite quickly, to Ancestry’s credit). The package includes basic instructions and materials to collect your DNA. This is done through a small tube which you must spit into. Next, a chemical is added to your spit to preserve the DNA from breaking down. Then you package it up (and yes, the package is included) and send it off in the mail. This is where a good dose of patience can come in handy. Ancestry cautions that there is a 6-8 week waiting period, though some periods of peak popularity may cause this wait to extend even longer. In my experience, it was closer to the eight-week side of the spectrum.
Your results are tied to an online account, one which you’ll have to create sometime after you get your initial package. You can create it anytime, including weeks after you send your spit in. It’s best to just create the account right away. That way, you don’t have to worry about trying to find your unique code later, which is required to create your account. This code is what identifies your spit with you.
What Your AncestryDNA Tells You
When you get your results back, probably the most intriguing thing you’ll get to see right away is your ethnicity estimate. This is quick and easy to check out, and it can give you an immediate sense of who you are – genetically speaking, of course. Your ethnicity is split into different regions. In other words, it might not tell you that you had ancestors from Norway, but it can indicate that you have a certain amount of genetic tracers from Scandinavia.
Some regions of your ethnicity estimate can be indicated with relatively good confidence. However, some are only represented by “trace” amounts. What does this mean? It could mean that only a small fraction of your DNA matches genetic markers from that region. However, it could also mean that your DNA just happens to match up to those markers. You might not have any ancestry from trace regions at all. Think of it as the old saying about a broken clock – it shows the right time twice a day. It’s possible that your DNA matches up to those trace regions in just the right way, but only by chance.
Your ethnicity estimate provides a picture of your genetic makeup, but it does not represent a complete picture of your ancestry. For this reason, some regions your ancestors are from may not show up on your ethnicity estimate at all. This is due to the way that DNA is shared between parents and children.
How DNA Is Passed to Children
Two parents provide exactly half of their own DNA to provide a child’s complete set. As a simple illustration, suppose that there are four individuals: Man A with AAAA DNA, Woman B with BBBB DNA, Man C with CCCC DNA, and Woman D with DDDD DNA. A and B get married and have Boy E, while C and D getting married and have Girl F. E shares half of the DNA from his dad and half from his mom, so he might be represented as AABB. Similarly, Girl F has DNA like CCDD. E and F grow up and get married, and they have four children: G, H, I and J.
Remember that each child shares half of their DNA from each parent, but this may have been passed on differently. Child G has ABCD DNA. H has AACD. I has AACC. J has BBDD. In this (extremely) simplistic example, all four of these children have the same parents, and all of them have exactly 50% of their DNA from one parent and 50% of their DNA from another, but most of them do not have a perfect 25% DNA match from each of their grandparents. And in fact, I and J have very different sets of DNA, with I sharing most of their DNA with their grandfathers and J sharing most of their DNA with their grandmothers.
Obviously DNA isn’t this simple, and there are thousands of genetic markers passed on instead of just four, but you can see how over several generations, one ancestor’s DNA may be lost in one descendent but displayed prominently in another.
For these reasons, your ethnicity estimate is just that – an estimate. It can provide an exciting look into who you are genetically and can give you a glimpse into your genetic past, but it can’t provide a 100% accurate look into your ancestry.
What Else Your AncestryDNA Does For You
This is the part that isn’t quite as exciting but definitely the reason why Ancestry offers a very compelling reason to purchase their DNA product.
Ancestry has been in the genealogy business for quite some time. They’re arguably the biggest and best online genealogy resource out there, and because of that, they’ve built up a large customer base over the years. This is also true of their DNA product. They have millions of customers already, and I don’t want to peg it down at a specific number because it would soon become outdated – they’re growing that fast.
Ancestry can use your DNA markers to match up with individuals that match many of the same markers, allowing you to connect with relatives. They can even make predictions on how closely you’re related (2nd cousins, 3rd cousins, 4th cousins, etc.). This is definitely an optional feature, and if you don’t want to connect with any living relatives, you don’t have to. However, your 4th cousin may have information on your great-great-great grandfather that you don’t have – information which could unlock multiple generations of your family tree. Remember, people have already done massive amounts of genealogy research. Wouldn’t it be incredible if you could tap into the research that other people have done?
When AncestryDNA Is SO Worth It
This is where AncestryDNA can be very powerful, especially if you’re approaching genealogy from ground zero. All you have to do is spend five minutes giving a spit sample and 6-8 weeks waiting. Then you suddenly have an ethnicity estimate – which is appealing, though once you know it, you know it. However, you might also have access to hundreds of hours of genealogy research that your distant relatives have already done. This is something that obviously depends on whether or not your relatives really have done the research – and if they are willing to share that research. Many Ancestry users have allowed their family trees to be completely accessible by others who share a common ancestor. But even those who keep their trees private will open it up after a friendly message from a yet-unknown relative.
However, because this incredible feature is very dependent on other users and won’t be available to everyone, you’ll almost never see mention of it in advertisements or marketing pieces. For some people, a simple DNA kit opens up a vast world of genealogy. For others, it only provides a basic ethnicity estimate. Both are great and arguably worth the cost. However, you can see why one is far more valuable than the other.
In some cases, Ancestry can even tie your DNA to specific ancestors. Of course, this is a new service, so Ancestry wasn’t around hundreds of years ago to collect DNA samples from all of our ancestors. As such, this element can largely be hit-or-miss. But for those it “hits,” it can be a really neat feature.
If you have an Ancestry subscription, AncestryDNA can be an incredible launching point into many resources. It might also be a great opportunity to use a free trial. But even if you don’t go down the subscription route, you might find that the DNA kit was worth your time and money.
When AncestryDNA Is NOT Worth It
AncestryDNA is really best suited for those who don’t know their biological heritage or don’t know where to begin genealogical research. It is not as helpful for those who have already done extensive research. Despite my genealogy resources, I decided to try out the AncestryDNA kit to see what all of the hubbub was about. I’m convinced that it has some great features and is a powerful tool, but for me, it did not meet the same level of worth.
I’m a white American who already has my family tree researched for many generations, thanks to the extensive time put in by relatives I already know and thanks to my time spent with an Ancestry subscription in the past. Prior to my AncestryDNA kit purchase, I had already mapped out my ethnicity simply by following my family tree lines back to my ancestors’ mother countries. It wasn’t perfect, but I had a pretty good idea of who I was enthically.
My DNA ethnicity estimate returned information that was largely unsurprising. My ancestors were mostly from western Europe – something I already knew. Apparently, I have more western European DNA than the average modern person living in western Europe. There were some trace markers matching up with other parts of Europe as well as Asia (which was a huge surprise), but again, trace regions may or may not be representative of actual ancestry, so I didn’t learn any undeniable facts with this. My wife’s ethnicity estimate was a bit more interesting when we did a DNA kit for her, but even in that case, there was not much we learned that we didn’t already know.
As mentioned earlier, my AncestryDNA kit matched me up with many relatives (hundreds, in fact). However, since I’d already began researching on Ancestry and had discovered different public family trees with common ancestors, even this feature was not as useful in my situation. I can recognize its value, and it definitely makes things a little quicker for future research, but it didn’t provide me any groundbreaking details.
Should You Get AncestryDNA?
It depends. It doesn’t cost that much, so if you’re curious and have the money to spare, then by all means, go for it. Check out the pricing page for more details on AncestryDNA cost and discounts.
If you’ve already done extensive genealogy research and are just looking for another avenue, this might not be the best course of action for you. There’s a chance you won’t learn much knew about your genealogy. As mentioned, it’s easy and relatively inexpensive, so you don’t lose much by trying. However, if your budget is tight, you might want to skip this for now.
But if you are new to genealogy and want an easy way to get started without spending a lot of time, AncestryDNA is definitely for you. You might be surprised at what your ethnicity estimate will tell you, and you might be even more surprised by how much previously done research is suddenly at your fingertips. It really is a powerful tool to help you discover things about yourself you might have thought you could never learn.