I attended Karen Stanbary’s course, DNA as Genealogical Evidence at the Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research (IGHR) this summer. IGHR is hosted by the Georgia Genealogical Society, and this year, it was virtual. That made it a no-brainer for me to attend! Today I’m sharing some of my takeaways from the course. The instructors included Karen Stanbary, Michael Lacopo, Paul Woodbury, David Rencher, and Kimberly Powell. It was a great group of instructors. Each lecture was a case study including DNA and documentary evidence. We didn’t have typical homework assignments each night, but introspection questions to help us become more thoughtful researchers. At the end of the course, we all listed our “golden nuggets” from the course – aha moments and things we learned. I’ll share five of my golden nuggets in this post.
The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)
At the beginning of the course, Karen taught us about the GPS using a fun quiz with tricky questions. Some of the things I took away from that include the fact that the GPS is not a process but a standard for completed research. The elements of the GPS are not steps, but measures for determining if a conclusion is proved. We also learned that a conclusion can’t be partially proved. Saying a conclusion is partially proved is like saying you are partially pregnant!
DNA is an Active Tool
Several of our instructors talked about how DNA is best used as an active tool rather than a passive tool. You have to start testing the people who can give you the answers to your research questions. Waiting for the answers to fall into your lap and only implementing “fishing” methods for finding new matches may not help you confirm or refute your hypothesis. Michael Lacopo shared a case study where he found a possible answer through indirect documentary evidence. He checked it by looking at DNA matches to the hypothesized parents, and found that there was autosomal DNA evidence to confirm it. However, the matches were not to himself – they were to other of his relatives who he had tested. This showed the importance of actively testing those in your family whose DNA could help answer a research question. Paul Woodbury also talked about targeted testing and actively finding people to test. He stressed the importance of finding testers who descend from the ancestor in different descent lines and maximizing coverage.
In Genealogy Standards, one of the standards suggest that pedigree evaluations should be done for each pair of test takers used as evidence to make sure they don’t share more than one ancestral couple. Karen taught a little more about the practical application of this standard. We don’t need to show pedigree evaluations for each pair of test takers in our written conclusions – rather we discuss pedigree evaluations as needed. If two test takers are sharing on the high end of the relationship range, that might be a good time to discuss their pedigrees. Another time you may want to incorporate a pedigree evaluation discussion is if a match shares DNA with just one of the several test takers.
Y-DNA is best Used as a Comparative Test
Michael Lacopo shared a case study about Y-DNA. He said that Y-DNA testing yields its fullest potential as a comparative test. Testers should join a surname or haplogroup project. If one doesn’t exist for your surname, you can make your own. This is done at FamilyTreeDNA. He also taught about how little genetic distances can tell you. What’s important is determining branch marker values that delineate your distinct ancestor. Private marker values are different because they are just shared by one person. They could become a branch if more people are tested. Branch marker values are shared by a distinct branch of the family and are known because several descendants of the same progenitor have tested and share the same STR markers at certain markers. Michael said that genetic distance isn’t a reliable way to know the time to the common ancestor, and he illustrated that by discussing private marker values. He said that if you and a match have 2 private marker values, then you will have a genetic distance of 4 and you may think it’s a more distant match than it is. Michael suggested that by having many descendants of a known ancestor test, you can find the modal values for the ancestor – which are the most common values among descendants of that ancestor. This helps you make sense of Y-DNA matches better.
Finding the Most Efficient Pathways
Paul Woodbury shared a case where he used DNA and genetic networks to get to the answer faster than he could have with documentary research. He said he probably could have solved it by doing reasonably exhaustive research in documentary sources – digging into FAN club records, land records, and naturalization records. However in his role as a project manager and DNA team lead at Legacy Tree Genealogists, it’s important to find the most efficient path to the answer. He recommends using Node XL, Shared Clustering by Jonathan Brecher, Genetic Affairs, or the Collins-Leeds Method to quickly cluster your matches. After using Node XL to make a network graph of his client’s matches, he found some matches descending from a possible brother to the research subject. He then investigated that man and found connections to his research subject. This is an example of how DNA evidence can give us clues that lead to relevant documentary sources faster than the typical path to find them.
I enjoyed this course and learned many new things. I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend a virtual institute course at IGHR with such great instructors! I hope you get to do the same someday.