Where in the World Has My DNA Traveled? DNA and Locality Research
Even if you don’t like to travel, your DNA has been places! There are myriad places where our countless ancestors lived over the course of time. Many of these ancestors passed their DNA on to us. We each have a multitude of DNA segments that can be traced back to specific ancestors or ancestral couples. An exciting aspect of DNA research is that it can help us learn where our ancestors came from, and where they settled. As you use DNA information in conjunction with sound genealogical research, you will learn about the travels of your DNA segments and the stories that are waiting to be discovered.
If you’ve been following the steps to Research Like a Pro with DNA, you’ve already completed the first steps:
1. Take a DNA test; consider transferring the results to other companies and Gedmatch.
2. Look at your DNA matches – do you know them? If not, write to them to learn who they are and how they fit into your family tree.
3. Begin to chart your DNA matches.
4. Examine your family tree and decide which brick wall could be overcome with DNA evidence.
5. Choose a research objective.
6. Analyze your Sources – Do the amounts of DNA (cM or % of shared DNA) and relationship probabilities match the expected family relationships?
The next step is to use your DNA results to help you do locality research.
Determine location and time where the ancestors of your DNA matches and your ancestors lived—find the Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA)
As you compare your family tree with your DNA matches’ family trees, the goal is to find an ancestor that both you, and your DNA match have in common. As you research, you may find that you share more than one ancestor with a DNA match. The first one to focus on is the common ancestor who lived at a time closest to today. This ancestor is called the Most Recent Common Ancestor or MRCA.
After identifying the MRCA, note the locations and historical time, including specific dates, when the ancestor lived. You need to pinpoint where the ancestor lived in order to find genealogical records that establish his or her unique identity.
Ethnicity/Admixture Estimates may guide you to guesstimate unknown ancestors.
Many people are initially drawn to the idea of taking a DNA test by media advertisements that claim to determine the ethnicity percentages of an individual. It is compelling to think that a person’s DNA can say so much about where their ancestors lived. What happens when the testing companies give conflicting information about the amount of DNA you have that came from different countries? It can be quite confusing!
DNA testing companies compare your DNA to the DNA of other test takers. Some of the test takers told the testing companies where their ancestors came from. Those people were included in the reference population for their ancestral countries. Each testing company has its own reference population, and the estimates are only as good as the information given by the people in that reference population. The ethnicity estimates have changed over time because more and more people are included in the reference population, and the science has become more advanced.
Another thing to consider is that we don’t know exactly when our DNA changed. At what point in time are we looking for these ancestral origins? Was it 100, 500, 1000, or 6000 or more years ago? What were the migration patterns of our ancestors? Some are known, others are not. All these points play a part in ethnicity estimates.
My own ethnicity or admixture results are different at each company. They have also changed over the past few years. I’ve often heard that the ethnicity estimates are accurate at the continental level, but not necessarily at the country level.
As you are using your DNA results in your genealogical research, it may guide you to guesstimate the origins of unknown ancestors. You may compare ethnicity estimates between you and DNA matches as you look for the MRCA between you. If you have known ancestral origins from one part of the world, and your match does as well, that could point you to consider, or eliminate, certain ancestral lines while looking for that common ancestor.
You can read more information about the main DNA testing company’s ethnicity estimates by opening the following links:
Locality Guide of Genealogical Records
After determining where your identified most recent common ancestor lived, you are ready to create a Locality Guide. Writing this document will be a valuable resource to help you quickly identify record collections and resources to answer the following questions:
1. What happened?
2. Where did it happen?
3. Why did it happen?
While using DNA in genealogical research, there is a quick answer to this question – there was relationship between two people that produced a child. These two people needed to be in the same location at the same time for that conception to occur. Oftentimes the two people were married, sometimes they were not.
Where did it happen?
When you have determined a location, use the following key actions to help you in creating a Locality Guide. These points, highlighted in chapter 3 of Research Like A Pro A Genealogist’s Guide by Diana Elder, AG with Nicole Dyer, are:
-Look at a map of the area
-Use a gazetteer to track down historical place names
-Discover the migration routes leading to the area
-Examine the jurisdictions where records were kept
-Learn about the boundary changes that might affect the records
-Research the history of the location.
Why did it happen?
Learn about the history and laws of the location. They will help you understand where and why various records were created. Learning about history and laws will also help you understand why your ancestors took certain actions. It will also give context about what was happening around them that helped or compelled them to make decisions about their lives.
Your assignment: Create a Locality Guide about the area where your DNA-identified most recent common ancestor lived.
Now that you’ve become familiar with the steps to learn about your MRCA, it’s time to put them into action. Create your very own locality guide. This will be a valuable tool that will help you identify information to solve your research objective.
Other posts in the Research Like a Pro with DNA series:
 Diana Elder, AG with Nicole Dyer, “Locality Research,” Research Like A Pro A Genealogist’s Guide, (Highland, Utah : Family Locket Books, 2018), 33-44, particularly 35.