Will ancestry DNA tests tell me my family origins?

I have taken several DNA tests for ancestry, including those provided by the FT-DNA, 23andMe, and Living DNA companies.  Unusual for a tester, I am actually of a single population, very local, well documented ancestry here in East Anglia, South-East England.  I'm not someone in the Americas or Australia, that might have very little clue what parts of the world that their ancestors lived in, previous to immigration.  I know my roots, I'm lucky.  I live them.  You might ask, why did I feel the need to test DNA for ancestry?  The answer is, curiosity, to test the documented evidence, fill the gaps, look for surprises, and in particular, to understand the longer term, to reach further back into my ancestry.

I have though, become a bit of a skeptic, even a critic, of autosomal DNA (auDNA) tests for ancestry.  They are the tests presented by the businesses in results called something like Ancestry, Family Ancestry, Origins, Family, Composition, etc.  Instead of testing the haplogroups on either the direct paternal (Y-DNA), or direct maternal (mtDNA), these tests scan the autosomal and X chromosomes.  That's good, because that is where all of the real business is, what makes you an individual.  However, it is subject to a phenomena that we call genetic recombination (the X chromosome is a little more complicated).  This means that every generation circa 50% of both parents DNA is randomly inherited from each parent.  I said randomly.  Each generation, that randomness chops up the inherited segments smaller, and moves them around.  After about seven or eight generations, the chances of inheriting any DNA from any particular ancestral line quickly diminishes.  It becomes washed out by genetic recombination.

Therefore, not only are the autosomes subject to a randomness, and genetic recombination - they are only useful for assessing family admixture only over the past three hundred years or so.  There is arguably, DNA that has been shared between populations much further back, that we call background population admixture.  It survived, because it entered many lines, for many families, following for example, a major ancient migration event.  If this phenomena is accepted - it can only cause more problems and confusion, because it can fool results into suggesting more recent family admixture - e.g. that a great grandparent in an American family must have been Scandinavian, when in fact many Scandinavians may have settled another part of Europe, and admixed with that ancestral population, more than one thousand years ago.

DNA businesses compare segments of auDNA, against those in a number of modern day reference populations or data sets from around the world.  They look for what segments are similar to these World populations, and then try to project, what percentages of your DNA is shared or similar to these other populations.  Therefore:

  1. Your results will depend on the quality and choice of geographic boundary, allocated to any reference population data set.  A number of distinct populations of different ancestry and ethnicity may exist with in them, and cross the boundaries into other data sets.  How well are the samples chosen? Do they include urban people (that tend to have more admixture and mobility than many rural people).  Do they include descendants of migrants that merely claim a certain ancestry previous to migration?What was the criteria for sample selection?
  2. Your results might be confused by background population admixture.
  3. You are testing against modern day populations, not those of your ancestors 300 - 500 years ago.  People may well have moved around since then.  In some parts of the World, they certainly have!

It is far truer to say that your auDNA test results reflect shared DNA with modern population data sets, rather than to claim descent from them.  For example, 10% Finnish simply means that you appear to share similar DNA with a number of people that were hopefully sampled in Finland (and hopefully not just claim Finnish ancestry) - not that 10% of your ancestors came from Finland.  That is, for the above reasons, presumptuous.  It might indeed suggest some Finnish ancestry, but this is where many people go wrong, it does not prove ancestry from anywhere.


This is my main quibble.  So many testers take their autosomal (for Family/Ancestry) DNA test results to be infallible truths.  They are NOT.  White papers do not make a test and analysis system perfect and proven as accurate.  Regarding something as Science does not make it unquestionable - quite the opposite.  The fact of the matter is, if you test with different companies, different siblings, add phasing, you receive different ancestry results.  Therefore which result is true and unquestionable?

A Tool for further investigation

So what use is DNA testing for ancestry?  Actually, I would say, lots of use.  If you take the results with a pinch of salt, test with different companies, then it can help point you in a direction.  Never however take autosomal results as infallible.  Critical is to test with companies with well thought out, high quality reference data sets.  Also to test with companies that intend to progress and improve their analysis and your results.

For DNA relative matching, then sure, the companies with the best matching system, the largest match (contactable customer) databases, and with custom in the regions of the world that you hope to match with. There is also, GEDmatch.  Personally, I find it thrilling when I match through DNA, but in truth, I had more genealogical success back in the days when genealogists posted their surname interests in printed magazines and directories. 

The results of each ancestry test should be taken as a clue.  Look at the results of testers with more proven documented and known genealogies.  Learn to recognise what might be population background, as opposed to recent admixture in a family.  Investigate haplogroup DNA - it has a relative truth, although over a much longer time, and wider area.  Just be aware that your haplogroup/s represent only one or two lines of descent - your ancestry over the past few thousand years may not be well represented by a haplogroup.  Investigate everything.  Enjoy the journey.  Explore World History.

The Other SK1414. My Cousin in Baluchistan

By Baluchistan on Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence. No, this young man is not the SK1414 tester, but the mandolinist in me found this photo kind of cool.  A young man from Makran.  The other SK1414 tester was also a male Makrani Baloch.

I'm hot on the trail of my Y or paternal line, following my FTDNA Y111 STR, then Big Y tests.  These tests analysed the DNA on my Y chromosome.  It is passed down strictly from father to biological sons.  the mutations (SNP and STR) that can be identified in the Y-DNA, can be used to assess relationship, and in some cases, to date the time of most recent common ancestry.  So, with the assistance of Gareth Henson, administrator of the FT-DNA Y haplogroup L Project, and with help from my new distant cousins, what have I learned over the past few weeks?

The Smoking Gun of Y-DNA

Between 45,000 and 13,000 years ago, my paternal ancestors most likely were hunter-gatherers, that lived in the region of what is now Iran and Iraq, during the last Ice Age.  Some sharp changes in glaciation, and cold extremes towards the end of that period, may have generated a number of adaptations, and subsequently, split new sub clades of my Y haplogroup L.

13,000 years ago (based on the Big Y test), I share a common paternal great x grandfather with a number of distant cousins, that descend from Pontic Greek families from the Trabzon region in Turkey.

Between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago (based on the less accurate STR evidence at 111 marker), I share common paternal great x grandfather with another cousin, who's paternal line Habibi, can be traced back to the 1850's in the town of Birjand, Southern Khorasan, Eastern Iran, close to the modern Afghanistan border.  This closer cousin now lives in Australia.

Human male karyotpe high resolution - Y chromosome

My Big Y test produced no less than 90 previously unrecorded or known SNP (pronounced "snip") mutations.  That might be because my Y-DNA is rare, or / and, that it is mainly found in parts of the World where very few people test at this level.  The last SNP on the roll that had been seen before, has been called SK1414.  Because now two of us have tested for this SNP, it is my terminal SNP, so at the moment (although it still has to be submitted to the YFull Tree), I can declare my Y haplogroup sub clade designation to be L-SK1414.  Only one of two so far recorded in the World.

So, who is this Y cousin that shares my SK1414 mutation?

My Baluchistan Cousin

By Baluchistan on Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.  Another photo from Makran, Balochistan.

The other SK1414 turned up during an early survey, back in the early 2000s by the Human Genome Diversity Project.  It turned up in a sample of the Baluchi in Makran, South-west Pakistan.  Could this cousin be closer than the Habibi tester?  Could my Habibi cousin, from an eastern Iranian family also carry SK1414?

The Baluch, are an Iranic people, that speak Baluchi, an Iranian language that belongs, as do most European languages, to the Indo-European linguistic family.  According to the Iran Chamber Society website, they moved to Makran during the 12th Century AD.  Traditionally the Baluch claim that they originated in Syria, but a linguistic study has instead suggested that they actully originated from the south east of the Caspian region, and that they moved westwards between the 6th and 12th centuries AD in a series of waves.  No other Y sub clade L1b (L-M317) have been found in Southern Asia outside of two samples of this survey, so perhaps the tester did have ancestry from Western Asia.

Iran regions map fr

It would seem likely that I do have a number of Y cousins, most likely in the region of Eastern Iran and South-Western Pakistan.  That doesn't necessarily follow though, that our most recent common Y ancestors lived there.  As I said above, the Baluch of Makrani, Pakistan are said to have migrated from further north-west, from the Caspian Sea region.

There is a tentative suggestion of a link to the Parsi. A Portuguese STR tester with a genetic distance (based on 67 markers) of 22, has (thanks again Gareth) "a distinctive value of 10 at DYS393. In the Qamar paper this value is found in the Parsi population".  So there is just the possibility also, of the Parsi ethnicity carrying L1b from Western Asia into Southern Asia.  Perhaps this marker was picked up by a Portuguese seafarer link to Southern Asia.  It could even be the link to my English line, via the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance.  A lot of speculation.  I don't think that M317 has been found yet in India.

Into England

I have found STR links with four people that carry the surname Chandler.  They live in England, Australia, and the USA.  These cousins appear to descend from a Thomas Chandler, that lived in Basingstoke during the 1740s.  That is 32 miles away from my own contemporary surname ancestor, John Brooker, who lived at the same time at the village of Long Wittenham in the Thames Valley.

Unfortunately three of the Chandlers have only 12 markers tested, and the fourth at 37 markers.  Therefore time of most recent ancestor is not accurate, but it looks as the Chandler and Brooker Y hg L testers of Southern England, most likely shared a common paternal great x grandfather sometime between 800 and 350 years ago.

That only these two lines have turned up, and that they are geographically and genetically so close, might suggest that our Y-DNA lineage arrived in Southern England around the late medieval, perhaps from between the 13th and 17th centuries AD.  It could just be through a Portuguese navigator link, or it could be through thousands of other routes.  More L-M20 testers could turn up in England in the future, that could push the arrival to an earlier date.


I could have any number of cousins from south England.  The Brookers and Chandlers may well have other paternal line descendants living in the Thames Valley, Hampshire, London, or elsewhere.  I'd love to prove a Brooker from the Berkshire / Oxfordshire area, as sharing ancestry.  I believe for example, that the journalist Charlie Brooker descends from one of the Thames Valley families, although not necessarily from mine.  Do they carry the Y hg L?

My great great grandfather Henry Brooker, did not appear to have any more sons, other than my great grandfather John Henry Brooker - who in turn, only had one son, my grandfather Reginald John Brooker.

I have one Y haplogroup first cousin.  He has I believe, a son, and a grandson.

East Anglian Ancestry


The above map has been modified from an original copied from © OpenStreetMap contributors

I have plotted my ancestral places that are tagged in my Gramps genealogical GEDCOM database.  These Places represent events -births, baptisms, marriages, or residence, etc.  These Places  belong to my direct ancestors, although they may also include siblings of ancestors.  Overall, I have modified this map in order to illustrate the distribution of my East Anglian (almost entirely of the County of Norfolk, with a few over the border in Suffolk) ancestors over the past 350 years - as so far revealed by paper genealogical research.

The BLUE markers represent the places of my father's recorded ancestors.  The RED markers represent the places of my mother's recorded ancestors.  The more events recorded for any place, the larger the marker.  You can click on the image in order to see a full resolution image.

The RED markers include pretty much all events for my mother's ancestors, as presently recorded in my family history database.  She has no recorded ancestry from outside of Norfolk, for the past 350 years.  She has an incredibly strong Norfolk ancestry.  Particularly in the East of Norfolk.

The BLUE markers do not cover all of my father's recorded ancestors, as I have also detected ancestry for him in Oxfordshire, London, and possibly Lincolnshire.  These ancestors lived outside of the mapped area.

When my mother and father initially met each other in 1956, they believed that they came from quite different parts of Norfolk, from opposite sides of the City of Norwich, with my father moving from East Dereham to my mother's neighbourhood in the Hassingham area.  Yet this map suggests that over the past 350 years, some of their ancestors have lived much closer.  The chances of them both sharing common ancestry during the Medieval, or even more recently are good.

This might support the findings of the POBI (People of the British Isles) 2015 study, that not only emphasised the homogeneous nature of the English, but also suggested that the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms could still be detected as localised gene pools to today.

I have previously created the below map, using red dappling to mark out the main zone of my mother's ancestry, onto a map of East Norfolk, as it would have appeared during the 5th Century AD, before sea levels fell, and drainage works created the more recent Norfolk coast:

My hypothesis is that my mother's ancestors clustered in an area of East Anglia, that would most likely have experienced an influx of North Sea immigration between the 4th and 11th centuries AD from Frisia, and perhaps Angeln and Denmark.

I also modified the below map from Wikimedia Commons.  Attribution is: By Nilfanion [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.  This map, as the legend states, illustrates the distribution of my recorded direct ancestors (bother on my father's and mother's sides are in RED) across the wider area of England at a single generation level, based between 1756 to 1810.  It suggests a combined ancestry, concentrated in Norfolk, East Anglia, but with a few lineages in Wessex / Mercia.