DNA testing can add a whole new dimension to your genealogy research. It can add ancestors to your pedigree and cousins to your extended family. But, your DNA results can be less than you expect. Often times, your results lead to more confusion and frustration than answers. Instead of solving your brick walls, you’re left with more mysteries.
DNA complement your family tree. Understanding the limitations will help you get the most from genetic genealogy. Let’s look at the many ways you might be disappointed with your DNA test results.
Ten Reasons Why You Might Be Disappointed with Your DNA Test Results
1. The report doesn’t tell you who your ancestors are.
You were so excited when your DNA results were ready. You clicked the link and opened the page expecting to be thrilled. Instead, what you saw was a long list of matches and a whole lot of genetic mumbo jumbo.
Nothing in your results says what chromosome sequence belongs to your great grandma. Nothing says “your grandfather was so and so.”
Unfortunately, DNA can’t do that. While it can confirm relationships and open up avenues of research, it can’t tell you who gave you what genes. It’s just not that easy.
2. It doesn’t tell you how your matches are related to you.
Oh, my! Look at all those names. Pages and pages of people you’ve never met come up in your matches. Only a handful of the 1000+ names have familiar surnames.
It says this person is a 2nd to 3rd cousin. Several people are your 5th to distant cousins. But, how are they related to you?
Once you have your match list, it will take some time and work to figure out how each person is related to you. You do this by comparing family trees, researching, and having known relatives test.
You might luck out and some of your matches will have well established family trees. But, be prepared! It could take months or years to work through the relationship you share with a single match.
3. Your ethnicity report doesn’t match what you were told.
Everyone told you that you were part French, Irish, and Mexican. So, why does your ethnicity report say that you are Iberian, Scandinavian, and British?
Before you decide that you’ve screwed up your family tree and start over, you should know a couple of things. Ethnicity analysis is in its infancy and there isn’t a consensus between companies over how to interpret these segments of your genetic makeup. This means you can test with three different companies and get different answers on your ethnicity.
I’m a good example. My ancestry is French, Portuguese, Irish, British, and Welsh. My ethnicity reports show Iberian, Scandinavian, and Italian. The Iberian represents my Southern French and Azorean ancestry, but what the heck happened to the others?
Migrations, displacement, wars, and any number of factors might be skewing the analysis. Also, while millions of people have tested their DNA, many ethnic groups are not represented in the samplings. There may not be enough people from the area of a country your ancestors were from for their ethnicity to come through.
And, remember that with each generation, you get less and less DNA from your ancestors. You simply may not have brought down enough DNA for the algorithm to define a specific ethnicity. I covered this in my article “DNA Ethnicity Estimates are Just That…Estimates”
You should treat your ethnicity breakdown as something nice to have, but not the end all be all. As companies learn more, you may find that your ethnicity is more refined.
And, remember this! Any ethnicity reported as 5% or less cannot be trusted. It’s within the margin of error.
4. You have close relatives that are strangers.
The most disconcerting aspect of getting those cousin matches is finding out that one or more of your ancestors wasn’t really who you thought they were. It’s even worse if that person turns out to be one of your parents.
You may find yourself with a new, very close relative. Finding a parent, sibling, or cousin match that you were not aware of can be emotionally upsetting.
DNA can solve brick walls, but it can also reveal family secrets. It’s great to learn that your research was right all along. But, there is the possibility that someone close to you wasn’t telling the whole truth or there was a child never heard from or given up for adoption that no one spoke of.
Be aware that other family members might not be so thrilled to have their secrets unearthed. Also, your new blood relatives might be even more upset than you to find they have a new sibling or son.
You should go into genetic testing knowing that these skeletons will come out of the closet. There’s really no way to emotionally prepare yourself, but know it is a possibility.
5. Your DNA matches don’t respond to your contact attempts.
Unfortunately, not everyone who gets their DNA tested is interested in genealogy or in finding cousins. People may only be interested in the ethnicity estimates. They may have tested because their child or grandchild begged them to.
Some start are working on filling in their pedigree, get tested, then get scared when the requests to collaborate come in. They may see something in their results they do not wish to face, so they put it aside.
Not everyone is going to be as excited as you are that they have new cousins. Though it is annoying, you can’t make people respond to your queries.
6. The people you match know very little about their family trees.
It’s so frustrating when you get that email back from an enthusiastic match who has no idea who their ancestors are. Many people jump in with a DNA test before they even begin working on their family tree.
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These people are new to genealogy. They may only know their parents or grandparents. They may not know what countries their people are from. Or, they may be adopted and trying to find out who their birth parents are.
Not many people will have generations of ancestors to share with you. Some may be on step one of “how to research your family tree.” Some may have hit a brick wall they are hoping you will knock down.
How successful you are in working with these folks depends on whether they want to delve further and how much patience and time you have. Chances are you will have to guide them through the research process.
7. The company you tested with doesn’t have a chromosome browser.
Every DNA testing company has something different to offer. Whether it’s the size of their customer database or the quality of their utilities, you’re going to find positives and negatives with every company.
For instance, AncestryDNA is seen as the best place to find cousins, but it lacks a chromosome browser. Without a chromosome browser, it is difficult to know what chromosome sequence you share with individuals. This is important when several people come up as being related to each other.
You can get around the limitations of most companies by uploading your test results to multiple companies that allow you to do so. MyHeritageDNA, FTDNA, and LivingDNA all offer free DNA file uploads. MyHeritageDNA gives you access to their chromosome browser and utilities (this will change December 1st, 2018). FTDNA gives you free matches, but you have to pay extra for the chromosome browser.
You can also upload your files to GEDMatch.com where people who have tested from different companies can compare results. GEDMatch has a wide range of free utilities plus additional utilities under their Tier 1 paid option.
When you have your DNA at different sites, you get to use a lot of different tools. Plus, you get multiple genetic pools to match your DNA to. If you’re looking to find cousins or solve a genealogy mystery, the more companies you test with or upload your data to, the better!
8. All your matches are estimated at 3rd cousin to distant and you have few matches over 100 cM.
Oh yeah, we’re talking about me. When I received my results, I was told to start with all my matches over 100 cM. cM means centimorgans, the unit our DNA sequences are measured in.
The problem? I had none! My largest match was in the 90 cM range. I had absolutely no other good matches to work with.
I tested 4 years ago. I still have only a handful of matches over 100 cM. All of these were known to me beforehand. Most of my matches are in the 3rd to distant cousin range.
It hasn’t stopped me from trying to figure them out. I’ve done considerable research on my collateral lines especially on my Azorean ancestry. I’ve figured out a couple of 5th cousin matches here and there. But, oh, how I crave a solid unknown 2nd cousin match!
9. You have recent immigrants, but your matches descend from the colonists.
Those of us with immigrant ancestors who arrived in the 1800s or 1900s feel the pain of comparing trees to people who have no recent immigrant ancestors. Many of my British and Irish DNA matches have family trees that can reach back into the 1700s in America.
How do you reconcile a relationship when your ancestor arrived in American in 1907 and your match’s ancestors were in the US before the American Revolution? When you figure that one out, let me know!
Unless they have taken an interest in bringing all their pre-American lines forward, which is a daunting challenge, it’s going to take some work to figure these out.
10. You still have to do genealogy research to figure out how you and your DNA matches are related.
When it is all said and done, DNA can lead your research in certain directions, but it cannot fill out your pedigree chart. Once you have your matches, you still need to do the leg work. You still need to do genealogy research.
There isn’t any easy way around it. DNA provides clues. Research provides answers.
Knowing someone is most likely your 3rd cousin on your grandma’s side is helpful, but you have to prove it. You’ve still got to do the research and find the documents to prove the relationship. Until you have the paperwork to prove it, it’s just guessing.
Set Reasonable Expectations For Your DNA Test Results
I didn’t tell you all this to discourage you from taking a DNA test. In fact, go test…right now! We might be cousins.
Rather, I want you to understand the limitations involved with genetic genealogy, so that when you do test, you go in with an open mind.
Once you understand the limitations, you can get the most out of your DNA analysis. The first thing you should to is read up on what to expect from you DNA results. The book I recommend is Genetic Genealogy by Emily Aulicino.
It gives a basic overview of the autosomal, mtDNA, and Y tests. It explains what your results will include, the limitations, and how to work with them. Having a basic understanding of what you can learn from autosomal DNA, for instance, will help you figure out those cousin matches.
Also, there are some amazing genetic genealogy experts on the web. Blaine Bettinger, Judy Russell, Cheri Mello, and Roberta Estes cover this topic on a regular basis. Read the experts and learn as much as you can.
It can be overwhelming sorting through your DNA matches and learning the lingo. The more you know, the more you will get out of your genetic tests.
What are your thoughts on DNA, genealogy, and expectations? Anything you would add to my list?
15 thoughts on “Ten Reasons Why You Might Be Disappointed with Your DNA Results”
Great post about DNA. Ive had my DNA tested but only have a basic understanding of the results. I do find many of my DNA matches who contact me do expect that our match will give them more people to add to their tree. You can’t beat Research. I’m glad you mentioned that
Jennifer, I remember being very overwhelmed at first. I’m not sure what I expected, but when I saw the many pages of matches I had no clue where to start.
You can’t really get anywhere without research. DNA is a guide but it doesn’t pinpoint which exact ancestor you link up on.
I’ve gotten some good results from my DNA results, but I really really wish I had a chromosome browser! I just uploaded my parents’ DNA results to MyHeritageDNA to use theirs, and I’m starting to get the hang of it! I wish AncestryDNA would add a chromosome browser too! Thanks for the other suggestions. I knew it would be a lot of work sorting through my DNA results, and I haven’t quite gotten the energy to start that yet!
EvaAnne, I’ve only recently tested with AncestryDNA, but the lack of a chromosome browser is a negative. I uploaded my files to MyHeritageDNA when they first made the offer and they didn’t have a chromosome browser either. It makes it more difficult if you match someone on the same sequence especially when you are dealing with small villages where you might be related to someone more than once.
I have no matches above 100cM, number 5 & 6 happened to me too. I ma also the one who knows nothing about my g-g ancestors.
Aleksandra, You and I are in the same boat! I’m going to have my DNA in all site except 23AndMe soon. I’m hoping that I’m going to get lucky on one of these sites!
I hope you eventually do find more about your great great ancestors.
Thanks for the article Melody. I did my DNA test on Ancestry.com and then loaded it to GEDMatch. I am working on the research now. Acouple have not yet panned out, BUT through GEDMatch a 4th cousin contacted me. We both have extensive Ancestry.com trees. In my Furtado family we have always had comments about relatives in New England, but I could never find any. It turns out that this cousin had the key … My GGM is her GGG-aunt!! So now I have been able to make the New England connections and research has proven the connection. So it was worth it … with more to come. I just wish I could find the German connections beyond my GGP. More to do.
Bob, Isn’t it wonderful when it all comes together and you can find the connection? I love it when someone else has the detail I need to connect families. I’m hoping something like this will happen on my great grandfather’s line and I’ll finally learn his parents names.
Thank you, this has made things a little clearer for me! I do think Ancestry’s advertising is very misleading – it gives the impression that your tree will be immediately populated with all your ancestors once your results are available. I wonder how many people have been totally disillusioned with the whole thing because of this.
Caroline, You’re welcome! I think if people had a better understanding of how DNA can help their research and what it’s limitations are, they’d be more satisfied. Expectations, especially because of Ancestry’s commercials, are very high. We all know filling in a pedigree isn’t that easy.
I must admit I have not yet gone down the route of DNA – I need to spend time finding much more about it, especially as I am not tecnically minded. But I found you blog post very interesting and written in terms I could understand. Thank you.
Susan, I fought it for years because I didn’t think it would tell me anything I didn’t already know. But, I was given a kit. I’ve found cousins because of DNA and they’ve added branches to my tree that I did not know about.
You can do a family tree without DNA, but it can open up new avenues of research for you.
Great post! One I was thinking of writing myself after reading people’s disappointment in their latest ethnicity estimates at Ancestry. It’s an estimate folks, going back thousands of years! Setting reasonable expectations before you test is key. Really enjoyed your post.
Thank you! The ethnicity estimates are the one that gives people the most dissatisfaction, I think. Each site does it differently. I remember reading that the complication comes with taken modern population samples and applying them to ancient roots. When I first got my results at FTDNA, they showed my Irish and British. Then a recalculation made them disappear and I was given Scandinavian. I think that shows how difficult it is to pin down.
I was fortunate. When my Ancestry DNA matches came up, I already knew the surname of my biological grandfather whom I never met. My father had told me about him when I was a young adult. So when I saw his surname among the cousins, it came as no surprise.
My father couldn’t tell me much, and neither could my grandmother, to whom he had been married for only three years. My father’s memories were very sketchy, and we weren’t allowed to question our grandmother, who had remarried and it was an off-limits subject.
Luckily, a couple of the cousins contacted me, and were willing to share quite a lot. They knew my biological grandfather, who had seven siblings. While all of his brothers and sisters have been long deceased, as has he, the cousins were able to tell me quite a lot about them, as they were their parents and/or aunts and uncles.
I have been able to obtain documentation through public records that has verified and confirmed much of what the cousins have told me. They weren’t just guessing or making stuff up — they were sincerely sharing what they actually knew. When something they related was a family rumor, they stated it was a rumor and not verified. If more than one cousin related the same story, chances are it was more truth than rumor. They have been very welcoming and willing — even eager — to answer those questions of mine that they could.
There are still questions and mysteries, and a couple of revelations have been caveated as “legend”, but I know a lot more now than I ever did, before. Many dots have been connected and blanks filled in. Cousins have been very generous sharing copies of photographs, so I now have faces to go with names
For me, the DNA results have proven rewarding. I never expected them to tell me everything. I am glad they confirm what my father told me all those decades ago. As a result, I found out where my biological grandfather (who had remarried and had another son) is buried. I was able to travel to that cemetery and visit his grave. I was very happy that I could, and I got a strong sense that he knew I was there.
Both Grandpa and Grandma had moved on after their divorce, had remarried and lived full and rich lives. I am glad for both of them that they could. I am also glad to be enjoying new and warm relationships with Grandpa’s living descendants, cousins I never knew I had.
I was given the Ancestry DNA kit as a birthday present from my sister. It was one of those gifts that keeps on giving.