Monday, 22 September 2014

Genetic Genealogy

For my birthday this past April, my girls got me a genealogical DNA test.  A number of companies offer an array of tests that offer higher or lower degrees of precision or which test different aspects of your DNA that give you information about your paternal or maternal line or some combination of both.  The results then get entered into the company's database with the goal of matching you with long-lost relatives.

We went with the company Family Tree DNA and we opted for the Y-DNA test, which looks at your paternal line back to ancient times, and the "Family Finder" (autosomal) DNA test, which looks at the DNA you share with relatives on both the paternal and maternal sides up to your fourth or fifth cousins.  The Y-DNA test can be particularly interesting because it can also tell you where in the world your ancient ancestors came from.

Before getting into my results, I want to provide a little background.  My father's family, which we have been able to trace back four generations, come from Somerset and Devon in England with my grandfather, Alfred Burrows, emigrating to Canada in the 1920's.  My mother's family comes from western Ukraine (Galicia) near the city of L'viv with my maternal grandparents coming to Canada in 1913 and 1914.

So, now my results.  The Y-DNA test determines what "haplogroup" you belong to.  I'm afraid I'm a little sketchy on the science behind this, so I can't explain very well what this means, except that one piece of information that it can reveal is from what part of the world your ancient paternal forebears came.  This was, for me, a very surprising result.  I ended up in the J1 (J-M267) haplogroup, which is very uncommon in the British Isles, and indeed in continental Europe.  Where this haplogroup shows up most often in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia), Northern Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt) and parts of the Caucuses (Avars, Dargins, Kubachi, Kaitak, Lezhgins).

Not what I was expecting. The question is, how did my ancient relatives get to England?  Clearly, they were not a part of a mass migration of people otherwise this haplogroup would be much more common in Great Britain.  About the only plausible explanation I can come up with is that because the Roman empire encompassed at least parts of the areas where this haplogroup is common, that my ancestors were somehow a part of the Roman invasion of Britain.

Based on my Y-DNA test, and having a fairly common English surname, I was hoping and expecting to get a number of matches with other Burrows relatives in the database, but because my haplogroup is so uncommon in England, I have got none.

Similarly, my autosomal DNA test, which seeks to make potential matches on both side of the family, has yielded one possible third cousin with the other potential marches being more distant.  Even the possible third cousin match may prove difficult to link to through various genealogical records making it difficult to determine precisely how we are related in the family tree.

So, I have a mix of emotions about this exercise in genetic genealogy.  On the one hand, I am pretty disappointed about the lack of matches.  On the other hand, I find the information about my paternal ancestral origins fascinating, especially since I was not expecting to be so genetically different from other parts of the English population.  How my ancestors ended up there is a bit of an enigma that really can never be resolved.


  1. That is so interesting! I would love to do the DNA thing. I'm sure I would be very surprised by the results!

    1. It really is fascinating. If it is something you ever do, do your research and get advice about which tests to conduct.

  2. That's pretty find out you're even more exotic than originally thought! :-) What degree of accuracy do the tests claim to have?

    1. I'm about as exotic as a bowlful of pablum. The Y-DNA stuff is pretty good, I think. As I say, I'm not real solid on the science, but I believe the paternal DNA doesn't mutate as fast. The autosomal stuff gets watered down much quicker through the generations, so the further back in time you go, the more tenuous any potential matches. Also, the more "markers" you get tested, the more accurate, or precise, the results with the YDNA.

    2. A bowl of pablum...HA!! ;-)