Thursday, 30 March 2017

DNA matches to German families - is it possible?

My wife and I have been researching our respective families for some thirty years. Back in the "old days" research meant walking through cemeteries looking for headstones, visiting the Queensland State Archives looking through microfilms, card indexes, and dusty bundles of Land Selection or Probate files, or visiting an LDS Family History Centre to read microfiche or microfilms. There were no online indexes then that could be viewed from the comfort of the home.

Of course things have changed and so much more information is readily accessible, although those of us who are used to visiting archives realise that 'it's not all online' by any stretch of the imagination.

Recent years have seen aggressive marketing of DNA testing, which the advertisements seem to imply, will use your genetic makeup to identify the places from which your ancestors came. Our thirty or so years of research had identified our ancestral places of origin, so we saw that aspect of DNA research as a sideline only. In fact it would be interesting to compare the speculation of our origins with the hard documentary evidence that we had painstakingly assembled.

We thought that the greatest benefit would be through the ability of the programs to compare our DNA samples with the millions of other samples and so to find other people who might be (distantly) related to us. We knew that small matching segments of DNA might match by chance rather than there being any real relationship.

Ethnicity Estimate

So how do my results from the test with Ancestry stack up against the research? Its Ethnicity Estimate is shown here:

Ethnicity Estimate for Eric Kopittke from
How do these values compare with the evidence?
  • My father's parents were both born in the former eastern parts of the Kingdom of Prussia, one in Pomerania, the other in West Prussia. Since World War 2, these areas have been in Poland. They were settled by slavic peoples with later German migration from the west. Since "Europe East" includes Poland as well as other areas, 48% is close to the documented 50%.
  • My maternal grandfather was the son of migrants from the northern and western parts of Germany, one from Schleswig-Holstein, the other from North Rhine-Westphalia. I can therefore trace 25% of my ancestry to parts of modern day Germany. Since 'Europe West' includes Germany, the 30% is probably a little high.
  • In Schleswig-Holstein there was a mixing of German, Danish, and Friesian peoples, and some of the ancestors of my great-grandmother had Danish names - perhaps that is where the 10% Scandinavian came from.
  • Both of my maternal grandmother's parents were from Sussex in England, with their ancestral roots from villages near Lewes. They constitute 25% of my ancestry so is interesting that 'Great Britain' has only 6% listed.
Those values can be misleading, however. On clicking on each, the following ranges are revealed:

Europe East
36% – 58%
Europe West
7% – 54%
0% – 28%
Great Britain
0% – 21%

There is a large uncertainty with the quoted 'Ethnicity Estimate' values and that must always be kept in mind when looking at such results!

Genetic Communities

Ancestry explains its recently introduced Genetic Communities in these words:
Genetic Communities™ are groups of AncestryDNA members who are connected through DNA most likely because they descend from a population of common ancestors, even if they no longer live in the area where those ancestors once lived. For example, some Genetic Communities trace their roots back to groups of people who were isolated geographically. Mountains, rivers, lack of roads, or other barriers made it likely that each new generation would marry someone who lived close to home. Others have their roots in a groups who typically married others of the same religion or ethnic group. In each case, these groups came to share a significant amount of DNA. Modern-day descendants who inherited some of that DNA make up Genetic Communities.   
Ancestry has identified two Genetic Communities that match my DNA.
Genetic Communities for Eric Kopittke
A map is produced to illustrate these communities.
Map of Genetic Communities for Eric Kopittke
Clicking 'Eastern Europeans' produces a more detailed map along with a general description of the history of the region.
Eastern European Genetic Community
There is also a CONNECTION button which when clicked allows you to display the details of the others in the same Genetic Community. Three of my matches were estimated to be '4th - 6th cousins' and twelve at '5th - 8th cousins'. Unfortunately most had not supplied a family tree so there was no easy way to see whether the matches were real or just a random chance.

One had a tree with 4,904 names, and on checking the tree, I found mention of Caroline LATZ, a daughter of my grandmother's cousin. Caroline had married John RUHWEDEL in Queensland and it now became obvious that they had migrated to the Chicago area in the USA. That solved a mystery for me, and I could then provide details of Caroline's ancestors who were from small villages and estates in the former Prussian province of West Prussia. It turned out that my match was my third cousin three times removed - there is also a match to the parent of this person but interestingly that match does not appear in my genetic communities.

So the Ethnicity Estimate results are interesting but with the large uncertainty should not be taken too seriously. On the other hand the Genetic Community results can potentially point you to other distant relatives, but discovering what the relationship is depends on the other party posting enough of a family tree to allow connections to be made.