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What Circles and NADs do, and don’t, tell us

Reader Wadeanne Nardo is confused by her DNA results on AncestryDNA.

“Could you please explain to me,” she asks, “what a DNA circle and NAD (New Ancestor Discovery) is.”

It’s easy to see why Wadeanne is — and many others are — confused by these. If you read through the explanations on AncestryDNA,1 it’s easy to be left with more questions than answers.

Personally, I love the way Diahan Southard refers to DNA Circles and New Ancestor Discoveries. She calls them parties where your genetic code is your ticket.2 But when and how your ticket gets punched can be pretty confusing.

Let’s start with the DNA Circles.

A DNA Circle will be created when:

• You have a public tree on Ancestry,

• You have a particular person in your public tree,

• You have a DNA match to at least two other people who’ve tested, who also have that particular person in their public trees, and

• That particular person is at least a fourth great grandparent (or closer) to the three of you who share DNA.

All four of these things have to be true to have a DNA Circle. So if you only match one other person at the fifth cousin level or closer who has this person in his or her tree, there won’t be a circle created. And you and all your relatives who are first cousins or closer get lumped together and counted as one person (a “Family Group” in AncestryDNA terms) for matching purposes. (That’s also true for your matches: each of your matches who isn’t in your Family Group and their relatives who are their first cousins or closer get lumped together into their own Family Group too.)

If you match five other people who have this person in their trees, but you’re all sixth cousins, there won’t be a circle created. If the public trees of the people you do match don’t include this person, there won’t be a circle created. Even if the public trees have differences in the way this person is identified (a significantly different name or birthdate or birthplace, for example), the circle may not be created.

If you match lots of people and you all have the particular person in your trees, but their trees are all private, the circle won’t be created.

That doesn’t mean everybody in the circle matches everybody else in the circle. Any match only has to match two others to be added, and the matches can be to different members of the circle. Take a look at the people from one of my circles below.

In this first image, the woman in blue on the right matches each individual or at least one individual in each Family Group in the circle, so her icon is shown in the circle as connecting to every one in the circle.


In the second image, we changed the focus to see who the matches are to the four-member Family Group on the left now highlighted in blue, and you can see that that group only has matches to three of the others — and not to the other individuals or Family Groups including my own.


New people can be added to an existing circle as long as they have a DNA match to one member of the circle — they don’t have to match two others. That two-other-match rule only applies to creating a circle in the first place. So your ticket to a new party gets punched whenever you (or your Family Group) meets all of these requirements, but your ticket to an existing party gets punched whenever you have a DNA match to the partygoers.

For a New Ancestor Discovery (NAD), let’s start with the fact that it’s a terrible name for this feature because, in most cases, the circle that’s being suggested for you isn’t an ancestor at all. It’s a potential relative, but it’s really not all that likely that it’s an ancestor.

The idea is to help you find ancestors based on your DNA even if you don’t have them in your tree yet. So you’re going to get your ticket punched for this party whenever you share DNA with enough partygoers you would be in their circle if only you had the particular person whose party it is in your public tree.

The problem, of course, is that person who’s the focus of the circle may be a cousin or a great great granduncle and not an ancestor at all. One of the best explanations of this I’ve ever seen is from the Ancestry Insider, who got a NAD for one Joseph F. Smith. His June 2016 blog post showing his actual relationship to this man is a good read and his family chart makes it clear how this can happen.3

You can still get a hint to a family line to look at by reviewing the trees of folks in a NAD that’s suggested for you, but it’s the exception rather than the rule that the NAD ancestor is really an ancestor to you rather than a cousin or other collateral to you.

And, by the way, it isn’t impossible to have a DNA Circle to a collateral either. I have one for Simon Shew. Nope. Not an ancestor. His brother Daniel is my ancestor. And since Daniel’s wife Margaret was the sister of Simon’s wife Sarah, all of Simon and Sarah’s descendants are double cousins to all of Daniel’s and Margaret’s descendants. But our common ancestor is one generation higher: the two sets of parents (Boston and Elizabeth (Brewer) Shew and William and Ann (Jacobs) Battles).4

DNA Circles and NADs can be very helpful — but they do have the capacity to mislead us if we don’t remember what they really are: they’re hints to possible lines that we share with others.

In other words, take DNA Circles with a grain of salt — and NADs with the whole darned salt lick.

  1. See Ancestry Support, “Exploring Your DNA Circles,” ( : accessed 6 Aug 2016) for DNA Circles and ibid., “About New Ancestor Discoveries,” for New Ancestor Discoveries.
  2. See Diahan Southard, “Here’s How AncestryDNA is Improving Autosomal Testing,” Genealogy Gems, posted 19 Oct 2014 ( : accessed 6 Aug 2016). Also, ibid., “Confused by Your AncestryDNA Matches? Read This Post,” posted 25 June 2015, and “DNA Circles – Here’s when they DON’T mean connections on AncestryDNA,” posted 26 Dec 2015.
  3. Ancestry Insider, “AncestryDNA New Ancestor Discoveries,” The Ancestry Insider, posted 9 June 2016 ( : accessed 6 Aug 2016).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “Circling the Shews,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 24 May 2015 ( : accessed 6 Aug 2016).
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