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Starting the New Year off right

So here we are on the first Sunday — and first day! — of 2017, and it’s time again for The Legal Genealogist to stop for a minute and take stock on the DNA side of genealogy.

2017dnaIt’s the perfect time to stop, and think, and look back and ask myself: What am I doing right, what am I doing wrong, and what could I be doing better in 2017?

And judging from reader comments and complaints, there were loads of New Year’s Resolutions we all made back in January 2016 to make ourselves better genetic genealogists — and then promptly broke. Boy, am I guilty on that score…1

Not on everything, mind you. I have taken two institute courses in DNA in the last two years, so I think I understand the complexities better than ever before. So I’m going to give myself a pass on the education.

And through blog posts and other research efforts, I think I’ve done a fair amount of work distinguishing between and among the testing companies — and there will be a new Bang-for-the-Buck a little later in 2017. So I’m going to give myself a pass on researching the companies too.

But … sigh … that still leaves three big ones.

So… in the hopes that at least this genetic genealogist will do better in 2017, here are my suggestions for three critical resolutions we can all make that would benefit us all as genetic genealogists.

Resolution Number 3:

I will do my paper trail genealogical homework.

I get it. I really do. I understand only too well how much we all want DNA testing to be the magic bullet. Just take this test, click on that little icon2 and — presto! — all of our genealogical brick walls will come tumbling down.

It’d be wonderful!

It’d be amazing!

And it’d be fantasy, not reality.

At least so far, in the real world, DNA testing just doesn’t work that way. The simple fact is that, as much as I really really really want to know who the parents were of my scoundrel second great grandfather George Cottrell, I’m not going to get the answer by DNA testing alone.

Barring any cousins marrying cousins at that level, we all have 32 third great grandparents — 16 sets of them. And we can test ourselves and our cousins until the cows come home, but without the paper trail research we’re not very likely to figure out whether any given match is from this set of third great grandparents or that set of third great grandparents — or from some other ancestral couple further back in time.

As much as I’d love to wave the magic DNA wand and get the answer, the reality is that DNA testing is just one more type of evidence that has to be used in conjunction with — alongside — hand-in-hand with all the other types of evidence we collect along the paper trail. It’s something we use with our other tools, not instead of our other tools.

So I resolve to do my paper-trail homework.

Resolution Number 2:

I will take ethnicity estimates not merely with a grain of salt but with the whole darned salt lick.3

If I had a nickel for every question I get about these blasted ethnicity estimates, I’d be rich. Filthy rich even. “Why does AncestryDNA say I’m 31% Scandinavian when I have no known Scandinavian ancestors at all?” “Why doesn’t the test show Native American when my great great grandmother was Lakota Sioux?” “Why are my ethnicity results different from my sister’s?”

Folks, seriously, they’re called estimates for a reason. The term I’ve used before is cocktail party conversation pieces.4 And frankly, the term I’d be more inclined to use these days is WAGs — a lovely American acronym that means “wild-assed guesses.”5

Understand that what these estimates do is take the DNA of living people — us, the test takers — and they compare it to the DNA of other living people — people whose parents and grandparents and, sometimes, even great grandparents all come from one geographic area. Then they try to extrapolate backwards into time to estimate (or guess) what the population of, say, Ireland or Egypt looked like 500 or 1,000 years ago. Nobody is out there running around, digging up 500- or 1,000-year-old bones, extracting DNA for us to compare our own DNA to.

Please… read up on the limits of ethnicity estimates. And then put that aside in favor of all the things DNA tests really can do for genealogy.

Resolution Number 1:

I will not delay in getting that older member of the family tested.

Goes without saying, doesn’t it? How many of us bid a sad farewell to a loved one in 2016? How many of us will have to bid farewell to someone we love in 2017? How many of us ourselves will not be here to ring in the New Year of 2018?

Particularly when it comes to autosomal DNA — the kind we inherit from both parents that changes and mixes and recombines from generation to generation6 — DNA is a finite resource. The amount of DNA passed down from an ancestor through autosomal DNA drops dramatically with every generation until, after only a few generations, there may not be enough from that ancestor to be detectable. (Which, by the way, explains a lot of those weird ethnicity estimates, particularly when something you expect to see isn’t in the results.)

With autosomal DNA, then, getting a grandparent to test is better than getting a parent to test, and getting a parent to test is better than testing yourself. Every generation further back that we can test means a more complete database — and more and better matches.

So the number one priority resolution for 2017 — as it was in every year before — has to be not to lose that genetic legacy. Let’s get our oldest generations tested.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “DNA resolutions for 2016,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Jan 2016 ( : accessed 23 Dec 2016).
  2. A little shaky leaf, perhaps…
  3. City dwellers may not be familiar with salt licks. They are blocks of salt set out for cattle, horses and other animals to lick. It’s a way to get essential minerals into the animals’ diet. “What is a Salt Lick?WiseGeek ( : accessed 2 Jan 2016). Think a grain of salt on steroids.
  4. Judy G. Russell, “Those pesky percentages,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Oct 2013 ( : accessed 23 Dec 2016).
  5. InternetSlang ( : accessed 23 Dec 2016), “WAG.”
  6. ISOGG Wiki (, “Autosomal DNA,” rev. 19 Sep 2016.
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