guest post by Megan Smolenyak, author of Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing!
Mention DNA and many instantly think of crime shows and medical dramas, but did you know it can also tell you about your past? As an incurable genealogist and tackler of history mysteries, I’ve been playing with DNA for more than a decade and would like to share some of its unexpected uses:
- Family history buffs use Y-DNA, which is passed intact from father to son down through the generations, for surname and geographical studies to determine which participants share a common ancestor. While results don’t reveal the exact nature of the relationship between any two people (that’s where conventional research comes in), it’s a handy tool for testing theories and figuring out which are “your” Smiths and which you can ignore in your future sleuthing.
- If you’re curious about the direct maternal branch of your family tree, you can take a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test. mtDNA is passed from mothers to both their sons and daughters, but their sons don’t pass it on. Among other things, you can learn about your seriously deep ancestry—as in, roughly how and when this part of your family migrated out of Africa.
- Whenever you hear about a history mystery—say, the Romanovs or the Titanic baby—chances are that mtDNA was used. While scientists would love to use Y-DNA (and have recently had some preliminary success), mtDNA is much more plentiful, making it more reliable in degraded remains situations. That’s why documentaries often mention that the subject’s maternal relatives were involved.
- Familial DNA is used to help identify remains of American soldiers from past conflicts including Vietnam, Korea, WWII and WWI, so if you have a great-uncle who lost his life in Korea in the 1950s, don’t be surprised if you get a call one day asking you to consider swabbing.
- Dozens of male adoptees have identified their birth families with the help of Y-DNA, but this possibility was closed to women since only men sport a Y-chromosome. But the advent of autosomal testing—which can spot relatives of various degrees throughout your family tree—has finally opened that door. Just recently, a woman found her brother when her results popped up a previously unknown half-sibling. It will take a while, but DNA testing will revolutionize how most adoptees search for their birth families.
Genealogy specialist Megan Smolenyak has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN, NPR and BBC. She is the author of six books, aHuffington Post contributor, a cold case researcher for the Army, NCIS and the FBI, and former Chief Family Historian and spokesperson for Ancestry.com. She has helped many clients—including Michelle and Barack Obama—discover their family’s roots. Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing! (Kensington) goes on sale on Tuesday.