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How To Trace Your Ancestors' Origins
Updated on January 4, 2023
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DNA Testing
How To Trace Your Ancestors' Origins

Can a DNA Test Help Me Find Out Where I'm From?

People who are considering a DNA test commonly ask this question. Will these testing kits help you learn more about your family’s history?

The answer is yes. DNA tests that offer ancestry reports can help you find out where you (and your family) may have come from.

How To Trace Your Ancestors' Origins 2

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How DNA Tests Help You Learn Where You’re From

DNA companies can find out where you’re from by comparing your DNA, historical records, and family tree with other users on their database.

Track Your Ethnicity With DNA Matches

Most DNA services will compare your genetic data with the DNA of other people who took the test. For example:

  • Ancestry keeps “reference panels” with the DNA of people from different locations around the world.1
  • 23andMe groups its “reference populations” to include genetically similar people of known ancestry.2 You can read more on our 23andMe review.

Each company uses its own tools and algorithms to find similar DNA segments. If they find a significant match, it suggests you have common ancestors. 

“This is what is called genetic ancestry testing. Shared patterns of genetic variation are used to provide possibilities of common ancestral background,” says Dr. Rizza Mira.

DNA matching offers a few benefits. For instance, they can show you the places where your ancestors lived and find possible relatives.

DNA matches can also tell you which groups of people you share similar DNA with, and how much of this DNA you share.

Discover Your Family History With Record Matches

Some genetic testing companies like Ancestry and My Heritage have access to:

  • Death records
  • Census records
  • Historical birth information
  • Other records

You can search these records manually for a known ancestor. Some services provide automatic searches and will let you know if they find a match.

Find Common Ancestors By Comparing Your Family Tree

DNA testing services like My Heritage can search their members’ family trees. If you have a family tree on their database, they can help you find common ancestors.

It’s a great way to learn where you’re from. But keep in mind that it doesn’t guarantee you have the same ancestors or that you’re related. 

You have to contact members with matching family trees to confirm and investigate.

How Does DNA Ancestry Testing Work?

It depends. Companies that offer ancestry services have different testing methods. They check for one or more types of DNA, namely:3,4

  • Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA)
  • Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) 
  • Autosomal DNA

Y-DNA can be helpful for tracking patrilineal ancestry, since it’s passed on from fathers to sons. Men who want to uncover their father’s lineage should take Y-DNA tests.

mtDNA is transferred from mothers and children, so it can it can track your matrilineal ancestry. mtDNA tests are great for learning more about your mother’s lineage.

Autosomal DNA contains genetic information that you share with both parents. This includes relatives from your mother’s and father’s side of the family.

If you want to look at your complete family history, find close relatives, and get estimates of your ethnic origins, you should consider autosomal testing.

Some DNA testing companies like Ancestry only offer autosomal tests. Others like Family Tree DNA offer separate tests for autosomal, mtDNA, and Y-DNA.

But if you want more comprehensive results, you should consider testing kits like 23andMe which can test for all three types of DNA.

Dr. Mira says that choosing the best test will depend on what you want to learn:

“For general ancestry testing, autosomal tests are the best choices. If you are a male who wish to discover your paternal lines, a Y-DNA test should be your priority. For both genders who want to trace their maternal lines, an mtDNA is the best choice.”

What To Expect From DNA Ancestry Tests

Using these DNA tests should be easy. You just buy a kit online, wait for it to arrive, mail back your samples, and wait some more time for your test results.

After DNA analysis, you’ll get an ancestry report. It will be slightly different depending on your chosen service. 

Ancestry reports usually include the following information:

Genealogy and Ethnic Origins

It gives you a list of regions which share most of your DNA. You’ll get a percentage of how much DNA you share with each region on your list (e.g., 15% East Asia).

Some companies test for shared DNA with a specific country (e.g., 27% Norway). 

By comparing your DNA with places from around the world, these tests can help you discover where you came from.

Dr. Mira reminds readers to be careful when interpreting their DNA report:

“Your ethnicity is not imprinted on your DNA. Companies compare your information with similar groups of people to provide you with estimates.”

Racial Background

DNA tests can’t identify race since it’s partly influenced by culture and upbringing. But they can test for shared DNA with certain groups of people.

For example, your results may show you have genes in common with Asians, Michigan Settlers, or Native American.

This can give you an idea of who your most recent ancestors are.

Migration Routes

Some DNA testing services can trace your family’s migration routes. It shows you how your ancestors moved across the world across several generations.

Find Family Members

DNA companies can search their database for genetic matches. The people you match with may be close family or relatives you don’t know about. 

“Having the same surname may lead you to conclude that you come from the same family. This may not be always right,” says Dr. Mira.

More tests are needed to confirm this relationship. But it’s a good start if you want to find people you’re related to, whether it’s biological parents or cousins.

Should You Get A DNA Ancestry Test?

Family stories can be fun and inspiring, but we can’t always live by them. If you want a better way to uncover your family history, you should try ancestry testing.

They can help you learn something new and interesting about yourself — including places where your family came from and who your ancestors are.

If you want more accurate ancestry results, go for DNA services that have large databases, a variety of reference panels, and access to the latest genealogy research.

They’ll be able to provide more detailed information about your ancestry and ethnicity.

Ancestry DNA Test Pros

  • Easy to take: Just take a small swab of saliva and send your DNA sample.
  • Precise ethnicity estimates: Get a detailed geographic breakdown of your ethnicity.
  • Migration patterns: Discover the migratory routes your ancestors may have taken.
  • Find lost relatives: Matches your DNA with distant relatives you may not know about.
  • Raw DNA data: Downloadable results that you can use on other DNA testing companies.

Ancestry DNA Test Cons

  • Limited access: If you want to build a family tree, you have to pay monthly fees to access public records and other users' family trees.
  • Doesn't estimate your racial group: AncestryDNA only performs genetic matches based on geography, not racial profile (e.g., Asian, American, and European).

Additional services can get expensive. But their massive database makes them one of the most trusted DNA tests. You can learn more about AncestryDNA here.

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Updated on January 4, 2023
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2 sources cited
Updated on January 4, 2023
Dr. Rizza Mira
Dr. Rizza Mira
Medical Reviewer
Dr. Rizza Mira is a medical doctor and a general practitioner who specializes in pediatrics, nutrition, dietetics, and public health.

As a pediatrician, she is dedicated to the general health and well-being of children and expecting parents. She believes that good nutrition, a healthy lifestyle, and prevention of illness are key to ensuring the health of children and their families.

When she’s not in the hospital, Rizza advocates and mobilizes causes like breastfeeding, vaccination drives, and initiatives to prevent illness in the community.
Cristine Santander
Cristine Santander
Content Contributor
Cristine Santander is a content writer for KnowYourDNA. She has a B.S. in Psychology and enjoys writing about health and wellness.
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