Welcome to a long overdue post about AncestryDNA. I first wrote a version of this article back in February 2019, and whilst that post still has useful tips, it is very outdated since AncestryDNA have introduced great new tools since then, like the Groups/Dots feature, and Thrulines, plus made refinements to how DNA matches display on screen that just make it much easier to work with.
I make no secret of the fact that AncestryDNA is my favourite of all the DNA companies to work with when I’m doing genetic genealogy. That is in large part due to the fact that it has the biggest database (so more matches for most people), admittedly, but also because it integrates with your genealogy work, and its inbuilt tools are fairly easy to use.
Note: this is NOT a sponsored post; I am an Ancestry affiliate, but I’m an affiliate of all the DNA test companies. Ancestry do not know I am writing this. The kits you will see screenshots of are all test kits that I have personally purchased. With that said, lets dive in.
AncestryDNA Main Page
When you open up your Ancestry DNA results, you’ll see that the page has three main sections – Ethnicity Estimate on the left, DNA matches in the middle, and a section for Thrulines on the right (note, if you do not have a family tree connected to your DNA results, then this section will simply tell you how you can get Thrulines). Let’s take each one in turn.
On the main page, you will see details of your top two regions on your ethnicity estimate, and beneath that, how many other regions your ethnicity estimate is showing. You can either click on ‘Discover your DNA Story’ or anywhere on the Ethnicity Estimate section to go into more details of your ethnicity breakdown.
When you click into that page, you’ll see all the regions that Ancestry has picked up, and details of any DNA communities that Ancestry has connected you to.
For example, here’s mine:
AncestryDNA has connected me to three specific regions around Wirral, Cheshire, which makes perfect sense given my known genealogy.
It’s interesting to compare my results with those of my parents, who are also in the AncestryDNA database. On my mum’s results it only connects her to one area of the Wirral, and that 1% Finnish has turned into 1% Norwegian. My dad’s results show the same three Wirral / Cheshire communities but no 1% of Finnish either.
Dad also gets one extra DNA community – “Delaware Valley, Chesapeake & Midwest Settlers”, which makes sense based on the genealogy I have been able to establish for his American grandfather.
I find the ethnicity information interesting but not that useful by itself usually, and not necessarily that accurate – clearly I can’t have 1% of Finnish DNA if neither of my parents do.
Ancestry’s estimates also change over time as they get more people in their reference communities, and I have watched my smaller percentages of DNA vary dramatically each time my estimate is updated. The larger percentages though, which is what you should focus on, are provably accurate through my genealogy research.
Your ethnicity results may potentially tell you something though. If you don’t know anything about your origins, it will give you a good clue; and if you see an ethnicity you were totally not expecting in a large amount, that can also tell you something. I’ve had clients who were expecting to be 100% Jewish be half Irish, and those expecting to be 100% British be… not that.
So, whilst you shouldn’t unduly worry about DNA results, if 50% of your DNA is something you weren’t expecting it to be, you may have an unknown parent on your hands; if 25% or closer, it could be a grandparent who is not the biological grandparent you expected them to be. In which case you’ll want to pay close attention to. your DNA matches, which is good because that’s where we are moving to next!
If ethnicity is the starter course, the DNA matches section is the delicious main. This is the part that can be totally overwhelming, but can also be really, really fun, if you let it.
The DNA matches section on the front page just tells you how many matches you have that are ‘4th cousin or closer’ level. This doesn’t actually mean they are fourth cousins or closer, that’s just how AncestryDNA distinguishes the closeness of the relationship. It also shows you eight thumbnail pictures of recent DNA matches.
You can get full details of all your Ancestry matches by clicking on the ‘View All DNA Matches’ button. By default your matches will appear in order of closest match to you in a list format. There’s also a map view, but I suggest you ignore this for now as it’s quite confusing.
If one or both of your parents has also tested through Ancestry you’ll not only see them at the top of your list, but you’ll also see all your other DNA matches have ‘Father’s side’ or ‘Mother’s side’ next to them so you know which side of your tree that person matches (although there’s always the possibility that a match could be on both sides).
Against each match you’ll see that Ancestry has given you a figure that shows how closely you match with that person, and an estimate of the relationship you are to that person.
In the middle you’ll see information about whether the match has a family tree connected to their DNA results or not (or if they have a family tree but not linked, you’ll see it says ‘Unlinked Tree’).
As you can see on the above image, on the right hand side is a question ‘Do you recognize them?‘. This is a relatively new feature and one which I really like. You can go through and allot those matches as paternal or maternal side yourself, and if you know the exact relationship, you can select that too (if you don’t, no worries, just select ‘I’m not sure’ – the dialogue box will remain so that you can amend it if you find out the exact relationship in future).
On this image you can see that I’ve made a start in using this feature – these matches show the exact relationship, the two at the bottom I don’t know yet, but I can tell from the shared DNA matches that they must be on my dad’s maternal side.
Along the top, above the actual DNA matches you can see various filter options – you can chose to see just paternal or maternal matches, those matches you have never viewed, those who Ancestry believes it can identify an actual common ancestor with, those you’ve messaged, or those you have made notes on. At the very end you can also see a ‘Groups’ button. You can use this to look at groups you have set up (more later!), or to see Paternal or maternal side matches if you’ve started setting those up.
On the far right you can see a search button – clicking this will bring up the search dialogue boxes; you can search for a specific match by name, or for a specific surname in your matches’ trees, or a birth location. For example, if I search for Ledgerwood (my 2x great-grandmother’s last name), I find a whole heap of matches that have this name in their tree:
Or, as I noted above, I know I have a lot of branches of my family tree that came from Wirral, Cheshire, so I could try searching my matches for this location to see who has it in their trees – this is the screenshot of the search results for that (ignoring my own family who appear at the top of my results):
Quite a few results come up, and some I have not looked at before, so I could definitely do some research on those matches to try and find out how we connect. Note, just because they have that location in their tree doesn’t necessarily mean that is how I connect to them; for example, that first match you can see, the primary way I connect to her is through an ancestor on my American side – it’s always possible I’m very distantly related to whoever in her tree has Wirral roots, but genealogy and our shared matches tells me our main common ancestor is much closer, and has no roots in Cheshire.
If you look at the above image again, on the very far right of the match you can see some coloured dots against the top two matches, and a little ‘+’ sign against the other matches. If you click the ‘+’ you will see a new button that pops up to ‘add to group’.
There are multiple ways you can use this feature. It’s a little easier to demonstrate by looking at a match, so let’s click into a match:
You can see at the top for this match we have that same button, and an ‘add note’ box as well.
I could start a new group for this match – I simply click ‘add to group’ then ‘create custom group’:
You can use this feature like this, to make a group of matches you want to concentrate on, or you can use it to keep track of a group of matches who all share DNA with each other (this is a ‘genetic network’ which I will focus more on next week), which is its prime purpose.
The idea is that you create groups of matches and work out broadly which branch of your tree that group relates to. AncestryDNA lets you do this by creating a group, picking a colour for that group, then you simply add the main DNA match you are looking at to that group, then all the people who also share DNA with that person. If you already know what branch of your tree that group relates to, you can name the group something meaningful, e.g. I might name such a group: ‘Paternal – Toll’. Then, when you look at your matches on the main page you’ll see that coloured dot as a reference so you know which group they belong to at a glance:
DNA match view
Let’s go back to the DNA match view. When you click into a DNA match, the default view shows you common ancestors on the left hand side, and a space for a mini-tree in the middle (note this will only appear if the person has a public family tree linked to their DNA results). You can see with this person that they have a tree, it’s linked to their results, but the tree is private, so I cannot see it:
However, you can also see named common ancestors that Ancestry has found for this match – it doesn’t matter that I can’t see the person’s tree, Ancestry can, and tells me who it thinks the common ancestors are (they may or may not be correct, but they give me enough info if I click to ‘view relationship’ that I can double check their work! – more on this in the Thrulines section below).
You can also see just above the tree area there is a little mini menu – Ethnicity will allow you to compare your ethnicity to that person’s – very helpful if you are of mixed ethnicities and want to try and work out if a match is on one or other side of your tree at a glance by comparing ethnicity. Shared matches is the most useful option though which we touched on above – this allows you to see every other match that shares DNA with you and that main match.
The main DNA match screen also gives you an easy access ‘message’ button if you want to contact your match, or by clicking their name, you can go straight to their Ancestry profile which may give you more information about the person, including whether they have logged into Ancestry recently (which gives you an idea of whether they are likely to respond to messages or not).
Thrulines is a relatively new, incredibly useful feature. It basically automates the search of your matches trees to try and work out how you are related to that match.
To use it, you need to have your DNA test linked to a family tree on Ancestry, and that tree needs to be either public, or private but searchable. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a lot of info, just put all the branches and names you can to allow Thrulines to do its thing. Let’s see how it works.
I have a really fleshed out family tree, and so my thrulines lists all my ancestors by generation – here you can see my paternal side great-grandparents:
If I hover over each ancestor, I will get a view of how many DNA matches in the database share DNA with that person:
If I click in to the image it will show me a mini descendants’ tree leading to all the matches AncestryDNA thinks matches that person. Let’s look at the match we looked up earlier, who Ancestry thinks descends from John Tweedle and Martha:
You can see that AncestryDNA thinks this match descends from a Joseph Tweedle. If I click the ‘3’ underneath Joseph Tweedle on the left, it will show me the three generations (keeping the identity of living people private) leading to that match:
Although this doesn’t identify the match’s parent as they are living, it is probably enough information for me to verify what Ancestry is telling me by doing genealogy. If I click on a named individual in the mini tree, Ancestry will also tell me what it used to do its research:
Hopefully this gives you a good overview of what your test results would look like if you did an AncestryDNA test. If you haven’t yet purchased an Ancestry kit and want to, you can purchase your DNA kit through Ancestry now.