Newsletter - 11th March 2020



Why should a family historian use DNA?

What does a DNA test tell us?

Who should test?

Scaremongering or genuine concerns?


What is ancestry?

Happy memories

Review: Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry

Peter's Tips

Stop Press



The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous issue (dated 4th March) click here; to find earlier articles use the customised Google search between this paragraph and the next (it searches ALL of the newsletters since February 2009, so you don't need to keep copies):



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Why should a family historian use DNA?

When I first began researching my family tree back in 2002 there was a schism in the genealogy community between those who used computers in their research and to record information they had found, and people who'd managed quite nicely, thank you, without any new-fangled gadgets. The Society of Genealogists had a specialist journal called Computers in Genealogy, and many family history societies had separate branches for members who used computers - a sort of quarantine. Amazingly, some still do!


Of course, you wouldnít be reading this if you weren't convinced of the value of computers in your family history research. But this week I was reminded of that earlier split in the community when an email arrived from a LostCousins member which asked "could you give me the dates of newsletters explaining 'why I should take a DNA test?' so that I can give the facts to some family members who may be unsure?"


Almost a year ago I reported that half of all readers of this newsletter have tested their DNA, so recently I haven't felt it necessary to convince you of the benefits, and any articles I've written in the distant past are likely to be out of date. However, I can understand that when youíre asking a family member to test it's useful to be able to explain why it's so important to your research - and also to be able to allay any concerns that they might have.


Clearly your relatives need to accept that genealogy is an activity worth pursuing - if you can't convince them of that, perhaps by telling them about the discoveries you've made which are most relevant to them, then you're unlikely to be able to persuade them to submit to a DNA test.


But assuming you have managed to surmount that hurdle, here are some key reasons why DNA testing is important to family historians:




What does a DNA test tell us?

For people who aren't family historians there's only one thing that a genealogical DNA test is going to reveal - their 'ethnicity'. Leaving aside the question of whether ethnicity estimates are accurate, people have migrated for millennia, and the answer to the question "Where did my ancestors come from?" is clearly going to differ, depending on the timescale.


The valuable output from a DNA test is something very different - it's long list of genetic cousins. And I mean a long list - I donít know anyone who has fewer matches at Ancestry than I do, but I have over 23,000 genetic cousins. Those matches are clues to my ancestry - if someone shares my DNA they must also share one of my ancestors, and whilst it is challenging to pick a cousin at random and figure out the connection, the strategies in the DNA Masterclass will home in on the matches which are not only easiest to diagnose, but most useful.



Who should test?

Although we inherit all of our DNA from our parents we donít inherit all of their DNA, only half of it; similarly, they only inherited half of their DNA from their parents, and so on.


This means that with every generation part of our genetic inheritance is lost; no matter how many offspring we have, there will be some parts of our DNA that donít get passed on.


FIRST RULE: test the earliest generation


If you are researching your mother's ancestry, but your mother has passed away, are you better off testing yourself or your mother's brother? Whilst your uncle will have inherited only half of your grandparents' DNA, you have only inherited a quarter of their DNA - so itís much better if your uncle tests, even though he isnít in your direct line.


SECOND RULE: it doesn't matter whether the people testing are male or female


Ideally both of you would test. There are two reasons for this: one is that you will have inherited some DNA from your grandparents that your uncle didn't; the other is that by comparing your matches with your uncle's matches you'll be able to tell which of you own matches are on your mother's side.


THIRD RULE: shared matches are crucial


Trying to figure out how you are related to your genetic cousins is much easier if you know which part of your tree you should be looking at: someone who matches both you and a documented cousin of yours is almost certainly connected to you in the part of your tree that you share with your documented cousin.


Note: a documented cousin is someone who appears on your family tree - you know precisely how the two of you are related.


When you work out how you are related to genetic cousins you will be able to add them to your family tree - they too become documented cousins, and can help you diagnose your connections to other genetic cousins.


FOURTH RULE: distant cousins can be more useful than close cousins


When youíre trying to knock down a specific 'brick wall' you want to be able to focus your attention on matches with genetic cousins from that specific line - and the best way to do is to compare your matches against those of a cousin who shares only that one line. Thus if your 'brick wall' ancestor is your great-great-great grandfather you'd want to compare your matches with a half 4th cousin (or a 4th cousin if your problem ancestor only married once).



Scaremongering or genuine concerns?

Over the past few years there have been numerous scare stories about DNA testing, and almost all of them have been blatant scaremongering. Fortunately you can easily demonstrate that these stories are untrue by pointing out the protections provided in the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy of the test provider.


There are two genuine concerns, things that wouldnít stop me from testing, and probably wouldnít stop you, but do need to be considered when we're asking others to help us in our research. One is the possibility that DNA testing might lead to a shocking discovery - you might, for example, discover that a family member was adopted, or that you have an unexpected half-sibling.


The other is the risk that your DNA might lead to the conviction of a distant relative who has committed a serious crime. Again this isn't something that would worry me, but in any case, provided you test with Ancestry the chance of this happening is close to zero, because they wonít allow their database to be used by law-enforcement.


Tip: don't believe the scaremongering, read Ancestry's DNA Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement for yourself!



Ancestry's offer in the UK continues until 17th March, but they've also launched an offer at their Australian site (which includes New Zealand), and this closes on the same date, so you'll need to be quick. All prices quoted exclude shipping but bear in mind that shipping works out cheaper when you order more than one kit.


(If there are any more offers announced before the next newsletter I'll update this article accordingly.)


Please use the appropriate link below so that you can support LostCousins (you may find that you need to log-out of Ancestry, if so click the link again). ††††††††††††††††† REDUCED FROM £79 to £59 ††††††††††† REDUCED FROM $129 to $89


Tip: you donít need to decide who will be testing before you place your order - you can make your mind up at any time.



What is ancestry?

Last September I visited the Royal Institution on London to hear Debbie Kennett (genetic genealogy guru and long-time LostCousins member) and Aylwyn Scally of the Department of Genetics at Cambridge University talk about consumer DNA testing.


I've known Debbie for a long time, but I hadnít met Aylwyn Scally before - however his is a name that's hard to forget, so when I spotted an article in PLoS Genetics that he had co-authored with Iain Mathieson of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pennsylvania, I decided to take a close look.


Entitled What is ancestry? the article points that there are three quite different concepts that tend to be conflated in everyday discussion:



I'm not going to attempt to summarise the entire article because it's available free online - and it's only a few pages long. Follow this link - then click the Download PDF icon.


If youíre quick you'll be able to hear Adam Rutherford's BBC Radio series based on his recent book How to Argue with a Racist, which covers some of the same ground. The first episode in the series is available only until 11th March but you have a day longer to listen to each of the subsequent episodes - there are 5 in all. Follow this link to the radio programmes (which should be available worldwide), and if you decide to purchase his book please use the appropriate link below so that you can support LostCousins:†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††



Happy memories

At a time when present events are disturbing and the future uncertain it's tempting to focus on the past. I donít usually listen to podcasts, but these interviews at the website of The Oldie magazine were a delight!


Hunter Davies, Beatles biographer, on Abbey Road

Barry Cryer on 60 years in comedy

Nicholas Parsons on the success of Just A Minute


As often as I can (which sadly isnít very often) I attend the Literary Lunches organised by The Oldie, which are usually compered by Barry Cryer. Given the average age of the attendees I fear they'll be amongst the first events to be cancelled as a result of the new coronavirus, but I'm going to take an optimistic approach and book anyway.



Review: Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry

Chris Paton, author of Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry Through Church & State Records, was one of the top speakers at the Genealogy in the Sunshine conferences that I organised in Portugal in 2014 and 2015 - so I had very high hopes for his latest book.


I'm glad to say that I wasn't disappointed - it's an amazingly comprehensive guide that everyone with Scottish ancestry should have on their bookshelf. There are many differences between England and Scotland in matters like civil registration and marriage, but I suspect that there are more than a few researchers out there who don't appreciate just how different the systems were (and still are).


For example, I didn't know that between 1834-1854 it was possible for banns to be called in a Church of Scotland church, but for the marriage to take place in a non-conformist church, and to be conducted by a dissenting minister. Or that one of the reasons that irregular marriages flourished was that until 1940 there were no civil marriages, even though they had been introduced in England & Wales more than a century earlier.


When it comes to marriage, this book comes close to doing for Scottish marriage what Professor Probert's books have done for marriage in England & Wales - but there's so much more besides. Did you know that the record-keeping of Scottish burials was so poor that only about one-third of Scottish parishes have registers that have survived? Did you also know that whereas in England & Wales illegitimacy is merely inferred from the information in the birth register, in Scotland the word 'illegitimate' appears under the child's name prior to 1919?


There are chapters on Land Tenure, Inheritance, and Law and Order - all of which generated records - as well as one entitled 'Where Were They?' which guides readers through the challenge of finding out where their ancestors lived - there is more to life than censuses!


All in all this is an excellent book which will repay its cost many times over. I read the paperback, which would be my choice, but the Kindle version is slightly cheaper if you want something you can carry around wherever you go:†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††



Peter's Tips

If you want to be better informed about the new coronavirus, COVID-19, there's a free online course starting shortly at FutureLearn. Developed by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine it promises to help you "Understand the emergence of COVID-19 and how we respond to it going forward" with the help of international experts. Follow this link to register or find out more.


The course doesnít start until 23rd March, but in the meantime you can keep track of the latest statistics and advice here.


Finally, if you think we could do with a miracle right now this story from Italy of water turning into wine might cheer you up.....



Stop Press

This is where any major updates and corrections will be highlighted - if you think you've spotted an error first reload the newsletter (press Ctrl-F5) then check again before writing to me, in case someone else has beaten you to it......



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Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins


© Copyright 2020 Peter Calver

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