Ancestry at 23andMe: Finding Connections

In our last post, Sheridan* responded to her potential fifth cousin Akina and discovered that she has a potential second cousin through 23andMe’s Relative Finder feature. All of this is exciting, but she’s definitely starting to feel her lack of genealogy experience catching up with her. When she logs into her account next, though, she finds a message from her friend Brian:
Hi Sheridan!Did you notice that 23andMe predicts us as 4th cousins?? How cool! We should chat about this sometime. Won’t our parents be amused!Cheers, Brian
In fact, Sheridan had been so focused on Akina’s contact request and her exciting second cousin match that she’d totally missed the match a few rows down listing “Brian Killoran” as her potential fourth cousin! She and Brian had grown up together and their parents were still good friends. Sheridan thinks it’s wonderfully ironic given that she’d considered the Killorans as much family as her own. It’s also quite fortuitous because Brian recently developed an interest in genealogy and could show her a bit of what he’s learned. With his help, she might just find out who their shared ancestor was.

Jan 2013 – Editor’s note: Ancestry Finder is now known as Countries of Ancestry.  Ancestry Labs is sometimes known as Ancestry Tools. Family Inheritance is sometimes known as Family Traits.  This post has been updated to reflect these changes. Certain images of Relative Finder may be out of date as this story was created prior to Relative Finder’s Summer 2011 update.
Sheridan calls Brian up and they agree to meet at the coffee shop down the street. Once there, they set up their laptops side by side and log in to their individual accounts. Brian asks if she’s checked out any of the Ancestry Labs, but aside from reading about the Haplogroup Tree Mutation Mapper (see Sheridan’s introduction to haplogroups), she hasn’t.“Oh, yeah,” he nods, “Haplogroup Tree Mutation Mapper is a personal favorite of mine. But right now, the buzz is all around Countries of Ancestry.” He clicks on Ancestry Tools > Countries of Ancestry in his account and shows Sheridan.

“Each of the grey bars is a chromosome,” he explains, “And these colored bits are parts of your DNA that you have in common with other people because of shared ancestry. The different colors represent countries where people’s grandparents were born, so this tells you potential ancestry for different parts of your DNA.”“But how does it know where people’s grandparents were born?” Sheridan asks. Brian clicks on a link near the top that says “see how this works” and a detailed description appears. “Ah,” she says, reading the first paragraph, “So Countries of Ancestry matches are actually Relative Finder matches, and the country information comes from people’s responses to the ‘Where Are You From?’ survey.” She falls quiet for a moment, eyes lingering wistfully over those words.Brian gives her a gentle nudge. “Shall we take a look at yours?”“Oh – yes, of course!” Eager to see what her own Ancestry Finder shows, Sheridan opens hers up, but to her disappointment, she only sees a handful of colored bars.“I usually change the settings to show the most matches. Try changing some of yours,” he suggests, pointing to the area under “Advanced Controls”. She drags down the minimum segment size and chooses a smaller minimum number of grandparents, and her chromosomes immediately light up with a rainbow of colors.

“How about this one?” she asks, checking off a setting that says, “Include matches primarily from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand & South Africa.” Her chromosomes fill up almost completely with blue colored bars.“Well, people being born in the U.S. and these other countries doesn’t really say much about ancestry since people moved to these countries from all over,” Brian explains. “But you share a lot of DNA with people whose families have been in America for a while. It’s not always that useful to see.” For Sheridan, though, even that bit of knowledge is interesting.After a moment, Sheridan asks, “What about you? We’re supposedly fourth cousins, so does that mean you’re on here somewhere?”

“Hmm.” Brian squints at her screen. “Well, my four grandparents were all born in Ireland, so maybe if we clean this up a little…” He moves the minimum number of grandparents back up to four. Almost all of the colored bars vanish. Of the ones that remain, Brian drags the mouse over to a strip of four pinkish-red colored bars on chromosome 10. “This is probably me,” he says.

“Wait-” Sheridan taps his arm and points to chromosome 20. “What about that over there?”“Oh, you’re right, that could be me, too.” Brian scratches his head. “I know!” He goes back to his account and clicks on Family Traits. “This tool compares two people and shows where you share DNA.”

The screen shows another view of the 23 pairs of chromosomes. Brian selects Sheridan’s name from a drop-down list of his shares and a bright blue strip representing a half-identical region of DNA appears on chromosome 20. “So I guess that means I’m actually those pink bars on chromosome 20!” he says.Sheridan is impressed at this level of detail, but still wondering if they can figure out their ancestral connection. For that, Brian says, they’ll need to go hunting the old-fashioned way. Although his own parents weren’t born in the United States, he knows that some of his ancestors immigrated here in the late 1800’s and he’s been collecting whatever historical records he can find. They decide to meet up again in a few days after he’s looked through his files.

In the meantime, Brian suggests that she contact her second cousin match. “Maybe it will give us a clue about our ancestral connection,” he says, “but even if it doesn’t, it’s still a clue about your family tree.”With this encouragement, Sheridan clicks “make contact” and sends a customized introduction to her predicted second cousin:
Hello,My name is Sheridan. 23andMe has identified us as potential 2nd cousins. I’m adopted, and hoping to learn more about my biological relatives! Would you be interested in communicating further to see how we might be related? Sheridan
She finishes her coffee and bids goodbye to Brian. She can’t wait to see what they can figure out at their next meeting.
Other posts in this series:What Can You Learn? – An overview of 23andMe’s ancestry features.Introducing Sheridan – We meet Sheridan and she learns about her maternal haplogroups.Sheridan’s Global Origins – Sheridan compares herself and her friends to various populations around the world.Sheridan’s Got Relatives – Sheridan responds to a fifth cousin and discovers a predicted second cousin in the 23andMe database.(next) Old Roots and New Horizons – Sheridan and Brian put together the pieces to sketch out their shared family tree.
* The people and events described in these posts are fictional.
  • Helen

    Thanks Shwu, these articles are great!

    The implication that Ancestry Finder (AF) matches are Relative Finder (RF) matches who have completed the ancestry survey is a bit oversimplified, people will try to compare them and find discrepancies.

    Reasons why some RF matches are not in AF:
    – they have not completed the ancestry survey (like Sheridan and many other adoptees, they may not even be able to)
    – they have completed the ancestry survey but there is a small time lag in uploading the information to AF

    Reasons why some AF matches are not in RF:
    – there is a lower DNA matching threshold for AF than RF (a minimum half-identical segment size of 5cM versus 7cM)
    – they have opted out of RF

    If you have an AF match >5cM and <7cM, who is a Public Match so you can identify them, and you voluntarily share basic genomes with them then they will be added to both your RF lists.

    I hope your next article will cover Public Match settings for AF and RF:-)

    • Hi Helen,

      Great clarifications! Thanks for listing those out. We’d love to get into the details more for each tool but can only fit so much into each post. We’ll be wrapping up the series soon but we’ll probably do some “Q&A” type posts as well, discussing either frequently asked or especially interesting scenarios. If there is enough interest in Ancestry Finder and Public Matches, though, it’s certainly possible we’d dedicate a post to that in the future.


  • Helen

    I understand Shirley, at least Public Matches are mentioned in my comment for others to see:-)

    I would like to add that out of all the commercial biogeographical ancestry (BGA) tools currently out there (including dnatribes, FTDNA’s Population Finder and 23andMe’s Global Similarity), Ancestry Finder has been the most useful to me by far. As it relies on the voluntary participation of 23andMe customers, I strongly encourage everyone who has the information to complete their ancestry survey (“Where Are You From?”) and thank those who have already done so as it is greatly appreciated by those of us who like Sheridan don’t have comprehensive information about our roots.

  • At 27 years old I found out that the man who raised me was not my real father. My mom said she had a one night stand on her 18th birthday…Aug.27, 1959. I was born on May 29, 1960 and was born with bilateral congenital clubfeet and spent the first 9 years in Gillette Crippled Childrens Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother and I never bonded and I believe without the Father God I would never have survived…I remember it all like yesterday. Now being 50 years old and having two children I am missing a large void in my heart….who am I? On several occasions having spent time with native americans the elders would always ask me what tribe I was from. Being that my mom was an Italian/bolgarian I would tell them I wasn’t from any tribe. When asking my mom about this guy she had this one night stand with she says the only thing she remembers is, “He was dark and he was handsome.” I am living on a fixed income of $203 cash and $200 foodstamps due to a 4 year fight with social security. I have worked all of my life and now that my feet, legs and hips are giving me major problems due to what my born disability brought me I cannot afford this test. Before I die I NEED to know where I came from. Can you help me?

    • Hi Christine,

      We are sympathetic to the tough situation you are in! Unfortunately, we do not have exceptions to our pricing except as part of pre-planned promotions or programs such as the Parkinson’s disease initiative or specific sales. However, we are always looking to make the price more affordable and we usually have some deeper discounts around the holidays.

      Although 23andMe’s Ancestry tools turned out to be informative for our fictional character Sheridan, there’s no guarantee that the service will provide useful insights for any particular person. It has the potential to, but might not, depending on what the tools are able to determine from your DNA. It’s like finding out the birthplace of your father — finding out he was from New York state might not be that useful but finding out he was from a particular small town in upstate New York might be.

      Best of luck to you and your family and we hope you are able to catch one of our promotions in the future!

    • Lisa Spencer Piephoff

      Christine, if you haven’t been able to do this yet, have you thought of setting up a GoFundMe page?

  • eljayess

    Helen, you stated above: “If you have an AF match >5cM and <7cM, who is a Public Match so you can identify them, and you voluntarily share basic genomes with them then they will be added to both your RF lists."

    How can you find a public match who is not on your RF list already? I tried searching for people on my downloaded AF list who are not on my RF list, but I can't find them through the RF search. Help!