Welcome to Mad About Genealogy. Here we track our ancestry throughout centuries and millennia to try better understand:
- Where did our ancestors come from?
- Breakdown of what ethnicity (percentages) we are.
Following our anthropological history from Homo Sapiens and the Neanderthal to modern humans can be a life-changing experience that digs deep into who we are.
Obviously, even trying our relatives using recorded history notes is a challenge in itself. Going back more than 200 years has been a monumental task even a good decade ago.
How can we check if we’re related to Queen Victoria or if we are descendent from the Romans? How can we keep track of our roots 200,000 years down the memory lane of history when the Neanderthal and ancestors of modern man roam the Earth alongside mammoths and mastodonts?
Using the best DNA tests, of course. The Human Genome Project together with the sequencing of the Neanderthal DNA is 2013 has given us ample information on our DNA and how it is related to the DNA of the people who lived before us; our ancestors.
People who take DNA tests mostly use them to answer:
- “Where do I come from?” This includes ethnicity reports (the breakdown of how much Italian, German, etc. DNA you have) and colorful maps depicting places where your ancestors lived.
- “Who am I related to?” Finding our who your relatives are and building a family tree.
Here at Neanderthal Modern, we will focus on answering the 1st question. Building family trees, on the other hand, is more related to genealogy. What is most fortunate, however, is that the majority of the best DNA tests answer both questions: “Who your relatives are?” AND “Where did your ancestors come from?”.
DNA at first seems a complex double helix molecule that holds all the information that makes us us. Only a genetics expert can use modern technology to sequence all 23 chromosomes we have and even mitochondrial DNA.
Fortunately, with the introduction of the commercial DNA tests, the complex system of sequencing and analyzing DNA is simple as:
- Order the DNA test kit (it is delivered to your home).
- Use the cotton swab that is part of the kit and collect your own saliva sample.
- Pack the sample and send it back to the DNA testing laboratory.
- In 4-8 weeks, you will get all kinds of information about your heritage, ethnicity, who you are related to and where did your ancestors come from.
This simple 4-step system – the one Neanderthals couldn’t possibly comprehend – is what has prompted millions and millions of modern man (and woman, of course) to use the high-tech DNA technology to uncover their ancestral root and to help figure out the question everybody has asked at least once:
“Who am I and where do I come from?”
Where Did My Ancestors Come From?
In short, from Africa. Present-day humans can track our DNA back to an archaic human called Homo Heidelbergensis who lived about 600,000 years ago.
About 300,000 years ago first ancient humans started to emerge from the African continent and went on to Eurasia. The ones who settled in Europe – in Western, Central and Eastern Europe – are known as the Neanderthals. Another group that went towards Asia – Western and Central Asia and Siberia – are known as Denisovans.
The ancestor’s modern humans came from Africa some 60,000 years ago. There is strong evidence that modern humans inbred with Neanderthals in Europe and Asia to create modern-day humans.
In fact, everyone who is not of direct African descent shares 1% to 4% of the Neanderthal DNA. You can figure out if you are more than the average amount of the ‘robust’ Neanderthal DNA here.
The ancestors of modern humans were moving around Europe and Asia quite frequently until the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago. That was the period in history when human migrations became less frequent and finally the modern humans settled down and slowly started to build civilization.
For DNA testing, human settling down is an important factor. Humans who settled down together produced offsprings together in certain geographical areas – in DNA testing we call these areas ‘Regions’ – and as a result, their DNA traits became distinctively specific for everybody from that area.
For example, people who settled in modern-day Northern Italy and lived there for several generations (or even thousands of years), share common DNA traits. If we, the 21-century humans, take a DNA test that finds out we share these DNA traits people from Northern Italy tended to have, we can conclude that part of our ancestors must have come from Northern Italy. That DNA is significantly different than DNA from Malta, for example.
How Does DNA Testing Work?
All the ethnic backgrounds we have in inscribed into our DNA. The only thing we have to do is ‘read the DNA’ and with the DNA tests now we finally can decipher the genetic code that makes us us.
DNA tests look at segments of our DNA and look at how it related to the DNA of our ancestors. DNA in itself is changing through the centuries via a system called DNA mutations. DNA mutations are changes in our genes.
Obviously, the closer the people are related, the more similar DNA we have. With the DNA tests, we basically measure how closely does our DNA match the DNA of others. For example, the DNA of a father and son are the most similar. People coming from the same genealogical regions also have similar DNA tidbits.
The main method of decoding the DNA is looking at changes in individual Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). DNA is a very long molecule that looks like a ladder; the rungs of this DNA ladder can be AT (Adenine – Thymine) or GC (Guanine – Cytosine).
Every time the AT rung is replaced with GC rung, or visa versa, we can measure it using DNA sequencing technology. In essence, we are looking at how many SNPs were changed in such a way.
From that information and with the help of the DNA database of people who already took the test, we can see who is related to who and from what regions we come from.
That’s why the best DNA testing companies are those who have the best DNA database (for family tree building) and with the most regions (for ethnicity background calculations).
Between themselves, the DNA tests differ most in what part of DNA they are testing. That’s why we have different types of tests.
Types Of DNA Tests
When choosing a DNA test, it is worth knowing which specific part of the DNA that test takes in an account.
Of course, the best tests should take all of the DNA into an account. However, there is some merit in looking at specific DNA for determining the regions from where you come from or people you are related to.
In essence, there are 3 types of DNA tests – and the best DNA tests do encompass more than 1 type of DNA testing.
Autosomal DNA Testing
The biggest and the most used in genealogy and ethnicity background determination is autosomal DNA testing.
Out of 23 chromosomes every one of us possesses, 22 of them are autosomal and 1 is sex chromosome (XX for women and XY for men).
The autosomal DNA tests test the 22 autosomal chromosomes, thereby covering more than 95% of all DNA we have.
These are perfect for determining what kind of ancestral relationship we are with our relatives, finding lost relatives and even pinpoint our ethnic background.
When choosing the best autosomal DNA test, the single most important factor is the size of the DNA database that a specific company has. You can check how these tests are conducted and which ones are the best in our article about the autosomal DNA testing.
Y DNA Testing
The ‘Y’ refers to a male Y chromosome that only men possess. Concordantly, with the Y DNA tests, you can track your direct-male parental lineage.
The relations between son, father, grandfather, grand grandfather can be determined just by looking at the Y chromosome.
That makes this test very useful as a parental DNA test and can help you figure out if your son is truly yours. Additionally, it can help you find male relatives in your family tree and makes it perfect for finding a most recent common ancestor on the direct patriarchal line.
What is more, the Y test can connect you with the chromosomal-Adam. Because all men living today can trace their lineage to our ancient predecessor, we use the Y DNA test to look at how your ancestors came from him in Africa throughout history to you.
The chromosomal-Adam’s DNA has more than 20 haplogroups which can determine the path your ancestors took to come to Europe, Asia, or the Americas. You can learn more about this test in our Y DNA testing segment.
Mitochondrial DNA Testing
In much the same way that men can track their male lineage with the Y DNA tests, women can track their direct-female lineage using mitochondrial DNA testing (or mtDNA for short).
A daughter has pretty much the same mtDNA as her mother, grandmother, grand grandmother, and so on. In fact, the mitochondrial DNA barely changes in 5o generations, making it a perfect DNA match-maker for all women that want to track down their lost relatives.
In addition, men can use the Y DNA test to track their origins to chromosomal-Adam, women can track their DNA to the chromosomal-Eve. This is a woman that lived about 200,000 years ago in the plains of Africa and to which every woman living today is related.
From the chromosomal-Eve branches of DNA sprang (these we call haplogroups) when groups of people started to move around – particularly to Eurasia.
Using the mtDNA, you can track how your ancestors moved throughout the world and see if you can trace your maternal lineage back to Italy, Germany, Native Americans, and so on. You can learn more about mitochondrial DNA testing here.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Here at Neanderthal Modern, we wish to supplement our information about where we come from and DNA testing continuously. DNA has enabled us to look beyond the mists of centuries and millennia to see where we came from.
The end goal is to better understand ourselves; our traits, origins and have a sense of identity in the large scale of time and geography.