• Using DNA to Grow Your Family Tree: Guest Blog

    Genealogy Beginner Welcomes Guest Bloggers from the Sinclair DNA One name Study and the Salian DNA Project who have so wonderfully explained everything a genealogy beginner needs to know about how to use DNA testing to help with your genealogy research…and fill out your Family Tree Template!



    So what do you do when there are no more records to get you any further back in time on your family tree? Most of us get stuck at a brick wall which seems insurmountable and that’s where DNA comes in.  By joining a DNA project and testing a male family member, you can compare that Y-DNA sample with others of the same surname.

    Your Family Tree DNA: How It Works

    Y-DNA is passed from father to son and contains a unique signature passed through the generations, which you share with the other project members.  Another advantage is contact with others of the same surname to compare paper trails with and on top of that, you’ll find more relatives you didn’t have a clue existed, based all around the world.

    In terms of cost, the least investment you can get away with is a 37 marker test and that would provide you with other matches of the same haplogroup as yourself.  To be honest though, a 67 marker test though more costly, is far more revealing and those you matched at 37 markers will appear less closely related, whilst at 67 markers you can be fairly confident that those you match are descended from the same ancestor.

    The closeness is measured in “genetic distance”; for example you could match exactly, or be one, two or more steps away in genetic distance from the other matches which will give a rough indication of how far back in time you relate to them.


    There are plenty of one-name DNA studies on the internet but the majority of them use the www.FamilyTreeDNA.com  laboratory for testing, mainly because they have the largest DNA database with 366,840 participants at the time of writing.

    Some of these projects specialise in specific geographic areas and some in various ethnicities.  For example, there are dedicated projects for those with Jewish, African or Native American ancestry as well as over 6,800 surname projects.

    Not only can you compare your DNA with others of your own surname, you will be able to find matches across the whole of FamilyTreeDNA’s massive database as well which, strange as it may sound, can be extremely helpful in research terms.

    Many adoptees have used DNA testing to find out who they really are by comparing their DNA results to the other surnames which show up in their matches, giving more clues to research their family history.  You can join as many projects as you like or as many as are relevant to your family’s history and the other advantage of joining a project is a discounted price on the cost of your DNA test.

    Just to be fair, there are other companies out there for example:

    • Ancestry
    • 23andme
    • The Sorensen Molecular Genealogy Foundation

    Who may be cheaper to test with than FamilyTreeDNA, but once those test results are in, there are considerably fewer other “testees” to compare your sample with and in the world of DNA testing for genealogical purposes, database size is everything!


    Because DNA testing is still a relatively new science, using it to find relatives is the new frontier.  Exciting developments are happening all the time and one of the latest such tools are “SNP’s” or “single-nucleotide polymorphisms”.   These are small “mistakes” in the copying of DNA which occur just once and are then passed unchanged from generation to generation forever after.

    Because they are much rarer, they are far more accurate in determining whether you relate closely to another potential match or not.  The good news is that after the initial expense of a 37 or 67 marker test; testing individual “SNP’s” becomes more affordable when you want to take the plunge. That at least is a general outline of what happens.

    Your Privacy

    Privacy may be a worry for some, but your DNA sample is allotted a kit number and only that is shown on any project website along with the name of your earliest known ancestor and geographical location for him.  (That is, provided you have signed a release form).  If not, your DNA remains anonymous and no one will have access to it or your contact information.  It’s your choice.

    DNA is definitely a bit overwhelming at first; it’s true there is a lot to learn for the novice and it’s a constantly evolving science with new breakthroughs happening all the time, but that’s where your project leader should step in and explain what it means for you personally and for the project as a whole; advise whether it’s worth testing this or that.

    DNA Communities

    Most projects have forums on Yahoo and Google or even on Facebook which are very informative and specifically targeted to the project or projects you have joined. There is nothing to stop you joining as many projects and forums as may be relevant to your family history.

    A word of caution though; no one has all the answers yet and you should not jump in expecting  that your project leader will necessarily be an expert in the DNA field, although in general  they have access to population geneticists or other DNA boffins who are more than willing to help answer queries.

    DNA and Realistic Expectations

    Mainly these projects are run by slightly more experienced enthusiasts with the same goals as yourself.  Also, you may or may not find someone else with a paper trail you can connect to yours immediately, so don’t expect miracles.

    It may even take years for the magic to happen where you find that elusive document which connects you on paper as well as with DNA. However,  the DNA alone, matching others in your project means you are related to them at some point since the adoption of surnames began around the 12th or 13th century and you have a shared history and that’s a fairly exclusive club!


    The Salian DNA Project: A New Direction in Genealogy

    Genealogy + DNA + Archaeology = An Exciting New Direction for Family Tree Fanatics



    Just to illustrate what DNA plus historical and archaeological research can achieve for genealogy:

    Archaeology and Your Family Tree

    Archaeology is playing an important part alongside the historical record and the Y-DNA.  From the archaeological record in recent years, two ancient gravesites containing multiple burials:

    • one dated to 670AD in Ergolding, Bavaria in southern Germany
    • another dated to between 1000 and 700BC in Lichtenstein in central Germany

    Thirteen of the skeletons excavated have been DNA tested and the results from four of them, (one at Lichtenstein and three at Ergolding), were found to have a distinctive marker, the S21 SNP.

    The Ergolding results are the most interesting of the two, as there were high-value grave goods found alongside the skeletons, indicating that these burials were related to the Merovingian royal household, (according to the archaeologists,  Dr Vanek et al), hence the connection with the Salian Franks; the ancestors of the Merovingian dynasty.

    When Archaeology Meets DNA

    The S21 SNP was discovered back in 2004 by Professor Ken Nordtvedt of Montana State University who announced that it represented those with Frisian ancestry; [Frisia was located in what is now the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark on the North Sea coast of Europe] and the date for this SNP was determined to be approximately 4,000 years ago. We now know from subsequent research that there are several clades [or branches] below S21, which are younger than that.

    Several SNPs have been discovered over the past year, which have added to our knowledge and brought us further forward in time to about 1,900 years ago.  There is a clade (or branch) of this S21 SNP which is Frisian/Anglo-Saxon  in origin because that is where the highest concentration of matching samples in the local population are found today, however, S21 has other clades within it as well, which may represent  a different branches, perhaps from associated tribes. The Salian Franks were settled in Toxandria, in close proximity to Frisia, just directly south of there, in fact and their homeland became part of what we today know of as The Netherlands and Belgium.

    Our ancestors were far more mobile than we perhaps imagine and moving around within northern Europe 4,000 years ago, intermingling with other tribes in other nearby areas, but with no documentation that far back, we are struggling through the fog of distant time.  In the years to come, that fog may be eradicated altogether.

    The Genealogy Aspect

    A large number of participants in the Salian DNA Project are named Sinclair with ancestral links to Caithness, Orkney and Shetland.  Through the work of population geneticists such as Dr Jim Wilson at the University of Edinburgh, we know that our ancestors carrying the S21 SNP have left more evidence of their existence in eastern Scotland and eastern England. Indicating that our ancestors crossed the North Sea and invaded Britain at some point back in time and while through historical research we can document our common ancestor as Rollo, a Norwegian Viking, our family shows no sign of matching Norwegian DNA, so the old history books may well need to be rewritten.

    Dr Wilson’s research in Orkney and Shetland has isolated those Sinclairs carrying the S21 SNP as being descendants of the Earldom Sinclair line. His extensive database shows the majority of Sinclairs in Orkney carry this SNP in their DNA and historically, there were no Sinclairs in the islands until shortly before Earl Henry Sinclair was installed as Earl in 1379.  His family, based at Roslin, in Midlothian on the east coast of Scotland also fits with the evidence found of the S21 SNP in Scotland.

    Salian DNA

    The Salian DNA Project was designed to link all associated surnames, which have a common male ancestor and show the S21 SNP in their Y-DNA.  A large proportion of them are Sinclairs, but anyone, as long as they have that all-important S21 SNP in their Y-DNA, can join, just make contact at: http://www.familytreedna.com/public/ulvungardynasty/default.aspx

    Through the Salian DNA study, we are gradually narrowing down the geographical area of our origins and we have learnt a lot over the years.  By sharing research as well as our DNA results it has also become gradually clear that many people who adopted the Sinclair surname back in the past, were not actually related to one another.

    Surnames began to be adopted very slowly after the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066 and another complication is the problem of “non-paternity events” or illegitimate male children given their mother’s surname, adoption, or alternatively born as the result of an affair and raised as a Sinclair or St Clair.

    DNA has a way of winkling out those who adopted the name for whatever reason and drilling down to find the genuine descendants of a known ancestor with a documented history in the geographical areas where a family was known to have been in the more recent past.

    It’s an absorbing and contagious hobby, so come and join us when you’ve taken that all important DNA test!

    To learn more about this exciting study please join us on the Discovery Panel Forum for some fantastic links.


    Share Your Thoughts...
    Tell us what you're thinking...
    and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar for free here!
    Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately...