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Ancestry tests allow you to trace the migration of your ancestors back thousands of years, to understand your racial mix, or potentially help you find living relatives.
You’ll receive a cheek swab in the post and two to six weeks after you’ve returned a sample, your DNA will be analysed to trace your genetic lineage. Certain providers allow your DNA to be matched against others in a database (with your consent), and allow you to contact relatives who’ve also consented.
Ancestry tests won’t show you that your grandparents came from France or that you’re related to Cleopatra (we’re still a few years away from this), but they will show your ancestors’ migration across continents spanning tens of thousands of years.
Testing your mother or father’s ancestry
All of humanity can be traced back to a single ancestor in Africa – ancestry testing looks at the parts of our DNA that are passed down from generation to generation, comparing them with DNA from ancient human remains found around the world.
Some ancestry tests use your ‘autosomal’ DNA (which isn’t specifically male or female) to report on your lineage, others look at parts of your DNA that are unique to your mother or father.
Specific tests for your father’s family include ‘Y-DNA’ tests which focus on the ‘Y chromosomes’ in your cells’ nuclei, passed down from father to son. Specific tests for your mother’s family include ‘mtDNA’ tests which report on a subset of DNA found in the ‘mitochondria’ (your cells’ energy factories), passed down from mother to son or to daughter.
Both men and women can have their mtDNA tested but only men can have their Y-DNA tested as only men have Y chromosomes. If you’re female and you’d like to specifically test for your father’s ancestry, you could ask your father or a brother to take the test.
Testing your racial mix
Are you part Cherokee Indian, or part Viking perhaps? Providers tend to use your autosomal DNA to uncover the racial diversity of your ancestors. Not all providers will test for your racial mix as standard so check that they do if this is important to you.
Finding your living relatives and building a family tree
If you’re keen to find family who’re still alive today, make sure you pick an ancestry provider that has access to a large DNA database of records from the continent your family comes from. Tests for finding relatives often have ‘Family finder’ in their description.
Should I pay for extra markers?
Certain ancestry tests look at more markers than others. It’s only worth spending money for extra markers in very specific situations e.g. how many generations ago two males shared a common ancestor.
Which test to buy?
Whether it’s an autosomal test, a Y-DNA test or an mtDNA test, virtually all providers use the same science. Some providers offer an ‘off the peg’ solution such as Ancestral Origins™ or AncestrybyDNA™, so if you’re interested in these you should shop around for the lowest price. Most providers offer a test that interprets and presents the results in a unique way, so if one of these catches your eye, look for examples of how the results are presented on their website before you buy.
If you want to buy a test as a gift, providers offering colorful maps or charts that show ancestral migration may be preferable. If you’re looking for a detailed analysis of your racial mix, a written autosomal report may be better.
If you want to buy both Y-DNA and mtDNA tests, look out for ‘Combo’ or ‘Combination’ deals where you get a discount for ordering both at the same time.