Friday, December 6, 2019

A Plea for Y-DNA

I realize it's been a bit longer than normal since my last post. Well, that's because it's early December, and anybody who works at a university (with a semester system) knows how busy this time of year is. I'm also preoccupied with some professional research activities. So, the present offering will be a fairly light one.

And that's okay, because I wanted to ease into the topic I'm treating today for the first time. That would be DNA. I have lots of opinions about Genealogy and DNA, most of which will have to wait for heftier posts. I also want time to mentally chew on recent developments regarding privacy and autosomal DNA; I still don't know what to think about some of them. (But I will!)

I'm a big fan of autosomal DNA testing; I'm an even bigger fan of Y-DNA testing. There's just one problem: Y-DNA is still the most expensive testing venture, and it's still not well understood/appreciated by many casual hobbyists. For these reasons, the testing pool, while growing, is still relatively small. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I first tested my Y-DNA late in 2016 at the Y-67 level, bought a handful of SNP tests in subsequent months, and expanded to Y-111 last year. In all this time, I think I received ONE new match after the initial batch of about 15-20. (And most of those have only tested at the Y-12 or Y-25 levels.) A single Y-12 match shares my surname; four match at Y67-111 levels with a different surname (that they all share), though with a fair bit of genetic distance.

And this is all a pity...because Y-DNA has potentially the most to teach us about our deep ancestry. It's quite our best shot at peeking behind brick walls that remain immovable by available written evidence alone. In case you didn't know, only males can take a Y-DNA test. Each male's Y-chromosome is handed down to him from his father. Mutations on this chromosome over time make it possible to categorize testers and lines according to "haplogroups." The more testers there are, the more Y-DNA scientists are able to refine these haplogroups, assign approximate historical date ranges to them, and devise more reliable percentages regarding how closely these testers may relate.

This stuff gets to be pretty complicated, and I'm no expert. But I do know this much: if even 10% of the males out there were to have taken a DNA test at the Y-37 level or higher, the proverbial air in the genealogy community would be ringing with the sounds of falling brick walls, and we'd be joyfully coughing on the dust from their demise. This is because, as with autosomal testing, the more people test, the more we can learn. In the case of Y-DNA, a dramatic increase in the testing pool would enable many more haplogroup subclades to be confidently created well into the genealogical time frame (the name for eras when written records become available). Y-DNA geeks eagerly await such developments, and so should the rest of us.

I get it. The prices on Y-DNA tests, even genealogically less useful ones like Y-12 and Y-25, can be daunting. And only one company now offers them commercially (FamilyTreeDNA). But if you're serious about finding out what lies beyond the brick walls of your ancestral lines, you should start budgeting for these tests and locating willing testers. Y-DNA has been a big waiting game for many; here's my modest call for us to shorten our times to discovering big returns on our investments.

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