genealogy: a new way of studying family history
Scraping some cheek cells into a
test tube can uncover previously unknown apparent distant relatives, but
unless these "exact matches" that imply a shared ancestor can also be documented in other ways, such
as through family tree links or at least shared surnames or hometowns,
the results can raise more questions than they answer.
By Martin Fischer
After decades of conducting
genealogical research in the traditional manner, the opportunity to try
something new can be appealing, particularly when the technology of
genetic genealogy offers the possibility of breaking through a family
history research roadblock. In my case, one of the biggest obstacles I
have encountered has been the inability to pinpoint the town of origin
of my Fischer ancestors.
We know from 19th Century U.S. census and
citizenship records that my great-grandfather Morris L. Fischer was born
about 1839 in Germany. But in order to pursue further research into his
forebears, we need to know his original hometown in the old country. He
is believed to have immigrated to the United States by 1865, when the
German Empire included a wide swath of central Europe extending from
present-day Germany through Lithuania and part of Poland.
Since investing in a Y-DNA test
through FamilyTreeDNA, I have been notified of more than 30 men (at the
time this article was written, but by September 2011, more than 270
12-marker matches) who are
"exact matches" to my direct patrilineal ancestors.
Unfortunately, none of these men share my surname, so the likelihood of
documenting a family tree link is unlikely. According to the
FamilyTreeDNA Web site, matches of this 12-marker Y-DNA test who don't
have the same surname are "probably NOT recently related. When we use
the term recently related, we are talking about a time frame within the
last 1,000 years or 40 generations, a time depth that accommodates the
earliest known use of surnames." In other words, my Y-DNA exact
matches and I are probably related, but our shared ancestors most likely lived
before they adopted surnames.
Despite this shortcoming, I thought
it still might be of some value to contact my Y-DNA matches, most of
whom have allowed FamilyTreeDNA to relay their e-mail addresses to all
their matches. So I recently sent the following e-mail to my genetic matches:
I received 13 e-mail responses from my genetic
cousins, which has enabled me to plot on a map nine documented
and one hypothetical town of origin. Interestingly, the map shows two apparent clusters for my Y-DNA cousins' patrilineal ancestors:
One is in the current nation of Lithuania, which in the 19th Century was
part of Prussia, a German territory. The other is in the current region
where the borders of Poland, Ukraine and Slovakia meet. This area was
known in the 19th Century as Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian
Our earliest direct patrilineal ancestors
may have fled the consequences of 11th Century internecine
Arab turmoil in Tunisia for Spain and then fled Spain in the
wake of the 1492 Inquisition by land into central and
eastern Europe and by sea to Rhodes. (Base map from
Cartographic Research Lab, University of Alabama)
The following list summarizes the results of my
informal survey of our genetic Y-DNA cousins, with surname listed first
in italic, earliest town of origin listed second (using current
spellings of place names from Expedia.com): Behrendt, Krotoszyn,
Poland; Benveniste, Rhodes, Greece; Carvin, Busk, Ukraine;
David, Kolomyya, Ukraine; Gottdiener, Malá
Tŕňa, Slovakia; Kaplan,
Kaunas, Lithuania; Krastman, Pandėlys,
Lithuania; Miller, Tytuvėnai
and Kelmė, Lithuania; and Tabak,
The clustering of many of our ancestors in two
distinct geographic regions is a reflection of the dispersal of Jews
throughout the world. At some point in the distant past most of our
ancestors' paths diverged, one to the north into Lithuania, the other to
the east into Galicia.
Another way of looking at our distribution throughout
Europe is found on the "recent ethnic origins," or REO, table of our Y-DNA
matches and one-step mutations shown on the FamilyTreeDNA Web site.
This "REO" data is less precise geographically than
the self-reported towns of origins that I received in response to my
e-mail query, but it is based on a substantially larger number of
responses—70 in total, 49 of whom specified
the nation that was their patrilineal line's place of origin.
Our exact direct patrilineal matches and
1-step mutations were widely distributed throughout
eastern and central Europe. Not shown on the chart are 8.6% who
specified other nations of origin and 30.0% with unknown
The limiting factor in
evaluating the reported country of origin is the lack of historical
perspective: The term "recent" is a matter of interpretation, and as
borders have shifted over time, the reliability of the self-reported
nation of origin may be questionable for an unknown number of us. For
example, I specified that my Fischer line came from Germany because of
19th Century documents that mentioned the Empire of Germany, but this
could include Prussia, which today is located in Poland, Lithuania and
part of Russia.
with this data we lose the geographic clustering that we found when plotting the map of
towns of origin, we gain perspective on how widespread most of our
genetic cousins have been distributed throughout central and eastern
A key historical distinction that emerges from our shared
genetic heritage is the fact that most of us consider ourselves Ashkenazic Jews, but one of us, Mr. Benveniste, is a Sephardic Jew.
(Since researching this article, another likely Sephardic has been
fact is quite significant because it implies that our earliest shared
direct patrilineal ancestor might have lived sometime before the
division between Ashkenazim and Sephardim occurred.
The first Ashkenazim lived in the 10th and 11th
Centuries in the Rhine River Valley of what is today northern France and
western Germany. Therefore, it could be inferred that our shared ancestor
lived no later than the 11th Century and may have lived prior to the
10th Century — before those who
became Ashkenazim and those who became Sephardim took their separate paths
geographically, culturally and religiously.
But there is another possibility that could have
created the same anomaly of having both Ashkenazim and Sephardim on the
same direct patrilineal line: Immigration from Sephardic lands into
Ashkenazic territories may have been followed by assimilation into the
latter society. Joan Hartman, who has done the family history research
on Mr. Gottdiener's family, wrote of our Y-DNA cousins' families in her
e-mail to me:
|"Tales passed down by many of these
families have individuals migrating to eastern Europe from
Portugal and Spain in the late 15th Century or from their
refuge in Turkey in the 16th Century. Since Spain had the
largest population of Jews in the world in the 15th Century,
and they all had to go somewhere, it makes quite a bit of
sense to me that many of our ancestors in eastern Europe
came there from Spain. My suspicion is that the earliest
closest common ancestor we might have had lived in Spain,
and that his descendants ended up in random places in
Eastern Europe and in the Middle East following the
Mr. Benveniste's family has been traced to 12th
Century Barcelona, Spain. After fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, they
lived in the same house on the Island of Rhodes in Greece, just off the
Turkish coast, for 400 years. (For details on his family history see his
Web site at:
Similarly, one of our ostensibly Ashkenazic Y-DNA
cousins has a hypothetical, but credible, historical link to another
Sephardic land: Tunisia. Mr. Carvin, whose original family name was Karawan, has written:
|"According to research I conducted at the
Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, the name Karawan is
attributed to a family of rabbis who ran a talmudic college
in the Tunisian city of Kairouan back in the 11th Century.
At the time, there was a dynastic power struggle between
Arab clans with connections to Baghdad and Morocco, one of
which was more tolerant of the local Jewish population. When
the other clan's power increased, many Kairouani Jews left
north Africa for Spain, well before the beginning of the
Inquisition. So it's possible that my ancestors fled
Tunisia, settled in Spain, then worked their way east into
Galicia as the various western European kingdoms had their
periods of Jewish persecution."
Despite our geographic dispersal and our Ashkenazic-Sephardic
differences, many of our Y-DNA cousins share a crucial genetic marker that
makes us unique as a group: the Cohanim gene, known as the Cohen Modal
The Cohanim were members of the tribe of Levi who
served as priests in the Temple in Jerusalem starting 2,000 to 3,000
years ago. (Their assistants in the Temple were non-Cohane members of the
Levites. All non-Levites were designated Israelites.) The Cohane
status was carried from generation to generation through the patrilineal
line that originated with Aaron, Moses' brother. Both Ashkenazim and
Sephardim can be Cohanim. Genetic studies have shown that men whose
families have a tradition of them being Cohanes carry the Cohen Modal
Haplotype in significantly greater percentages than do other Levites and
In my case, I know that I am a Cohane because my
great-grandfather Morris Fischer's tombstone identifies him as Reb Moshe ben Chaim ha-Cohane:
Moses, son of Chaim the Cohane.
According to the FamilyTreeDNA table of our exact
Y-DNA matches' recent ethnic origins, 27% of us have the Cohen Modal
Haplotype (18.2% of our one-step mutations have it; 22.2% of our
two-step mutations have it). In addition, among the 34 exact Y-DNA
matches for whom we know the surnames, 10 of them (28.6%) have surnames
(Cohen, Conn, Katz, Katzman) that are traditionally Cohanic. These figures are significant greater than
the 10% or less of the general Jewish
population who reportedly have the Cohen Modal Haplotype, according to genetic
Returning to my original question, my goal of
identifying my Fischer ancestors' place of origin has not been achieved
as a result of these contacts with our Y-DNA matches. Nevertheless, if I
consider the two east European clusters—Lithuania and
Galicia—the former is more likely as my ancestors' homeland because
Lithuania is located in the former East Prussia, a German territory.
Related Web sites:
Introduction to genetic genealogy
From time to time, I have
responded to queries from subscribers to various JewishGen listserves
asking about the basics of genetic genealogy. They may have already read
the frequently asked questions about genetic genealogy posted on various
Web sites, but still don't understand it.
By Martin Fischer
I am no geneticist, but I have had
my Y-DNA and Mt-DNA tested through FamilyTreeDNA.
As I understand it, according to genetic theory, a man's Y-DNA was
shared by all of his direct patrilineal ancestors (father's father's
father, etc.), and his Mt-DNA was shared by all of his direct
matrilineal ancestors (mother's mother's mother, etc.).
Men can have both tests done. Women can have only their Mt-DNA tested
because they don't have a Y chromosome.
In a standard ancestral family tree, your own Mt-DNA and Y-DNA tests
will generally only trace along the exterior lines of the tree and will
provide no genetic information about those ancestors shown on interior
lines of the tree. (However, all siblings of either sex within a given
nuclear family should share the same Mt-DNA if they have the same
mother, and all male siblings within a given nuclear family should share
the same Y-DNA if they have the same father.)
For many years, if you were interested in gaining genetic information
about other ancestral
lines that are diagrammed on the interior of your ancestral tree, you
would have needed to find a relative who is on one of these other lines to have
them take the Y-DNA or Mt-DNA tests. Today, a third test is available to
gain genetic information about one's entire ancestral family tree. This
autosomal test is called the Family Finder test by FamilyTreeDNA.
One problem with the autosomal
test is its all-encompassing nature that makes it hard to determine just
how you may be linked to your genetic matches. To at least potentially
enhance your interpretation of this test, it is still valuable to have
known relatives take the Y-DNA and Mt-DNA tests.
Here is an example: My father is deceased. I am a male and have had my
Y-DNA tested, and because my father was on my direct patrilineal line, I
have no interest in finding another relative to test his Y-DNA. I have
no need to have my brother's Y-DNA tested because it should be identical
However, I am interested in having my father's sister (or my father's
sister's daughter) tested for their Mt-DNA. My Mt-DNA derives from my
mother, but my father's and his sister's Mt-DNA derives from their
mother, who was my paternal grandmother. Results of that test would
trace along that grandmother's direct matrilineal line.
Finding another relative to test needs to be carefully considered. Would
the person be open to such a test? Would you pay for it or would they,
or would you share the cost? Most important, is the person related to
you in such a way that it could potentially lead to previously unknown
blood relatives of yours?
Another example: I have a male second cousin who is very close as a
friend, but not very close on my family tree. We share a known common
ancestral married couple who lived in the early 19th Century.
But I have no personal interest in having either his Y-DNA or Mt-DNA
tested because it would provide me with no information about my own
genetic ancestors. Here is why: His mother was not related to me in any
way, so the Mt-DNA he inherited from her is of no value to me. His
father was descended from our common ancestors through his father's
mother; his direct patrilineal line through his father's father's
father, etc., does not connect to our common male ancestor, which means
that my second cousin's Y-DNA has no link to mine.
I know this sounds very complicated, but when you have your own family
tree in front of you available for study, then you should be able to
figure out which other relatives should be tested.
A careful consideration of a relative's own ancestry should be done
before deciding whether this relative's genetic information would
contribute to knowledge of your own genetic ancestry.
Subsequent to writing the above paragraphs about my early experiences with
and speculation on my Y-DNA test, the total of my Y-DNA "exact match
cousins" has increased to 89 men (as of April 2006), almost all of whom
have a known Ashkenazi background. But three of the 89 are Sephardic,
which suggests that the shared ancestor they have with the rest of us
probably lived before the emergence of the Sephardic-Ashkenazi divide.
Also, one of the Ashkenazim has a surname derived from the name of a
town in Tunisia, so he suspects his ancestors were Sephardic and
immigrated to eastern Europe. Interestingly, one of our Y-DNA matches
has no knowledge at all of his father, because his father was an
anonymous semen donor. While we 89 genetic cousins have not been able to
establish any known genealogical links, we have had numerous fascinating
My Mt-DNA matches now (as of April 2006) total 47, both men and women.
After upgrading from the 12-marker Mt-DNA test to the 25-marker test,
eight of the 47 have been separately listed as high-resolution matches,
meaning that our most recent shared ancestor lived much more recently
than that of the 39 others who are only low-resolution matches.
Most of my Mt-DNA matches have known Jewish ancestors from eastern
Europe, but we were all stunned by one of the more recent additions to
the high-resolution list of matches whose only known ancestry is Irish
Catholic! Needless to say, that led to some interesting speculative
e-mail discussions about immigration patterns.
Ancient immigration patterns are believed to be reflected in Haplogroups,
which are identifiable as a result of these genetic tests. Haplogroups
are genetic markers that can define genetic groups. For example, my
Y-DNA has been defined as part of Haplogroup J1, which, according to
FamilyTreeDNA, "is found at highest frequencies in Middle Eastern and
north African populations where it most likely evolved. This marker has
been carried by Middle Eastern traders into Europe, central Asia, India,
My Mt-DNA Haplogroup is K1a9, a subgroup of Haplogroup K, which is
believed to have originated in the area between the Black and Caspian
Seas and spread northward and westward into much of Europe. Haplogroup K
is found throughout Europe today and is not specifically identified as
Jewish or Middle Eastern, but most of my Mt-DNA matches have Jewish
If you have your genetic testing done by FamilyTreeDNA, the best way to
start with a Y-DNA test is through one of their surname projects. You
can search their list of existing surname projects to see if one with
your surname has already been started. If it has not, then you can
easily start one. Once your tests have been completed, FamilyTreeDNA
e-mails you a link (based on your kit number and a password they
provide) to your own personal Web page that lists the names of your
matches and their e-mail addresses.
you yourself take the Mt-DNA test, you will find genetic matches to your
direct maternal line (mother's mother's mother, etc.)
If your father's brother's son takes the Y-DNA test, you will find
genetic matches to your (and his) direct paternal line (father's
father's father, etc.).
There is no requirement for you to publish your cousin's name; however,
most people do list the name of the person who has been tested. The only
people who will see his name are those who are his genetic matches.
(Also, as a general rule it may be useful to also post on your results
page the ancestral surnames and places of origin of your direct
ancestors. This can help with determining possible family tree links to
your genetic matches, because, if you are lucky, they may share your
The third genetic test that you yourself should consider taking, if you
use Family Tree DNA, is their Family Finder test. That test will find
genetic matches for, at least potential, your entire ancestry, including
ancestors who were not on your direct paternal or maternal lines. Having
all three tests helps understand how you might be related to your
genetic matches because many of the same people who match you on Y-DNA
and Mt-DNA will also pop up as matches on the Family Finder. For the
rest--that is those who are on your Family Finder list but not on your
Y-DNA or Mt-DNA lists--you will know that their relationship to you is
not through your direct maternal or paternal lines, but rather from the
"interior" parts of your family tree.
Assuming that you will use Family Tree DNA, after your test and your
cousin's test are completed, each of you will have a private web page on
their website showing your genetic matches, all of whom will be listed
by name and email, so that you may contact them to exchange family
history information to try to figure out your relationship. In order to
log into these private pages, you will need the genetic test kit number
and a password created by Family Tree DNA, which they will send you by
email. Make sure you make a note of these numbers so that you don't lose
the ability to access them. If your cousin orders the test himself, make
sure he is willing to share these numbers with you so you can see the
results. If you order his test for him, that won't be a problem.
One important tip: I highly recommend that, if you can afford it, you
order both your Mt-DNA test and Family Finder test at the same time.
That way, you will receive just one test kit for both tests, and you are
guaranteed that both tests will be under the same kit number and
password. (Your cousin's test will have to be under a different kit
number and password because he is a different person.) If you can only
order one test at a time, then you should wait until you get some of the
results posted to your web page from the first test and then be sure to
order the other test through your personal page while you are logged
into that page. That way, your second test should be under the same kit
number and password.
For more information, view the tutorials and videos on the right side of
I hope this helps with your understanding of genetic genealogy. Good
luck with your research.
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