While DNA tests are certainly useful for paternity testing, there are many other applications, including some that can be quite helpful from the point of view of genealogy and family heritage research. Surname studies, in which people who carry the same last name can determine how closely they are related to one another, is one such use of DNA testing.
Home DNA Tests
To participate in a surname study, one must have Y-chromosome DNA tested. DNA companies will provide a kit that allows for the collection of a saliva sample at home. A personal DNA test kit consists of a mouth swab or scraper, a collection tube, and a mailing envelope. Home DNA testing kits can be ordered online, and range in price from less than $100 to several hundred dollars, depending on how many markers and how many tests are wanted. Most websites offering tests provide explanations of the various tests, with recommendations for their use. Only men carry the Y chromosome, so male DNA must be collected. Women may participate in a surname study, but only by providing a test from a close male relative with the same surname.
Surname Studies in Genealogy
Surname studies involve compiling the Y-chromosome profiles of men who carry a particular family name. While compiling these profiles will not produce a family tree, it will allow people to determine the probability of relationship. Y chromosome testing can show if two men share a common ancestor. In a surname study, once a Y-DNA test has been completed, the results can be compared with those of other men who carry the same surname.
Joining a Surname Study
The first step in joining a surname study is to find an existing one. Be sure to check variations of the last name, since names like Edmond, Edmonds, Edmund, Edmonde, etc., might easily all be part of the same family. People in the past were not always as concerned about spelling as people tend to be today.
One place to check for studies is Family Tree DNA, where a simple search engine will tell you if a study exists, and how many people are currently part of the study. People who have had their DNA tested at other labs, including the National Genographic Project, may also join a surname project using the results of that earlier test.
Other ways to check for surname studies are by searching Google for a particular name and the words “surname study,” and on the DNA page on Cyndi’s List. If no existing study can be found, a new one can be started. Family Tree DNA provides a link to start a new project.
There is one aspect of participating in a surname study that may come as a surprise. A significant number (somewhere between 1 and 10%, according to various studies) of people discover that there is a break in the line. For example, a man named Martindale, while participating in a Martindale surname study, may have a genetic profile that does not correspond to anyone else in the group – in fact, he might match a group of people name Edwards.
This is what is referred to as a “non-paternal” event, denoting that somewhere in the line the surname and the DNA don’t correspond. This can be the result of adoption, a name change, or illegitimacy, often many generations in the past. Many name changes were informal, as when a recent immigrant simplified or Americanized his name, or when an orphan was adopted by a relative, step-parent, or neighbor. Until recently, no legal papers were required for these changes.
Genealogy and DNA Tests
Traditional genealogy relies on paper documents to prove relationships between family members, but sometimes those documents are hard to find or non-existent. That’s when DNA and surname studies can help fill in the blanks, by providing clues, opening up new avenues for research, or even disproving kinship theories.