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Ancestral DNA tests: what should I know before I start?

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Introduction

Who are we? Where do we come from? These are questions that everybody ask at one point or another. All of us learn about our country's history at school. But history has its limits. It won't tell us what makes each of us different from each others.

With the help of science, we can now determine the ancient ethnic origins of one's patrilineal ancestors, by testing the DNA of the paternally inherited Y-chromosome (known as Y-DNA for short).

History books rarely dig into personal genealogies, except for royalty. But even royal families are not immune from non-paternity events. For example, Y-DNA testing revealed that Napoleon III did not carry the same paternal lineage (I2a2a) as his paternal uncle Napoleon I (E1b1b), and was apparently born out of an illicit liaison. But the main purpose of historical population genetics is to trace back one's distant ancestry, going back hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of years. The amazing thing with modern genetics is that it is possible to know where our forefathers came from at various periods of history, at least using the patrilineal line. Do we descend from Celts, Slavs, Romans, Germanic tribes, Jews, Phoenicians, ancient Greeks? Until a few decades ago, knowing where one's ancestors lived 2,000 or 3,000 years ago would have been science fiction. It isn't any more.

How can we trace our ancestry with DNA?

We have 23 pairs of chromosomes. The last pair is X-Y for men, and X-X for women. The Y chromosome is the only part of the DNA that does not recombine during procreation. This is because the X and Y chromosomes are of different length, and cannot merge with each others. This explains why the Y chromosome (which we will call "Y-DNA" for short) remains virtually unchanged from generation to generation, and so is practically identical in all men descended from a not-too-distant common ancestor (a few thousand years).

The Y chromosome is a sequence of 59 million characters. Some copying errors (mutations) happen in every generation, like on all the other chromosomes. Each mutation occurring in every new individual is inherited by his descendants. By listing these mutations and by adding up all the mutations found in an individual, it is possible to trace his genealogy and to determine the number of generation that separates it from any other man in the world.

Any man will therefore have the same Y-DNA has his father, brothers, sons, paternal grand-father, and so on, bar a few mutations. This is why all men descending from a same patrilineal ancestor (and therefore having the same surname) share the same series of mutations inherited from all of their accumulated paternal ancestors for thousands of years. All men with the same set of mutations inherited from x thousands of years can therefore be classified in the same family, which population geneticists call a haplogroup. Humanity is thus united in a single large family tree through the Y chromosome, with many branches (haplogroups) and ramifications (subclades), which have evolved over the millennia. The most recent common paternal ancestor to all mankind (also known as Y-chromosomal Adam) lived in Africa at least 300,000 years ago.

Those mutations that occur in every generation are known as Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms (Single nucleotide polymorphism). They are numbered chronologically based on the time of their discovery.

More about DNA and SNPs

Our DNA reads like a book written in an alphabet made of four letters: A, C, G and T. They always go by pairs, A with T, and G with C. Such pairs are called "base pairs", also known as nucleobases. A SNP is a mutation in such a base pair, for example a C replaced by an A. Our genome is divided in 46 chromosomes, which could be seen as volumes of an encyclopaedia. Each chromosomes contains hundreds or thousands of genes, which constitute the chapters. In total there are 3,000 million base pairs. When a mutation occurs, it might alter the expression of a gene, but not always, as some mutations are silent or synonymous. The Y chromosome is made of 59 million nucleobases. As of early 2017, 55,000 SNP's were identified to differentiate the various paternal lineages in the world.

When they are discovered, SNP's get a reference number starting by Rs with a number usually running into the millions. SNP's are used for all the genome, not just the Y chromosome. To assess the genetic risk of develoing a disease, doctors will look at SNP's known to be associated with a particular disease, although hardly any are located on the Y chromosome. Online databases like SNPedia allow people who tested their genome to check for particular variants linked with traits or medical conditions.

To make it less cumbersome for genetic genealogists, DNA testing companies have renamed SNP's with shorter handle names. For example, the mutation rs34276300 defining the Celtic branch of haplogroup R1b, has been renamed P312 by Family Tree DNA. Rivalry between testing companies led them to each use their own nomenclature, so that P312 was named S116 by EthnoAncestry (which became BritainsDNA). What is more some haplogroups are defined by several SNP's (soemtimes hundreds for old haplogroups that underwent prehistoric bottlenecks). At Eupedia you will usually see just the main SNP used on phylogenetic trees to avoid confusion.

=> Read more facts about genetics

Population geneticists have classified tens of thousands of Y-DNA mutations commonly found among humans around the world and have rebuilt the genealogical tree of humanity. Human beings experienced severe population bottlenecks during the Last Glacial Maximum (aka LGM, c. 19,000 to 26,000 years ago), particularly in Europe, Central Asia and North Asia, which were partly covered by huge ice caps. Many lineages became extinct during that period. When the population started growing again, men descending from the same tribe carried the same long series of mutations on their Y chromosome, which their last common paternal ancestor had accumulated for several millennia before the population bottleneck occured. Geneticists chose those nodes of sometimes over 100 accumulated common SNP's to define the world's major prehistoric tribes, which they called haplogroups. In other words, people sharing a series of identical unique mutations belong to the same haplogroup, and descend from the same ancestor. It is possible to determine when that ancestor lived based on the number of new mutations that have occurred since then in present-day individuals.

Originally, population geneticists divided humanity into 20 haplogroups, each named by a letter from A to T in chronological order of branching. Haplogroup A represents the source of humanity in Africa. For each new division of a lineage, a number was assigned after the haplogroup. For example, R1 and R2 are two branches of haplogroup R. Numbers and letters then alternate for the successive divisions. For example, R1a and R1b, then R1a1, R1a2, R1b1 and R1b2. Some branches left almost no descendants (e.g., R1a2) while others flourished (e.g. R1a1). The chart below shows when the main haplogroups found in Europe and the Middle East evolved.


After the Ice Age, humans recolonised the northern half of Europe from LGM refugia in southern Europe. Other tribes moved into Europe from Anatolia and Central Asia. Some 11,000 years ago, agriculture was invented in the Fertile Crescent. A few millennia later, Neolithic farmers spread in all directions, mixing with the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers that were living in Europe and other regions at the time.

5,000 years ago, the first bronze weapons were invented in the North Caucasus by Proto-Indo-European speakers, who had also domesticated horses for the first time in history. Those riders with bronze weapons left the Pontic Steppe of southern Russia and went on to conquer most of Europe, Central Asia and South Asia.

During the Bronze and Iron Ages, the first civilisations arose and expanded. Europe saw the rise and fall of the Celts, the Greeks, the Romans... Then came the great migrations of ancient Germanic, Slavic and Central Asian tribes, followed later by the Vikings.

Each of these migrations spread new genes and new Y-DNA lineages, about which you can learn in detail here, with explanations on the ancient ethnicities linked to each group. You can easily compare the Y-DNA frequencies by country and region and visualise the distribution maps for each haplogroup and their principal subclades.

What about the maternal line?

The same thing can be done on the maternal side using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Mitochondria are organelles that provide energy to cells within the body. They have their own DNA, completely distinct of the nuclear DNA that contains the 23 pairs of chromosomes. This mitochondrial DNA is only passed through mothers as after procreation the spermatozoon loses its mtDNA and the embryo inherits its mtDNA from the mother's ovum.

Although mtDNA was the first genetic method used to trace back ancestry, its scope is more limited because mtDNA is a much shorter sequence (16,569 base pairs) than the Y chromosome, and mutations happen much less frequently than on the Y chromosome. Therefore mtDNA is only useful for tracing back very distant ancestry, typically over 4,000 years ago (read more).

Mitochondria being the cells' powerhouses, mutations in the mtDNA can affect the way the body produces and utilises its energy. Some mtDNA haplogroups have been associated with a more efficient oxygen consumption (VO2 max) and greater physical endurance (e.g. haplogroup H), while others are linked to poorer athletic performance (e.g. J2 and K). Haplogroups U and K were reported to have higher pH in cybrid cells, which confers protection against strokes and neurological disorders and correlate with slightly higher IQ. The C150T mutation, which can potentially be found in any haplogroup, has been linked to increased longevity and resistance to stress. There are many other health-related conditions associated with mtDNA mutations (check the mtDNA haplogroup pages for more details), and that in itself may be a more interesting reason to know one's mtDNA deep clade than for ancestry purposes.

Want to read more?

For a more in-depth introduction to historical population genetics, I warmly recommend Jean Manco's excellent book Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings.

How can I test my DNA?

DNA testing is very easy. You just need to order a test kit from a testing company, rub a buccal swab into your mouth (or spit into a small container, depending on the company), and send it back by post. Results typically take from 6 to 12 weeks once the lab has received your sample.

Which DNA test should I choose?



The four principal DNA tests for ancient ancestry are Living DNA, Geno 2.0 (by National Geographic), Chromo 2.0 (by BritainsDNA, aka myDNA.global) and 23andMe. The first three will determine your Y-DNA haplogroup with more precision than a Y-STR test like the ones sold by Family Tree DNA (FTDNA).

All four tests will give you your mtDNA haplogroup (most often the deepest subclade possible) as well as autosomal DNA (i.e. DNA on chromosomes other than X and Y) that can be used to calculate your personal autosomal admixture using one of numerous custom calculators (see below).

Beware that tests like AncestryDNA, MyHeritageDNA and FTDNA's Family Finder will only give you your autosomal results, not your Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups. AncestryDNA was developed for Ancestry.com, a genealogy website, and as its name indicate Family Tree DNA was also originally founded for genealogists. Both are mostly aimed at people trying to find/compare relatives within a few generations or to estimate the percentage of autosomal ancestry inherited from relatively recent ancestry - and therefore relatively useless for Europeans or people with a good paper genealogy (=> see also Why do people still care about genealogy?).

There are a few DNA testing companies that we do not recommend as they are not suited to tracing back ancient ancestry and won't test them in detail:

  • DNA Tribes: Their tests are based on autosomal STR. They don't test Y-DNA, mtDNA nor autosomal DNA. The lack of SNPs means that the raw data cannot be used for autosomal calculators like Dodecad, nor uploaded on third party websites lik GEDMatch or websites analysing medical conditions. DNA Tribes only reports the percentage of similarity with some modern populations worldwide; However they only divide Europe in four broad regions, which is not informative for people of European descent.
  • Genebase: provides very expensive Y-STR tests as well as autosomal SNP tests targetting single genes that they label with catchy names such as 'Warrior gene', 'Promiscuity gene' or 'Depression & Anxiety gene'. This is deceptive marketing as such traits are based on many genes, which incidentally are also included in most of the autosomal tests below.
  • iGenea: sells Y-DNA, mtDNA and autosomal DNA tests in packs at greatly inflated prices (1399$/1279€/1099£ for a test similar to Living DNA, Chromo 2.0 or Geno 2.0). Their website completely lacks transparency about what's included in the tests (e.g. number of SNPs or STR tested) and they claim that customers can find if they are related to historical people like Marie-Antoinette just by comparing their mtDNA, which is very deceitful as mtDNA generally points to a common ancestor who lived thousands of years ago, not a few centuries ago.

Here is a quick comparison of the DNA testing services offered (as of March 2017).

Company Autosomal SNP's Y-DNA SNP's X-DNA SNP's mtDNA SNP's Health SNPs
23andMe (v4) 577,382 2,329 19,487 3,154 yes
AncestryDNA 682,549 885 none none yes
Chromo 2.0 290,169 14,497 none 3,142 no
FTDNA Family Finder 690,000 none ~18,000 none no
FTDNA Comprehensive Genome 690,000 none (111 Y-STR) ~18,000 16,569 no
Geno 2.0 NextGen 700,000 ~20,000 yes ~4,000 no
Living DNA 638,000 22,500 17,800 4,700 yes
MyHeritageDNA 702,000 ~500 ~18,000 none no

Prices, shipping costs & availabilities

Company Price (USA/EU/UK) Shipping fees Countries available
23andMe 99~199$/169€/129£ 9.95$ (US), 9.99£ (UK), 9.99€ (some EU), 40-72$ (other) over 50 countries
AncestryDNA 99$/99€/79£ 20$/€/£ 35 countries
BritainsDNA Chromo 2.0 345$/285€/240£ free worldwide
FTDNA Family Finder 79$ 9.95$ worldwide
FTDNA Comprehensive Genome 546$ 9.95$ worldwide
Geno 2.0 NextGen 149.95$ 9.95$ (US), 19.95$ (Canada), 29.95$ (other countries) worldwide
Living DNA 159$/159€/120£ free worldwide
MyHeritageDNA 79$/79€/69£ 12$/€/£ worldwide

MyHeritageDNA and FamilyFinder are currently the cheapest autosomal tests, but they do not include Y-DNA or mtDNA results. You will need to order other tests to obtain these, which will eventually cost you more than a 23andMe or LivingDNA test. FTDNA's Comprehensive Genome is the most overpriced of all the tests, followed by BritainsDNA's Chromo 2.0.

Watch out that AncestryDNA only ship to half of European countries (excluding notably France, Germany and Spain), and is not available in Asia (except Turkey, Georgia and Armenia), Africa, Latin America or Oceania. The ordering process hides the shipping costs until after the personal details and credit card information have been provided, which can perceived as deceitful.

Note that 23andMe charges exorbitant shipping fees for countries outside North America and northern Europe (between $40 and $72, depending on the country, using standard delivery), which considerably increases the final price.

23andMe is the cheapest complete test for American customers ($99 for ancestry only), but the higher price elsewhere (249 CAD, 169€, 149£, 149 $ + delivery) is only justified if you are interested in the health report (only available for a few countries), as your Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups assignation won't be as accurate as with LivingDNA, Geno 2.0 or Chromo 2.0. For example, 23andMe customers will only know which top-level haplogroup (e.g. G2a, I1, J2b1, R1a1a, T) or top-level subclade (R1b-U106, R1b-U152, E-V13, J1-P58). It's good enough to know whether you descend from Mesolithic Europeans, Neolithic farmers or Bronze Age Indo-Europeans, but it is not enough to tell if an R1b is Celtic or Roman, or if an I1 is Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Gothic or Viking, or if a J1 or J2 is Jewish, Phoenician, Greek or Arabic. It won't even distinguish between Slavic, Indo-Iranian and Germanic branches of R1a. The other three tests will normally reach that level of accuracy, but you will need to visit your haplogroup page on Eupedia to learn about the origins of your deep clade as the testing company's report won't be as accurate.

Y-DNA and mtDNA

LivingDNA and Geno 2.0 offer the best deal, with the most Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial SNPs (and therefore a higher degree of accuracy). The 4,700 mtDNA SNPs tested by LivingDNA include almost all the mitochondrial mutations identified to date, and therefore can be regarded as equivalent to the full mtDNA sequence sold by FTDNA (unless you are willing to pay extra to know about potential private mutations that are of no interest for tracing back ancestry). All companies will provide a distribution map and short summary for each haplogroup. These are however very basic (and sometimes inaccurate) compared to those you will find on this site.

BritainsDNA and LivingDNA are the only companies that ventures to assign ancient ethnic groups for Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups. This would have been a praiseworthy initiative if it had been done properly. Unfortunately many attributions are speculative, hazardous or downright wrong. BritainsDNA tries to label each haplogroup at all cost, even those for which too little information is available to link it to an ancient ethnicity (=> see Haplogroup nicknames attributed by BritainsDNA). As for LivingDNA, it looks like their site is still in development and descriptions were rushed in to fill the void, at least for haplogroups found in the British Isles. Make sure you double check your haplogroup and deep clade's history and origins on Eupedia.

You can also order separate Y-DNA and mtDNA tests at FTDNA, but to get results more or less equivalent to those of 23andMe, LivingDNA, Chomo 2.0 or Geno 2.0, you will need to order the Y-111 ($359) and the mt Full Sequence ($199), which together with Family Finder will set you back $637, almost exactly four times the price of LivingDNA or Geno 2.0. You can save a bit by ordering them as a pack (Comprehensive Genome, $546), but the price difference with other tests is still huge. Even after ordering the Y-111, you will have to rely on haplogroup project administrators to determine your deep clade. There is a good chance that you won't know your deep Y-DNA clade for sure with an STR test alone and might still need to order an extra SNP test (typically $119) to confirm it. Unfortunately it is not possible to order directly a Y-DNA SNP test from this company, and they purposefully remove Y-DNA and mtDNA data from their Family Finder SNP test to force customers to order separate tests. Without additional SNP testing, the 111 Y-STR test included in the Comprehensive Genome will give you a depth of subclade slightly better than 23andMe's test, but not as good as Geno 2.0, Chromo 2.0 or Living DNA. To obtain the same resolution, you will end up paying at least $665 ($546 + $119), but you still won't have any medically relevant SNPs to analyse with third-party services (see below), as FTDNA had them specifically removed from the DNA testing chip.

Another company that offers custom SNP tests is the Berlin-based Yseq.net. People who already tested their Y-DNA with a company that does not provide deep clade testing (e.g. 23andMe) or ordered an STR test from FTDNA can obtain their deep clade by ordering a haplogroup panel of SNPs. For instance, someone who has been identified as a member of Y-haplogroup I1 can order the I1 panel testing nearly 600 SNPs under I1 for $99. At the time of writing, a similar I1 SNP pack at FTDNA contained only 172 SNPs for the same price. Nevertheless, a test like Living DNA will already include over 240 SNPs for haplogroup I1, and over 600 for a larger haplogroup like R1b, in addition to the mtDNA and autosomal DNA. So ordering custom SNP tests remains a more expensive option and is only recommended for people who want to dig as deep as possible in their Y-DNA phylogeny but can't afford a full Y chromosome test (see below). YSEQ also sells full mtDNA sequences, but at $179, although cheaper than FTDNA ($199), it is probably not useful for ancestry purposes (see above). It would only be recommended for someone who is suspected to have a mitochondrial disease and needs to be tested for medical purposes.

Comparing autosomal reports

Each company will compare the percentage of similarity between your genome (autosomal DNA) and those of individuals from other countries, although their accuracy still needs to be improved. All tests have a similar number of autosomal SNP's, except Chromo 2.0, which has about half of the others.

BritainsDNA's Chromo 2.0 offers three types of autosomal reports. The first one is the Population Percentage report, showing what proportion of DNA the tested person inherited from 'inferred ancestral clusters'. This is the typical report that all other companies offer. It compares one's DNA to nearly 4,000 people distributed across 11 worldwide populations, among which one is labeled 'European'. The European view allows to further differentiate into eight European or Middle Eastern clusters (Anatolian-Caucasian, Ashkenazi Jewish, Balto-Slavic, Basque-Iberian, Finnish, Mediterranean, Northwest European, Steppe Turkic). BritainsDNA is the only company that also shows the percentages of various populations in a stacked bar chart, as is common in academic studies, and it does it both for the world view and European view. This way customers can easily compare their genetic make-up with that of other populations. The second report is the Worldwide Global Connections Plot, a PCA plot showing dots for all customers who have been tested and colour grouping them by country for easy visualisation. There is a worldwide view and regional views. This kind of plot is widely used in population genetics, but oddly enough BritainsDNA is the only commercial company to use it in its report (23andMe used to have one but removed it, to the annoyance of many customers). The third report is the Chromosome Painting, which displays the admixtures on each segment of chromosomes, so that customers can see from which ancestral population they inherited specific genes. Unfortunately it only shows three populations (West Eurasian, Subsaharan African and Asian/Native American) and not all the population percentages from the first report, which mostly defeats its purpose for European customers or anybody who isn't of multiracial ancestry (like say Latinos or Central Asians).

LivingDNA has the most detailed autosomal ancestry report in terms of reference populations. It shows the percentage of similarity with populations from 80 regions in the world (but planning to expand considerably), including 20 subregions within the United Kingdom for people of British ancestry. Besides the UK, Europe is subdivided in 15 regions, while the Middle East has 10 ancestral regions. Those regions are designed to match ethnic groups (e.g. North vs South Italians, North vs South Slavs, Basques, Sardinians, Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, etc.). Unfortunately there is no PCA plot nor chromosome composition.

Geno 2.0 Next Generation claims to use 60 reference populations, but the report only shows 7 broad regions. Europe is only divided in 'Northern European' and 'Mediterranean'. The Middle East is unified under the category 'Southwest Asian'. Other regions are Southeast Asian, Northeast Asian, Sub-Saharan African, and Native American. Only the reference populations are subdivided in smaller regions, but it's not what you will see in your results.

FTDNA My Origins uses 18 populations, including 7 European populations. They are divided by region rather than actual ancestry (e.g. Portuguese, Spaniards and Italians, including Basques and Sardinians, are lumped together under 'North Mediterranean Basin'). FTDNA has added a new report in 2016 named ancientOrigins, which aims at determing the percentage of Mesolithic European, Near Eastern farmers and Metal-age invaders. However the results do not match at all those obtained from other calculators based on actual ancient samples from academic research. This report is so misleading that we recommend that you ignore it altogether.

AncestryDNA's report is very similiar to FTDNA My Origins, but with 26 populations instead of 18, with a higher degree of differentiation inside Africa in particular. There are 9 European regions - essentially the same but with different names. 'North Mediterranean Basin' has been divided in Iberian peninsula vs Italy/Greece, but it still does not differentiate the genetically distinct Basques and Sardinians, nor the North vs South Italians. The other diffence with FTDNA is that 'British Isles' has been divided into Britain and Ireland.

MyHeritageDNA compares your DNA with that of 5,000 participants from 25 ethnicities in its report. They plan to grow this number to more than 100 ethnicities as they gather more data. MyHeritage did not do the same mistake as FTDNA or AncestryDNA of dividing regions solely by geography, but also included actual ethnicities like the Sardinians, Finns/Karelians or Ashkenazi Jews. On the other hand, there are only eight European populations, including those three, so it's not as detailed as LivingDNA or even 23andMe. One of the company's strength is that they support 42 languages, while other companies have only English. Like AncestryDNA, they do not offer Y-DNA or mtDNA tests though, which is disappointing for anybody interested in ancient ancestry.

23andMe's Ancestry Composition is subdivided in 10 European and 13 non-European ancestral populations, but the results rely heavily on other customers' self-reported ancestry. Non Europeans will typically fall in broad categories like East Asian, South Asian or Sub-Saharan African, which is not very informative. Furthermore, 23andMe claims that its Ancestry Composition only assesses ancestry over the last 500 years, but our analysis showed that it really distinguishes between Late Ancient and Early Medieval populations. The modern appellation like 'French & German' have been mislabled and should read more like 'ancient continental Germanic'. This explains why their Ancestry Timeline is completely unreliable, as they greatly underestimate the number of generations elapsed. Like Chromo 2.0, 23andMe's report has a Chromosome Composition, and it uses the same ancestral populations as for the percentages (which makes it more interesting than Chromo 2.0's).

23andMe also offers the option to get health report, including genetic traits and for disease risks, although this is only available to customers located in the USA (for $199 instead of $99 for ancestry only), Canada, the UK and northern Europe (Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland only). In other countries only the ancestry test is available. Note that AncestryDNA and Living DNA's raw data also include medically relevant SNP's. Those companies do not provide a health report, but the data can be analysed by third-party websites such as Promethease, Genotation (formerly Interpretome), GenoMapp, CodeGen, Impute or LiveWello, among others. People who tests with 23andMe in countries where the health report is not available can also use these third-party services.

What is important to understand is that autosomal reports provided by testing companies have little scientific value at present because they do not distinguish between enough populations at the national and regional level to be really accurate. LivingDNA is the only company to provide regional differentiation, and it is based on relatively good data from Oxford University's People of the British Isles (PoBI) project. However it only applies to people with British ancestry. Even with 80 worldwide reference populations, the accuracy of predictions is only reliable at the broader continental or subcontinental level (e.g. Northwest vs Northeast European, East Asian vs Siberian), but remains shaky at the national level. It is often far more interesting to compare autosomal admixtures with calculators like Dodecad or Eurogenes, which are provided for free at GEDMatch (see below).

Conclusion

So which test to choose? In terms of Y-DNA, LivingDNA and Geno 2.0 offer the best value for money and the highest accuracy. There is not a huge difference between the five mtDNA tests, especially considering the little value of mtDNA for tracing back ancestry. Likewise, if you plan to ignore the company's autosomal reports and use third-party autosomal calculators all tests are pretty much equivalent, except Chromo 2.0 which only has half of the SNPs of other tests. If you are interested in third-party health reports, only 23andMe, Living DNA and AncestryDNA contain a reasonable amount of medically relevant SNPs.

If one had to rely solely on autosomal reports, the most detailed and interesting ones at the moment would be those of Chromo 2.0 and LivingDNA. Chromo 2.0 has the most varied reports, but Living DNA boasts the most reference populations and these populations are linked to real ethnic groups. Almost everyone outside the American continent knows their recent ethnic origins (last few centuries) because little intermingling occurred after the great migrations of the Middle Ages (Germanics, Huns, Bulgars, Slavs, Khazars, Magyars, Vikings, Arabs, Mongols). Therefore most Europeans and Asians will seek to learn about more ancient ancestry, which can't be guessed from genealogy nor clearly from ethnicity alone. The only case in which the AncestryDNA report might be more interesting than LivingDNA is for Americans with West African ancestry from the slave trade, as this report distinguishes eight Sub-Saharan African ancestral regions, including five from the slave coast. The second most interesting report for people of European descent is 23andMe's. The FTDNA Family Finder's report (My Origins) is more confusing than helpful as it is not linked to real ethnicities for Europeans or Middle Easterners. Geno 2.0's autosomal report is the least useful and badly needs an update (Geno 3.0?).

Family Tree DNA was a pioneer of commercial DNA test, but their adamant determination to stick with old-fashioned and expensive STR tests for Y-DNA, their dedication to tests for genealogical purpose, and the poor quality of the autosomal report, all together mean that it would be a disservice to recommend their tests for tracing back one's ancient ancestry. Their geographic projects, which list participants from specific countries or regions, were one of the main reasons for the company's popularity for many years. Yet, such projects are increasingly common on other websites, some entirely dedicated to that country's genetic heritage and is available in that country's language (such as the Serbian DNA Project). If you do want to join one of FTDNA's geographic project, you can always upload your Geno 2.0 results to FTDNA for free (National Geographic and FTDNA use the same testing lab).

Company Autosomal report Y-DNA haplogroup mtDNA haplogroup Value for money Overall rating
1. Living DNA
2. 23andMe (US, UK, North EU)*
3. Chromo 2.0 (BritainsDNA)
4. Geno 2.0 NextGen
5. 23andMe (other countries)*
6. Comprehensive Genome (FTDNA)
7. MyHeritageDNA
8. AncestryDNA
9. Family Finder (FTDNA)

* Note that the score for 23andMe's autosomal report includes the health report. 23andMe's value for money and overall rating depend on your country of residence. The best value with the health report is for British and North European customers (129£/149€), then Canada (249 CAD), then the USA (199$). For Ancestry only, the US customers get the cheapest price. The value and overall rating is considerably lower elsewhere due to the price difference, shipping costs, and the absence of health report.

Autosomal calculators & GedMatch

Ancient DNA tests have become an incredible tool to elucidate the mysteries of prehistory and ancient migrations. The genomes of hundreds of individuals from the Paleolithic (including Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals) to the Middle Ages (Vikings, Magyars) have been tested, and many of these genomes have been made publicly available. Anyone who has tested his/her autosomal DNA can compare it with any of those ancient samples, be them Neolithic European farmers, Proto-Indo-Europeans from Russia, Iron Age Celts, Roman Britons or Anglo-Saxons, to mention just a few. By uploading one's raw data to GEDMatch, anybody can see what ancient sample (or modern population) is closest to them genetically.

A number of autosomal calculators were developed, such as the Dodecad Ancestry Project (by Dienekes Pontikos), Eurogenes (by David Wesolowski), Harappa Ancestry Project (by Zack Ajmal), Fennoscandia Biographic Project (by Anders Pålsen), and Magnus Ducatus Lituaniae Project (MDLP) (by Vadim Verenich and Leon Kull) to compare one's genome with models of historical or regional populations. Some of them use ancient samples as reference populations, so one can get an estimate, for instance, of what percentage of their DNA was inherited from Mesolithic European hunter-gathers vs Neolithic Near Eastern farmers vs Steppe Indo-Europeans. Other calculators attempt to determine the percentage of ancestry linked to Y-DNA haplogroups (e.g. modern R1a distribution in Europe closely matches the East European admixture in Dodecad K12, while R1b resembles West European). Maps are available on Eupedia for several of Dodecad and Eurogenes admixtures, using data from thousands of participants and academic samples for minority ethnic groups (e.g. in the Caucasus).

You do not need to upload or send your DNA data to obtain your admixtures. All you need to do is download the Do-It-Yourself Dodecad v 2.1 and the calculator you wish to try and follow the instructions. Note that not all calculators are available for download and some are only available through GEDMatch. The Do-it-Yourself Dodecad was originally designed in 2011 for 23andMe, Geno 2.0 and Family Finder, as LivingDNA and Chromo 2.0 did not exist at the time. The results are equivalent with any test though.

If you don't care about autosomal reports provided by testing companies and are only interested in using autosomal calculators or compare your genome on GEDMatch, any autosomal test will do. If you are not interested in your mtDNA results (which are of limited value for ancestry more recent than the Bronze Age) and already tested your Y-DNA or prefer to go with the full Y-DNA sequence (see below), or if you are woman and can't test Y-DNA, you can confidently go with the cheapest autosomal test (MyHeritage or Family Finder).

In-depth Y-DNA tests

Two other tests allow you to sequence your Y chromosome with a high level of accuracy in order to discover new SNP's and to expand the phylogenetic tree considerably. The most complete at the time of writing was Full Genome Corporation's Y Elite 2.1 ($795), which yields a sequence of approximately 23 million base pairs on the Y chromosome at a 30x coverage (meaning that the DNA segments will be read and compared 30 times over to prevent reading errors), one thousand times more than the best ancestry test in the list above. This is the ultimate tool in genetic genealogy and historical genetics as it allows a resolution of only two generations between SNPs. This means that a grandfather and grandson, or two paternal cousins will show at least one different SNP on their Y chromosome. With a new SNP for every two patrilineal ancestor, it becomes extremely easy to determine precisely how many generations ago two lineages diverged from one another. The test also includes 300 STR markers to use for surname projects (see below), nearly three times more than the most detailed test sold by FTDNA (111 STRs).

Its only competitor at the moment is Family Tree DNA's Big Y test ($575), but it is only available to customers who have already purchased an STR test (minimum $169, so the price will be $744 in total). Despite the similar price, the Big Y test will generally yield less new SNPs because it tests a smaller part of the Y chromosome (14 million base pairs). According to Vadim Urasin of Yfull.com, a company which specialises in Y-DNA analysis, FGC's Y Elite 2.1 will cover 97% of the 55,000 known SNPs, against 76% for FTDNA's Big Y. New SNP's identified by Full Genome Corporation have a name starting by 'FGC', while those found using the Big Y test start with 'BY', as you can see on phylogenetic trees like Yfull.com.

Another interesting alternative is YSEQ's Whole Genome Sequence ($899), which for a slightly higher price will genotype all your chromosomes at a 15x coverage, including the whole Y chromosome (which should yield about 22 millions calls, like Y Elite 2.0). This test only genotypes your DNA, and does not sequence it. In other words, only known mutations in the reference samples will be listed, but unique mutations you might have won't be reported. Actually YSEQ mentions that 10 novel (Y-DNA) mutations in your sample will be verified by Sanger sequencing. That is not a lot, but at least you all known Y-DNA SNPs and the whole mtDNA sequence will be tested, in addition to tens of thousands of medically relevant X-DNA and autosomal SNPs.

What are surname projects?

Family Tree DNA has thousands of Surname DNA Projects where people can compare their Y-chromosomal DNA with other members with the same or a similar surname and try to determine which members are related and how many generations elapsed since their last common ancestor. To join such a project, you will need to take a specialised STR (Short Tandem Repeats) test, which is different from the SNP test of 23andMe, LivingDNA and Geno 2.0. Surname projects are based on the Y chromosome, since surnames are inherited from one's father and therefore follow the Y-chromosomal lineage. Only men can take this test.

Until recently, the advantage is that these STR tests was that they were more accurate to estimate recent shared ancestry than basic 'backbone' SNP tests. It has consequently become the favoured method for genetic genealogy, especially for people who want to verify their family tree with distant cousins, or ascertain common descent between individuals who share the same surname but lack a paper trail to connect them. However the development of deep SNP tests covering over ten thousands markers, let alone with full Y chromosome tests like Y Elite 2.1 which covers millions of them, has render STR tests somewhat obsolete (and comparatively overpriced). Nevertheless they are still widely used because they were the first type of tests available in genetic genealogy, and surname projects started on Family Tree DNA's website have acquired tens of thousands of participants over the last decade.

Your test will only tell you about your agnatic (patrilineal) line, but nothing prevents you to ask other male family members having a different surname than yours to take a test too. To know your mother's agnatic line, you should test either her father (if still alive), one of her brothers, or one of her paternal uncle (or an uncle's son). The same can be done with your grandmother's agnatic lines, by testing one of her brothers, or male children of a brother. Relatives can even be distant cousins, as long as they are male and have the same surname.

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