Online genealogy is big business these days. With genealogy sites such as giving access to millions of records from the comfort of the living room, the days of scouring dusty archives in county record offices and hanging around wet and windy graveyards are pretty much over – there is a vast array of online resources to help. One of the many thousands of family history blogs online, Anglo Canadian Connections, posted the following stats from the article “Hunting Down the Dead” in the Cyprus Mail: “An estimated 10 per cent of all internet users visit a family history website every three weeks, and with 25,000 amateur UK-based genealogists currently working on ‘virtually’ digging up their relatives, heritage hunting has even superseded gardening as the UK’s most popular hobby”. Like most people with an interest in genealogy, I already had an interest in history to begin with. My initial motivation when I started hunting online was to get back as far as possible in each branch of my family tree. I collected family names, dates and places like they were Top Trumps cards and fed them into software like Family Tree Maker (here). I got a certain satisfaction from seeing my family tree expand from a couple of hundred names to a couple of thousand, and go back steadily through the centuries. But this sense of satisfaction is fleeting. You soon get to a point where it becomes impossible to print off a full family tree as you would need the floor space of a warehouse to make sense of all the sheets of A4 paper. Through family history networking sites like you may strike gold with information that you wouldn’t generally find in online records, or better still with old photographs. This is when long dead individuals in a tree come back to life. If you find out that your great grandfather was wounded on the Somme, then you start to research that period – the events of the battle, the conditions he lived in, etc – and you can become an amateur expert on the topic. Unlike the dull facts about kings, laws and systems of government that you learned in school, this history is relevant to you, you are learning about the daily lives of your ancestors and events from their perspective.
When the records run out and your family history starts to hit dead ends, DNA testing with companies such as Family Tree DNA adds a whole new dimension to your hunt. Men tend to opt for Y-chromosome testing to uncover their ancient paternal lineage, while women tend to go for mitochondrial testing to reveal their maternal lineage. Although the study of individual ancestors becomes impossible after going back a few centuries, genetic genealogy takes you back thousands of years to the tribal groupings that your haplogroup points towards. Your interest in medieval, ancient and even pre-history will start from your own DNA test. This is how my interest in the Vikings and in Bronze/Iron Age Germanic tribes developed; it seems proving Viking ancestry is pretty much a common goal for many male DNA testing customers native to the north of England. Yours might be anything from the Celts, to Native Americans, to Australian Aborigines.
Genetic genealogy is a booming industry, with the same potential for growth that Family History has enjoyed. At the end of 2007, genetic genealogist Blaine Bettinger estimated that as many as 700,000 people had undertaken a DNA test for genetic genealogy and the figure was growing by up to 100,000 per year. Genetic genealogy is the next logical step for any dedicated family historian – ever more revelations from geneticists about the Human Genome and even the Neanderthal Genome are fuelling the desire of ‘armchair anthropologists’ to enquire about their deep ancestral past. It’s popularity is reflected in the cult following enjoyed by blogging genetic genealogists – my personal favourites are Dienekes’ Anthropology blog and Blaine Bettinger’s blog, The Genetic Genealogist. The wealth of information and informed thought on sites like these, as well as on discussion sites like DNA Forums, can be invaluable in making sense of your raw DNA test results.
But for me, the implications of genetic genealogy have become much wider than just uncovering my ancestral history. As a by-product of DNA testing, I’ve now found that I’ve developed an interest in some of life’s other big topics that I’d previously given only scant regard to. Looking at them through the prism of your own genetic history can give you a new perspective. Here are 5 ways a DNA Test can change your world view: