Tag Archives: pedigree collapse

Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

Kissing Cousins: Marital Dispensations, Consanguinity, Affinity

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains canon law regarding consanguinity and affinity, and how dispensations in marriage records can help us in our research.

When we think of our genealogical ‘pedigree’ we often imagine it to be an ever-expanding ‘fan’ of ancestors, multiplying by two at each generation. After all, we have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on, so it makes perfect sense that this doubling would continue ad infinitum, right?

Well… no. While it makes sense in theory, in reality this doubling at each generation is both a mathematical and practical impossibility.

The Mathematics of Why Our Ancestors Did Not Double Every Generation

If our ancestors had doubled at every generation, they would eventually exceed the total population of the earth. And I mean by a LOT. For example, if we allow for around 30 years per generation, by the time we get back to around the year 1,000 C.E. we would have gone back about 32 generations (more if you are younger than I am). If we double our ancestors at every generations, we would end up with over 4 billion ancestors. Well, the problem with that is that the entire human population of the earth for the year 1,000 is somewhere between 250-350 million peopleroughly 93% LESS than the total number we would need if our ancestors actually doubled at every generation.

And the further back you go, the more our calculations contradict the actual figures. By the time we got back to time of Julius Caesar, for example, we would have reached an astronomical one quintillion ancestors (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000) – a figure so large it is doubtful our planet would be able to sustain us. In reality, there was an estimated total 200-400 million people alive on the planet at that time: only 0.000000000002% of the number of people needed if we were to double at every generation.

To understand these figures better, it is important to bear in mind that population growth in the past was not as linear as it is today. Infant mortality was high. Young women died in childbirth, and young men died in accidents and wars. Poor sanitation, infections and malnutrition claimed the lives of many others, sometimes before people were old enough to marry and have children. The plague and other epidemics were a recurring presence, often wiping out huge chunks of the human population. Overall, the population of the human species, although going up and down repeatedly through the centuries, didn’t really ‘explode’ and rise consistently until around the beginning of the 19th century.

The Practical Reasons Why Our Ancestors Did Not Double at Every Generation

People in the pre-industrial era tended to stay – and marry – within a small geographic parameter. Those of us who have researched our families will probably have discovered that most of our ancestors married within their community of birth, or at least not far from it.

The reason for this is twofold:

  • Long-distance travel wasn’t as easy or available as it is today.
  • Most people were subsistence farmers, whose survival was dependent on the land; thus, moving around was not usually a practical option.

In one genealogy course I took, the lecturer said the ‘rule of thumb’ was that, for countless millennia, until the introduction of the bicycle (and later the railway), people chose spouses who lived no further than a day’s walk away from their own home. In my own research, I would estimate at least 90% of people married much closer than that, i.e. usually within their own parish, and often within their own tiny frazione (hamlet). I would bet most couples knew each other their whole lives before marrying.

Considering again the mathematical calculations, if I trace my father’s Trentino ancestry back to the beginning of the parish records in 1565, it would reach back around 14 to 15 generations. If my ancestors had doubled at each generation, the figure would be somewhere between 8,000 to 16,000 people. The problem with this is that, at any given era in the past, there never were more than around 1,500 people alive in my father’s parish, and of those, maybe only 25-35% would have been of child-bearing age. And while some people certainly married outside the parish, those marriages were in the minority.

Endogamy and Pedigree Collapses

So, what is the explanation for these anomalies between biology, practicality and mathematics?

Two terms are needed to answer this question: ‘endogamy’ and ‘pedigree collapse’.

Endogamy is a term used to describe the tendency for people to marry within their own community. I have often seen writers use this term with reference to ethnic minority groups living within larger ‘majority’ societies. However, in my experience, the term really is applicable to ALL communities throughout history. Every one of us is the ‘end product’ of an endogamous ancestry because, until the past century or so, nearly all of our ancestors chose spouses within their own communities of origin.

Because people tended to marry within their own communities, it was inevitable that some (if not most) husbands and wives would end up being related by blood in some way. In other words, they would share a common ancestor (or pair of ancestors). When we have couples in our ‘pedigree’ (list of ancestors) who share a common ancestor, it creates what we call a ‘pedigree collapse’. We call it a ‘collapse’ because our ancestors do NOT double at the point where the couple shares a common ancestor. For example, if your grandparents were 2nd cousins, it means they shared great-grandparents (your 3X great-grandparents). Thus, instead of having 32 great-great-great-grandparents, you would only have 30.

Due to the mathematical and practical reasons already discussed, pedigree collapses happen repeatedly in our family trees. If you dig deeply enough into your family history, you are likely to find that nearly all of your ancestors had common ancestors at some point in the past. In fact, once you get back to the beginning of the parish records in the mid-1500s, you are quite likely you are to discover you are related to virtually everyone who was alive in that parish at the time, and that most of these ancestors are related to you via multiple branches. Some of my ancestors from that era are related to me at least 10 different ways!

That is how ‘pedigree collapses’ reconcile the anomaly between theory and practice.

Consanguinity versus ‘Inbreeding’

When my clients first find out they have ‘pedigree collapses’ in their trees, some become alarmed. Isn’t this what people call ‘inbreeding’? Doesn’t that cause all kinds of genetic problems? And isn’t ‘inbreeding’ forbidden by the church?

To address these concerns, we need to introduce another term: ‘consanguinity’.

Consanguinity means two people are related by blood (in Italian, con = ‘with’ and ‘sangue’= blood). We can also say they have a ‘consanguineous relationship’.

‘Inbreeding’ is consanguinity in the extreme. It refers to when people who are very closely related marry generation after generation, usually within the same ‘line’. For reasons I will touch upon later in this article, this happened more frequently in the upper classes than the ‘peasantry’. And, yes, true inbreeding can cause serious genetic health issues.

But normally, the degree and frequency of consanguinity most of us have in our family trees do not create a significant genetic weakness. If that were the case, the entire human race would have died out long ago. Moreover, as we’ve seen, consanguinity was actually a practical necessity: without it, our ancestors wouldn’t have been able to FIND any marriage partners.

That said, as we’ll explore next, the Church (and more recently, civil governments) created many rules about the degrees of consanguinity permitted between a husband and wife, to ensure families did not become too ‘inbred’.

Marriage and the Church

Something I find interesting is that the Christian sacrament of marriage as we think of it today wasn’t clearly defined until the year 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council. Before that, anyone could claim they were ‘married’ simply by cohabiting. In ‘Canon 51’ (a canon is a mandate or church law) from that council forbid the practice of ‘clandestine marriages’, even if witnessed by a priest. From this point, it became church law that all those who intended to marry were required to announce their intent publicly by publishing banns in their parish church.

One of the reasons for making marriage a public was to ensure there were no legal impediments to it. One obvious impediment would be if either party was already married or promised in marriage to someone else. But another impediment, defined more clearly in Canons 50 and 52, was the issue around consanguinity and affinity.

Canon Law Regarding Consanguineous Marriages

The Fourth Lateran Council decreed that a marriage between persons who had a consanguineous relationship at the ‘fourth degree’ or closer was prohibited.

‘Fourth grade’ grade means they shared a common ancestor (or pair of ancestors) four generations back, i.e. great-great-grandparents. To make this easier to understand, here is a table I’ve made showing 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade consanguinity:

CHART – Consanguineous Relationships According to Canon LawCHART - Consanguineous Relationships According to Canon Law

Click on image to see it larger

Note that I have written ‘common ancestor(s)’ rather than ‘common ancestors’. This is because a couple might share only one common ancestor. For example, if a woman died in childbirth and the husband remarried, the children of the second wife would be the half-siblings of those of the first. In this case, the husband might be the only common ancestor, as the bride and groom might be descended from a different mother.

Interestingly, prior to this ruling, marriages were actually prohibited back to the 7th degree (6th cousins!). Eventually, the church realised this rule was impossible to monitor (especially as there were no official records of births before the mid-1500s, and it was unlikely most people could trace their ancestry that far back), but it also made it virtually impossible for people to find an eligible marriage partner in their community who was not related to them in some way.

English Thinking Versus Italian Thinking

The ‘grades’ of consanguinity are sometimes confusing for an English speaker because a ‘second grade’ relationship in terms of canon law is what we would call ‘1st cousins’. Similarly, ‘third grade’ is what we would call ‘2nd cousins’ and ‘fourth grade’ is what we would call ‘3rd cousins’. For this reason, I find it useful to shift my thinking to a more visual way of seeing the relationships (as in the chart above) rather than trying to think in English terminology.

Also, when you are communicating with Italian speakers, trying to translate from English doesn’t always work. For example, some time back, before I fully understood how Italian speakers thought about cousin relationships, I used the term ‘cugini di secondo grado’ (‘cousins of the second grade’, which I took to mean ‘2nd cousins’) when I was explaining to a parish priest how I shared great-grandparents with my Serafini cousins. The priest was quite insistent that I meant ‘cugini di terzo grado’ (‘cousins of the third grade’), which confused me until I realised he was thinking in terms of canon law.

Canon Degrees Versus Civil Degrees

Something else that English speakers might find confusing is that the grades in canon law are substantially different from those defined by CIVIL law. In America, for example, the degrees of consanguinity are calculated by counting up and down the lines (rather than back to the nearest common ancestor), without including the two starting individuals.

For example, my grandparents, Pietro Luigi Serafini and Maria Giuseppa Onorati, shared common a pair of 3X great-grandparents:Relationship Chart: Maria Giuseppa Onorati and Pietro Luigi SerafiniClick on image to see it larger

This means:

  • They were 4th cousins, in our English language way of thinking.
  • They were ‘cugini di quinto grado’ (cousins of the fifth degree) in Catholic church (canon) law.
  • They had a 10th degree relationship according to US civil law (i.e. there are 10 people between them if you count up and then down the tree).

No wonder the terminology is confusing for so many!

Affinity – A ‘Spiritual’ Relationship

Sometimes a couple were not related by blood but via a marriage in the family. This is referred to as ‘affinity’. For example, if a man’s first wife died and he wanted to marry his late wife’s sister (i.e. his sister-in-law), they had a ‘first grade affinity’; if he wanted to marry his late wife’s first cousin, they had a ‘second grade affinity’.

I have seen some genealogists refer to affinity relationships as ‘spiritual’ relationships’. In my view, they are, at least, ‘emotional’ or ‘psychological’ ones. A sister-in-law, for example, may be treated as and viewed as a ‘sister’. As such, the same prohibitions regarding affinity marriages applied in the church.

This law of affinity was, in fact, the logic Henry VIII used (or abused) when he rationalised his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry based his claim on the grounds that Catherine was the widow of his late brother (who died at age 16). Thus, Catherine was (in terms of canon law) Henry’s ‘spiritual sister’, even if she was not his biological sibling.

Much to Henry’s annoyance, the Pope refused his request to have the marriage annulled, reminding the King that he had granted the couple a DISPENSATION to marry in the first place, back in 1509 (more about dispensations in a minute). But Henry wasn’t about to take no for an answer, and he went ahead and dissolved his marriage to Catherine, married Anne, split from the Roman pope, set himself up as the spiritual leader of the new Church of England, and forever changed the course of British (and European) history.

Marital Dispensations – The Legal Loophole

While canon law regarding consanguinity and affinity in marriage was the ‘official’ ruling of the church, in practice, couples were frequently given permission to marry despite such ‘impediments’, provided they obtained an official church dispensation, usually granted by the Bishop of the diocese or his representative.

When a priest records a marriage in the registry, he also provides details (or, at least, he’s supposed to) about any dispensations that may have been granted to the couple. Mention of a dispensation is always of interest to a genealogist, as it can provide important clues as to how a tree will progress as you move backwards in time. Understanding what they mean can sometimes make work faster, and also help you break through barriers when records are ambiguous or missing.

The reasons why the church might grant a dispensation will vary according to circumstance. Occasionally, it is deemed a matter of moral necessity, such as when the couple are already known to have had an intimate relationship (and especially if the woman is already pregnant). More commonly, however, a dispensation may be granted because there simply wasn’t another suitable (and available) partner within the parish. This is especially understandable when we consider how small and isolated many rural parishes were in the past.

Although I’ve never seen this discussed, one would assume that various other factors may have been taken into consideration, such as whether similar dispensations had occurred in the previous generation, within the same branch(es) of the family. But while that may have been the case, I am continually amazed at just how commonly marital dispensations were given in the past.

Moreover, while dispensations for affinity relationships were governed by the same guidelines as consanguineous ones, I have seen markedly fewer of these in marriage records, which makes me think that many of them sort of ‘slipped through the cracks’ as they were considered to be less important.

More Frequent Dispensations Among the Noble Classes

Many of my clients are surprised when I discover a line of noble ancestors in their tree; but, in my experience, you’d be hard pressed NOT to stumble upon a noble line or two if you go back far enough.

During the Holy Roman Empire (and later during the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empires), there was a plethora of ‘rural nobility’ in the province of Trentino. Some of these families were ennobled by the Emperor himself (imperial nobility), while others were ennobled by the Prince-Bishop (ecclesiastical nobility).

In my research, I’ve often noticed more frequent marital dispensations noble families than for ‘ordinary’ contadini (farmers). In some noble families, you will find a dispensation at almost every generation, often at a close level of consanguinity (2nd and 3rd grade).

Funnily, some of those same clients who were first delighted to discover they had noble ancestors, later became alarmed to find out how much they had intermarried! To understand why we might see so many consanguineous marriages amongst nobility (and even more amongst royalty), we need to consider how society was organised in the past.

During the feudal era, the ‘peasantry’ constituted at least 90% of the population, with the church and nobility comprising the other 10%. When choosing a ‘suitable’ marriage partner, it was considered essential that you select someone within your own ‘class’. Thus, nobles married other nobles (or at least someone who is descended from a noble, even if he/she no longer had the official title). As the noble families comprised a small minority of the local population, if they kept on marrying within the tiny geographic parameter of their local parish, the ‘pickings’ were going to get slim pretty quickly with each successive generation.

For this reason, rural nobility almost NEEDED to look beyond their own villages for spouses every now and then, lest they become too ‘inbred’ (which is what eventually happened to the royal Habsburgs). Being wealthier and less tied to the land for their survival than the poorer classes, they at least had greater means to do this.

Recognising and Understanding Dispensations in Marriage Records

As a family historian, it’s important to:

  • Remember to LOOK for marital dispensations in marriage records
  • Be able to RECOGNISE a marital dispensation when you see one, and
  • Be able to UNDERSTAND what the dispensation means, and what it can tell you.

Looking for dispensations becomes a matter of habit the more you work with parish records.

Recognising them is not as hard as you might think, even if you don’t understand Italian or Latin. Keep your eyes open for words that look like ‘impediment’ (impedimento) dispensation (‘dispensa’), ‘consanguinity’ (consanguineità) or ‘affinity’ (affinità).

Understanding them will require you to look for key words like grade (grado), ‘fourth’ (quarto), ‘third’ (terzo) or ‘second’ (secondo) and then referring to the chart above called ‘Consanguineous Relationships According to Canon Law’.

Below are a few examples illustrating a variety of dispensations in church marriage records, and how they reflect the relationship between the husband and wife.

EXAMPLE 1: 1836 – Third Grade Consanguinity

1836 marriage record of Giovanni Brocchetti and Cattarina Grazia Bleggi.

Click on image to see it larger

This marriage record, dated 17 Sept 1836, is from the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio in Val Giudicarie. The groom is Giovanni Brocchetti of Cavrasto (age 20), son of Basilio Brochetti and Rosa Andreolli. The bride is Cattarina Grazia Bleggi (also age 20), daughter of Francesco Bleggi of Cavrasto and Grazia Armani of Fiavè (then part of the nearby parish of Vigo Lomaso).

Below the groom’s entry, the priest has noted that the groom had obtained a dispensation from the Ordinario of Trento (i.e., the office of the Archbishop), as he had a third-grade consanguineous relationship with his intended bride. He also records the number (100) of the ‘protocol’, which refers to the registry in which the parish priest records permissions, dispensations, etc.

So, if we refer to our chart showing consanguineous relationships, we see that ‘third-grade consanguinity’ means they had a shared ancestor(s) three generations back, i.e. at the level of great-grandparent. In ‘English language’ thinking, this means they were 2nd cousins.

We can see this consanguineous relationship illustrated in the following relationship chart. Here, we see the paternal grandparents of Giovanni’s father are also the maternal grandparents of Cattarina’s father (Bartolomeo Brocchetti and Elisabetta Pellegrinati):

Relationship chart of Giovanni Brocchetti and Cattarina Grazia Bleggi

Click on image to see it larger

When I first obtained this marriage record, I hadn’t yet traced the ancestry for both Giovanni and Cattarina back to their shared great-grandparents. The priest’s notation about the dispensation provided me with valuable information that sped up my research considerably.

Article continues below…

Get Trentino Genealogy via Email

You'll only hear from us when we have a new, informative genealogy article for you to read. We are dedicated to a spam-free world. 

We respect your privacy.

EXAMPLE 2: 1883 – Second and Third Grade Consanguinity

1883 marriage record of Cesare Viola and Angela Viola

Click on image to see it larger

Here’s a really interesting record I found recently when doing research in Trento for a client. This record, dated 28 April 1883, is from the parish of Cavedago in Val di Non.  The groom is Cesare Viola (age 24), son of Giacomo Viola and Angela, whose surname is also Viola. Perhaps a bit confusingly, the bride’s name is ALSO Angela Viola (age 20), daughter of Bartolomeo Viola and Maria Melchiori (it says Merchiori in the record).

Now, with all those common surnames, you might guess the couple would have had a consanguineous relationship – and you’d be correct. If you at the fifth line in the section about the groom (on the left), you’ll see the words:

‘senza scoperta d’altro impedimento che dal dispensato di II e III grado di consanguineità’

This means, ‘without discovering any impediment other than the (already) dispensed (i.e. having been granted a dispensation) 2nd and 3rd grade consanguinity’. The priest then goes on to cite the details of the dispensation, as well as the civil license.

Now, what do you supposed ‘2nd AND 3rd grade consanguinity’ means here? Does it mean they were related in two ways? Well, I suppose it could, but more often than not it means the couple’s common ancestor(s) was at two different generational levels.

In this case, Cesare’s maternal great-grandparents, were the same people as his wife Angela’s paternal grandparents. If you look at the following relationship chart visually, you can understand why they priest called their relationship ‘2nd and 3rd grade’: the common ancestors are two generations before the bride, and three generations before the groom:

Relationship chart of Cesare Viola and Angela Viola

Click on image to see it larger

Now, in our English-language way of thinking, the couple were 1st cousins 1x removed, as Angela’s father was the younger brother of Cesare’s grandfather. Frankly, I find this way more confusing than thinking in ‘canonical’ terms.

I must confess, this particular family tree has a LOT of pedigree ‘collapses’ and so many recurring surnames it was really confusing at first. But the clarity with which the priests have notated the marital dispensations helped me a LOT when piecing it all together.

EXAMPLE 3: 1778 – Third and Fourth Grade Consanguinity

Another example of ‘mixed’ consanguinity is in this marriage record (now in Latin, rather than Italian) dated 6 May 1778, again from the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio:

1778 marriage record of Bonifacio Blasio Furlini and Maria Levri

Click on image to see it larger

The couple here are Bonifacio Blasio Furlini (son of Antonio) and Maria Levri (daughter of the late Bartolomeo), both from the frazione of Balbido. In lines two and three, the priest alludes to a dispensation granted for ‘third and fourth grade consanguinity’. Again, this refers to the fact that the couple shared a pair of common ancestors at different generational levels. In this case, Bonifacio’s great-grandparents (three generations back) were the great-great-grandparents (four generations back) of his intended bride, Maria:

Relationship chart for Bonifacio Blasio Furlini and Maria Levri

Click on image to see it larger

When I had entered this particular marriage into my Santa Croce tree, I had already pieced together a good deal of the Furlini line. The information I gleaned from the marriage record enabled me to place Maria Levri in the right place, despite the fact that over 30 years of 18th-century marriage records are missing for this parish.

EXAMPLE 4: 1873 – First Grade Affinity1873 marriage record of Giovanni Battista Speranza and Luigia Scalfi

Click on image to see it larger

This marriage record, dated 27 Jan 1873, comes from the parish of Saone in Val Giudicarie.

Here, the 29-year-old groom Giovanni Battista Speranza (son of Pietro Speranza and the late Maria Cappellari) is described as the ‘widower of Giulia Scalfi’. After the information about the banns, the priest has said Giovanni Battista had obtained a dispensation for 1st grade affinity from the Curia of Trento on 23 Nov 1872, and for 2nd grade affinity on 28 Dec 1872.

I haven’t yet identified the 2nd grade affinity relationship but let’s have a look at the dispensation here for 1st grade affinity, as it’s quite interesting.

I almost NEVER see the term ‘1st grade’ in dispensations, because it would mean we were taking about siblings (who would never be permitted to marry in the Catholic church). But here, it clearly specifies ‘AFFINITY’ referring to a sibling relationship at an in-law level.

Well, as the 19-year-old bride’s name here is Luigia Scalfi (daughter of the late Ignazio Scalfi and the living Elisabetta Battitori), it seemed pretty likely that Luigia was the sister of Giovanni Battista’s late wife, Giulia Scalfi.

At the time I found this record, I hadn’t yet traced all the siblings for Luigia (who was actually baptised ‘Emma Luigia Perpetua Scalfi’ on 25 Jan 1854); but, sure enough, using Nati in Trentino I found she had an older sister Giulia Virginia Scalfi, who was born 31 Jan 1850.

MORE READING:   Searching Online for 19th & 20th Century Trentini Ancestors

Also using that site, I found Giulia and Giovanni Battista had two children in 1870 and 1872, meaning they most likely married around 1869 (I haven’t looked for their marriage record yet). The birth date of their second child was heart-rending – 29 May 1872, just 8 months before Giovanni Battista married Giulia’s sister. This means Giulia had to have died sometime during those 8 months, most likely shortly after giving birth (again, I haven’t looked for her death record). She would have been only about 23 years old when she died. Such a tragedy!

These days, remarrying so quickly after the death of a spouse is difficult to imagine, as it would barely give the family a chance to grieve and recover. But back then, it was actually not an uncommon practice. And remarrying a sibling of the late spouse was also not uncommon; after all, it meant a blood-relation (an aunt or an uncle) would be the new ‘step-parent’ of the children left behind, if any. They were more likely to have an emotional connection to – and natural inclination to care for – their late sibling’s children.

What is even more heart-rending about this family’s story is that, after having two children together (one of whom died in infancy), GIOVANNI BATTISTA himself then dies on 7 Sept 1875, at the age of 32. Now, poor Luigia has become a widow at the age of 21! Four years later, she remarries a man named Luigi Buganza, with whom she has 8 more children. (Side note: they had no ‘impediments’ cited in their marriage record).

THIS couple (Luigi Buganza and Luigia Scalfi) were the great-grandparents of the client whose tree I was making when I ‘met’ this family. To me, I find it poignant to think of all the deaths that had to come before this couple finally got together. Had not BOTH Giulia and GB passed away at such young ages, my client would never have been born.

EXAMPLE 5: 1859 – Dispensation for Time of Year

There is another kind of marital dispensation that warrants mention, and this one has nothing to do with any kind of familial relationship. It is a dispensation to be married during one of the ‘ferial times’ (feria) in the Catholic calendar, namely during Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas, through to the Feast of the Epiphany) and the Lenten season (from Ash Wednesday through to the first Sunday after Easter).

The reason why couples needed a dispensation to marry during Lent or Advent is that these are supposed to be times of austerity and prayer. Because of this, they would have to have had a simple marriage, without any elaborate celebration. When I first learned about this, I reflected on how, when I was a child, we traditionally associated May and June as the most common wedding months.

But just because ‘feria’ was not the traditionally most desirable time for a wedding didn’t mean nobody got married during those periods. Consider this marriage record from the parish of Moena in Val di Non, dated 2 March 1858:

1858 marriage record of Fioravante Giacomuzzi and Margherita Damolin

Click on image to see it larger

Here, the groom, Fioravante Giacomuzzi, and his Margherita Damolin were granted a dispensation for marrying during ‘ferial time’, as the date fell during the season of Lent (it was the 2nd Tuesday of Lent, to be precise; Easter that year fell on Sunday 4 April).

When I see things like this, I’ve got to ask, what would compel a couple to marry during a period (which was probably a bit wet and chilly, too) when they could not have a nice big celebration?

Well, in this case, I am pretty sure I figured out the reason. Five months earlier, Margherita had given birth to their illegitimate son, whom she named Fioravante, after his father. The child was born in a maternity home in the city of Trento called ‘Istituto delle Laste’ (one day I’ll write more about this interesting place). And while he was under the care of the Institute, there was a possibility he would be fostered out to another family.

In so many of these cases, the child’s father is not cited in their birth records. But in this case, the elder Fioravante acknowledged he was the biological father of his son of the same name. For whatever reason, he and Margherita did not marry before the child was born, but not it seems they were making haste to legalise/sanctify their union, so they could legitimise their 5-month-old son as quickly as possible.

Closing Thoughts

As a genealogist, I find the appearance of pedigree collapses in our trees to be of continual interest. Whenever I see a dispensation mentioned in a marriage record, not only do I get excited about trying to figure out the puzzle of how the couple is related, but I also know this valuable information may also help me verify other data that may be elusive. But most of all, I find it fascinating to see the ongoing relationships between specific families over time.

I hope this article has been useful to you as you progress in your research, and helped make it a little easier to understand the ‘sea of words’ you may feel like is in front of you when you open a new record. Although most of the records I have looked at in this article were from the 19th century, older records will contain pretty much the same degree of information (if you’re lucky!). Knowing ‘the basics’, as I’ve aimed to demonstrate in this article, can really help to make advances in your family history.

If this article gave you any ‘ah ha’ moments, I’d love to hear about them. And, as always, do feel free to ask questions or share interesting discoveries about your own family in the comments box below.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
12 Aug 2019

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in November 2019. I am only just starting to compile my client roster for that trip, so if you are considering hiring a genealogist to do your Trentino family history, I invite you to read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, we can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: I am still working on the edits for the PDF eBook on DNA tests, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. I will send you a link to download it when it is done. Please be patient, as it will take a month or so to edit the articles and put them into the eBook format. If you are not yet subscribed, you can do so using the subscription form at the end of this article below.

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

Get Trentino Genealogy via Email

You'll only hear from us when we have a new, informative genealogy article for you to read. We are dedicated to a spam-free world. 

We respect your privacy.

Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research


Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains why DNA tests alone cannot tell us everything about our ancestry. Article 2 of 4 of ‘DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity’.

This article series has been written in response to the hundreds of questions and comments I have personally received or read on social media around the matter of DNA tests. More specifically, it is a response to the many discussions – often impassioned and angry – about recent changes in AncestryDNA’s algorithms, which caused many people to receive ethnicity reports that made no sense to them, and were at odds with what they knew and/or believed about themselves.

As this is a complex subject, I decided to break it into FOUR articles (I originally thought I could do it in three, but in writing this instalment, I realised four were necessary). 

Last time, in Article 1, we covered:

  • TOPIC 1: Our Unrealistic Expectations About DNA Testing, in which we discussed how and why people often develop misunderstandings about the purpose and value of DNA tests due to misleading presentations in the media, and

  • TOPIC 2: Entry Level Genetics for Genealogists and Family Historians, in which we looked at the different kinds of DNA tests and why it is essential to know what you want to gain before deciding to do one. We also examined how autosomal DNA is passed down through the generations and introduced the concepts of ‘endogamy’ and ‘pedigree collapses’.

If you missed Article 1, or you would like to re-read it, you can catch up by clicking the link below:

MORE READING:   DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

Today, Article 2, our topic will be: 

  • TOPIC 3: Why DNA Testing is NOT a Substitute for Genealogical Research

In this article, we will examine some of the misconceptions people have about DNA tests, how relationship estimates are formed to identify ‘DNA Matches’, and the many the challenges around identifying your connections with DNA matches. We’ll also look at the technique of ‘triangulation’, as well as how ‘endogamy’ can sometimes blur relationship estimates.

NOTE: Be sure to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog using the subscription form at the right so you can receive Articles 3 and 4 in the special series on DNA testing. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

DISCLAIMER. Once again, as you read this article series, I ask you to remember that I am a genealogist, not a scientist or academic historian. All opinions and observations are based on my own research both personally and within the context of my professional experience in genealogy.

What Many People Imagine About DNA Tests

Earlier this week I was in a computer repair shop returning a refurbished unit that was defective (I ended up having to buy a new computer, which I am using now). During my conversation with the shop owner – who was of southern Italian descent (Puglia) – I described some of the genealogy software programs I use, so I could illustrate why the computer wasn’t working properly.

Suddenly, he shifted the topic from computers to genealogy and blurted out, ‘I’m thinking of getting my DNA done. What’s the best one out there?’

‘It’s interesting you asked me that,’ I replied. ‘I’m writing an article series about this very topic. But to answer your question, it all depends on what you want from it. What is it you want to find out?’

‘I just want to know my ancestry,’ he said.

‘OK. But what do you mean by that?’ I queried. ‘Do you want to know your ethnicity, meet living relatives or find out who your great-grandfather was?’

‘Yes. I want to know ALL of that.’

I explained to him that these are all very different objectives, and that DNA testing might shed light on some of them, but not all – and not consistently from company to company.

After making a few more enquiries, I learned he knew little about his own Puglian ancestors and had never done any kind of research to find them. Based on what he had seen in the media, he had formed a belief that DNA testing was the key to unlocking all these mysteries.

But he is not alone in thinking this. In my experience, most people who are new to the idea of DNA testing seem to have developed similar misconceptions, largely based on misleading suggestions (which verge on promises) in advertising and television programmes. 

In fact, many people I meet also have the impression that ‘science’ (i.e. DNA testing) can give them answers to genealogical questions, i.e. names and details about specific ancestors.

But barring a few exceptions, which we’ll look at shortly, this simply isn’t true.

Finding Close Relations Through DNA Tests

One group of people for whom DNA testing has proven to be a godsend is adoptees. We see many heart-warming success stories in the media where DNA testing has helped to adopted children, parents and/or siblings to find each other. And for these kinds of close biological relationships, DNA testing can be extremely effective.

As we discussed in Article 1, parents and their children share 50% of their DNA, and full siblings can also share up to 50% of their DNA. Half-siblings share roughly half the amount of DNA as full siblings, i.e. up to 25%. When it comes to DNA, these percentages are extremely high and there would be no mistaking such a relationship if it popped up in a database (unless the family were severely inbred, such as in the case of the royal Hapsburg family*, wherein the inherited DNA of Charles II was actually MORE ‘collapsed’ than if his parents had been brother and sister).

All these close relationships – probably up to 2nd cousins – are fairly easy to identify using DNA tests. But there is one important condition without which none of this would be possible: BOTH parties need to have done a DNA test through the SAME testing provider.

And therein lies the fly in the ointment. When we are seeking to connect (or reconnect) with close family, no DNA test can help us unless the other party (or someone closely related to that person) has their DNA in the same database as ours.

And if that isn’t the case, the only alternative we have is to use traditional ‘paper trail’ genealogical research.  

* The genetic history of the Hapsburgs is discussed in detail in Chapter 3 of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford.

DNA Relationship Estimates

When we take an autosomal DNA test from one of the big companies, our results will be added to their database and compared with other test takers. From these comparisons, we will receive a list of ‘DNA Matches’ or ‘DNA Relatives’, depending on which company you use. Next to each person on the list you will see an estimated relationship, derived from the number of ‘centimorgans’ (cM) shared between you.

I’m not qualified (nor am I going to attempt) to explain centimorgans, but on the AncestryDNA site, you can find tables showing the ranges of cMs of different relationships:

AncestryDNA, table of centimorgans

Click on image to see it larger in a new window

What is most striking about this table is how the variability in cMs increases as your relationships get more distant. A parents/child relationship is a fixed number while full siblings have a slight variability of about 7-8%. But once you get to grandparents, uncles, aunts and half-siblings that variability LEAPS up to 30-40%. And then, when you get to 2nd cousins and beyond, the statistical variability is actually greater than the number of cMs they are likely to share. Ancestry has even put a disclaimer at the bottom of the table saying the exact amount of shared DNA can go beyond the ranges shown in the table.

The primary reason for these variables is that siblings (except identical twins) do not inherit exactly the same genes from their parents (as we explored in Article 1). Thus, specifying how much genetic information blood relatives will share becomes less predictable and more ‘mixed’ as you move through the generations.

But another reason for these inevitable variables is ‘pedigree collapse’ (also discussed in Article 1); I’ll come back to this point in a few minutes.

DNA Relatives – And THEN What?

Knowing these variables, you can probably get an idea of the challenges of trying to piece together your family through DNA alone. If your DNA results are like mine, the majority of these ‘matches’ will be distant relatives, i.e. 4th to 6th cousins or sometimes more distant, depending on which company you use.

I have hundreds of ‘DNA matches’ on the four sites where my data appears. Every now and then, someone amongst them ‘pops out’ on the list to me, and I feel pretty confident I can connect them to my already extensive tree. Just this morning, in fact, I was able to confirm two new DNA matches as 4th cousins by comparing their genealogical info to my own. The whole process took me only a few minutes, as I already had their ancestors in my personal database. This could never have been possible but for the fact that my research extends well beyond my own pedigree, as I have been transcribing the records for an entire parish for the past few years.

Unfortunately, discovering the link between yourself and a DNA match is rarely a quick or easy process. I cannot COUNT the number of times one of my matches contacted me because I have a large family tree and expected me to be able to tell them about their ancestry, when they have done little (or NO) research of their own. Many of these people have no family tree, or one that is so minimal as to be of no practical help to finding a connection.

While, of course, I feel for these people, it is also frustrating for me to have to explain to them that DNA cannot fill in the blanks without at least having tried to construct a tree – or hiring a genealogist to do the research for them. And even if I do manage to figure out how that person is related to me by blood, DNA is not the tool that will help me solve that puzzle – genealogy is.

Again, I feel this kind of expectation is down to misleading advertising and media representation, wherein DNA is touted as ‘the answer’ to our ancestral mysteries. And given the number of times a year I have to explain this to my DNA matches, I think it’s a BIG ethical issue.

The bottom line is this:

DNA testing can point you in a DIRECTION.
But if you REALLY want to ‘meet your ancestors’,
GENEALOGY is the ONLY way.

SIDE NOTE: AncestryDNA used to show ‘distant cousins’, such as those predicted at 5th to 8th cousin level, but they discontinued this deeming these relationships to be ‘not useful’ and too uncertain. Ironically, I have ‘lost’ some DNA connections to some Trentino 6th and 7th cousins I KNOW personally because we are all avid genealogical researchers. I feel Ancestry should have allowed its users to choose whether they wished to retain all that old information, rather than just wiping the slate clean for us.

How Endogamy Can Blur Relationship Predictions

I’d like to return to the idea of ‘endogamy’ and ‘pedigree collapses’, in which some of our ancestors may be  related to us via more than one line (refer back to Article 1 for a detailed explanation of these concepts).

Let’s say you’ve received a DNA match for someone predicted to be a 4th cousin:

  • If you were indeed 4th cousins, it means you share 3X great-grandparents.

  • Each of you has a possible 32 great-great-great-grandparents – 64 between you – and only one pair (or possibly only one PERSON) of these is common to you both.

  • If both of you have done enough genealogical research to trace ancestry back to those 3X great-grandparents, finding the link between you will be relatively straightforward.

But what if endogamy is blurring the estimate? In other words, what if there were many pedigree collapses in both of your trees? Pedigree collapses are common to all of us, but when they occur repeatedly in subsequent generations, your DNA becomes less varied than if it were ‘new’ every generation. This can sometimes cause predicted relationships to be estimated as being closer than they really are.

For example, back when Ancestry used to show more distant DNA relations, it predicted one of my matches was likely to be my 5th cousin. But when we did the genealogical research to find our connection, we discovered we were actually 6th and 7th cousins – via multiple lines. This was all down to pedigree collapses in both of our trees.

So, let’s suppose you and a DNA match are – unbeknownst to either of you – actually 7th cousins as in my example above:

  • This would mean you share a pair of 5X great-grandparents (or at least one 5X great-grandparent, if a husband/wife died and the widower/widow remarried). 

  • Each of you has a maximum of 128 5X great-grandparents – as many as 256 between you (128 pairs). I say ‘a maximum’ because there could (and most likely ARE) fewer, due to pedigree collapses.

  • Possibly only ONE of these 128 pairs – or possibly only one PERSON – is common to you both.

  • Depending on your age and the ages at which your ancestors had children, your 5X great-grandparents may have been born any time between 1670-1750.

Now, the question is this: have BOTH you and your DNA match traced your pedigree back that far through genealogical research? If not, unless one of you has traced your ancestors FORWARD in time (i.e. traces all of their descendants, even if they are not their own direct family), you are unlikely to make anything more than an educated guess as to how you are connected.

Again, DNA testing can make predictions, but even these predictions can be OFF. They cannot tell you how many times your pedigree has collapsed and at what points in your ancestry they occurred. The only methodology that can tell you these things is genealogy.

Comparing Genes – Triangulation

One method many DNA enthusiasts use to try to establish connections between them is ‘triangulation’. This is where you compare cMs that are shared by three or more people, to see if you can discover the common ancestor. If you wish to try out triangulation, 23AndMe has a DNA comparison tool that allows you to compare a group of up to five DNA matches; GEDMatch also has a tool where you can compare the data from multiple DNA kits.

To demonstrate, here’s a screenshot from the comparison tool on my 23AndMe account, showing how I share the same segment on ‘Chromosome 16’ with four of my DNA Matches:

DNA Triangulation on Chromosome 16, 4 people.

NOTE: Before I continue, I will tell you that I am 50% Trentini/Veronesi via my dad and 50% Irish via my mom. The reason why this is important to know will become apparent in a minute.

About five years ago, when I was new to DNA testing, all of us in this ‘Chromosome 16 group’ were trying to figure out what this triangulation could tell us. Many of us had Irish surnames in our recent history (i.e. great-grandparents), so we assumed our connection was probably via Ireland. Unfortunately, at that time, few of us in the group had done enough research on our Irish sides to find the common ancestor, who was probably born around 1800 or slightly earlier. Again, the answer to the riddle of how we are related lay in genealogy, but none of us had yet found the documentation to prove anything.

The Trouble with Triangles

I kind of ‘parked’ that whole ‘Chromosome 16’ experiment for some time. But then, one day, I decided to run the test again, adding someone ELSE to the test group: one of my 1st cousins on my TRENTINO side.

Imagine my surprise when this image came up on my screen:


DNA triangulation, chromosome 16 - 5 people with 1st cousin
My 1st cousin (represented by the big green segment above) appears to share the same segment of Chromosome 16 as our Ch16 group.  

I was baffled. Could we have gotten it wrong all these years? Were we NOT related by Irish ancestry after all, but rather by a common Trentino ancestor? It seemed really unlikely, but the image seemed to imply it.

I say ‘seemed’ because it turns out I was completely WRONG.

What I hadn’t actually DONE was create a ‘triangle’. Yes, I compared how all these people were related to me; but I hadn’t examined if or how these people might be related to each other. That is the crux of what ‘triangulation’ is.

I already knew all the people in the Ch16 group had been triangulated against each other, and that they were all DNA Matches. But when I compared my Trentino cousin with each individual in the Ch16 group, he shared ZERO DNA with them.

There’s Two Sides to Every Chromosome

So how can it be that my cousin shares nearly all of my 16th chromosome with me, but shares no definable DNA with anyone in the Ch16 group?

What the chart from 23AndMe above does not show is that every chromosome in your bodies has TWO strands. That’s why you sometimes hear of DNA referred to as ‘the double helix’. We inherit one strand from our father and one from our mother.

If my Trentino cousin and I share nearly all of the same DNA on Chromosome 16, and all the other DNA Matches share Ch16 with me but NOT with him, it means my Trentino cousin and the Ch16 group are on different halves of the same chromosome.

In other words, the DNA I share with my Trentino cousin comes from a DIFFERENT parent from the DNA I share with the Ch16 group. And as I know my Trentino cousin is not a blood relation of my Irish mother, this became (to me anyway) ironclad proof that those of us in the Ch16 group WERE connected via a common Irish ancestor after all. So, actually, adding my Trentino cousin to the mix was a way to exclude any alternative theories. 

As of this writing, our Ch16 group has not made any big breakthroughs in discovering WHO our common Irish ancestor is, although one of the members is trying to find a birth record for one of my Irish 3X great-grandmothers. 

In other words…

It’s back to GENEALOGY.

Maybe we’ll break through that brick wall this time.

How DNA Tests Can MISS Known Blood Relations

There is one last, important point I wish to make on this topic of DNA Matches:

You can be related to someone and NOT show up as DNA Matches in DNA test websites.

NOTE: I’m not implying my 1st cousin is related to my Ch16 group; there is nothing to indicate he is. I am talking about people who share a known genealogical connection, but who do not show up as matches on DNA testing databases.

The randomness with which we all inherit DNA from our ancestors does NOT mean we will all inherit the same genetic material, even if we KNOW we are related. Of course, the more closely we are related, the more likely common cMs will show up in our test results. Conversely, the more distantly we are related, the more likely DNA tests will either miss or filter out shared DNA we inherited from our common ancestors.

I have had this happen with numerous known relatives – mostly at the level of 6th cousins (also bearing in mind that AncestryDNA no longer delivers matches at this level). I know of at least three people to whom I am related as 6th cousins – many of them connected to me in more way than one – and we don’t show up as DNA matches.

Whether we don’t actually share any DNA, or the DNA we do share is beyond the current abilities of DNA testing technology, I cannot say. All I know is that we have all done exhaustive, well-documented genealogical research (we often help each other, in fact), and we are 100% certain of our blood connections.

Yes, it would be nice to see a DNA test confirming this, but I am really not concerned. We know we are cousins, and that is all that matters.

Patience vs. Our ‘I Want It Now’ Culture

A few days ago, one of my clients sent me this nice message while he was on holiday in Bora Bora (!):

‘I am very excited, looking at the documents you use to do this is amazing… I don’t know how you do it. You must have incredible patience and be incredibly detailed, and I bet you are a wiz solving puzzles.’

Of course, I smiled a LOT when I received this. But apart from being very kind words, they also contain some important insight into the nature of genealogy, and how it challenges our modern way of thinking.

Genealogy DOES require incredible patience. It DOES require fine attention to detail, and an obsessive passion for solving puzzles. It requires you to be able to hold a great deal of information in your head, and to make connections between those pieces of information – sometimes years after you’ve recorded it.

This kind of thinking truly is in sharp contrast to our modern ‘I want it now’ mentality, where 80% of people click away from a website if it takes more than a few seconds to load. DNA testing companies KNOW THIS about us. They KNOW we are impatient. They KNOW we ‘want it all – now’. They KNOW we want to get stuff, make money, lose weight or whatever with the least effort possible.

And they also KNOW our society, especially those who have lost connection with their blood relations and/or ancestral homelands, suffers from an endemic identity crisis and are searching for ways to heal it – NOW.

And that is how they reel so many of us in.

Coming Up Next Time…

In Article 3 in this 4-part series, we will look at this issue around this delicate issue of ‘identity’. It’s available NOW at the link below:

MORE READING:   Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?

In that article, we’ll move away from the technical side of DNA testing and shift our attention to more ideological questions about who we all are as people. In that article, entitled ‘Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?’ we will explore: 

  • TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

  • TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

While much of that article will give special attention to people of Trentino and/or northern Italian ancestry, I invite you to read it even if you have no such ancestry in your own tree, as it might give you some ideas about your own beliefs and approaches to ethnicity.

Finally, in Article 4, we will finally look in depth at ethnicity reports – how they come up with their data, what the data means, and how we genealogists – from ALL ethnic backgrounds – can help improve the future of DNA research. In that article, I will also share examples from my own reports, so you can see how data can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in context.

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online, you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in February and March 2019. 
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from
Trentino Genealogy!

Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form
at the right side at the top of your screen
.
If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form,
you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity
Ca. 1913. Anna Corona Onorati and her elder sister Maria Giuseppa Onorati, of Bono in Bleggio, Val Giudicarie, Trentino. Maria was my paternal grandmother.

Article 1 of 4. Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses fundamentals of genetics, Y-chromosome, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA tests and pedigree collapses.

Over the past few months on social media (especially on Facebook), I have been watching with interest a marked increase in conversations about DNA testing and its relevance to genealogy. This has been especially noticeable in groups exploring their northern Italian and/or Trentino ancestry. Amongst those of northern Italian descent, the ‘heated debates’ were mostly in response to AncestryDNA’s new algorithms for their ethnicity reports, which have suddenly – and seemingly inexplicable – relabelled many of us (including me) ‘French’.

As I watch people’s reactions to their DNA test results and ethnicity reports (from ANY DNA testing service, not just Ancestry) I see they are frequently confused, sometimes disappointed, and occasionally upset. I have often added my own opinions and insights when I see these online conversations, but the nature of social media is that the impact of any kind of complex discussion is often fragmented. 

For that reason, I decided to write this series of articles, where I will do my best to address what I believe are the most common causes of these understandable emotions amongst DNA testers:

  1. Unrealistic expectations about DNA testing (largely due to misleading media hype and advertising).

  2. Minimal or insufficient understanding of genetics in general.  

  3. Insufficient genealogical research of their own ancestry.

  4. Misunderstanding the difference between ethnicity, nationality and cultural identity.

  5. Lack of knowledge of the history of their ancestral homelands.

  6. Lack of understanding of how ethnicity reports are created, and what the information actually MEANS.

My purpose in writing this series is to help you become better informed on the subject, and not to discredit any of the DNA tests currently on the marketer or put readers off the idea of taking a DNA test. Quite the opposite, in fact: I believe that the more people of specific ancestries get tested, the more accurate and USEFUL the results will gradually become. I also believe we can make an impact on the future of research, when we combine DNA with meticulously-documented, traditional genealogy.

How the articles are organised:

NOTE: Be sure to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog using the subscription form at the right so you can receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling the articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

DISCLAIMER: I am NOT a scientist or a geneticist. Nor am I an historian in the academic sense of the word. I am a genealogist and author specialising in the people of Trentino. I was a college teacher for many years, and I still teach workshops in Italian genealogy to various groups. Many years ago, I did post graduate work in social anthropology and world music. I have read a lot, observed a lot and researched a lot within the parameters of my work and my lifelong passion for social and cultural history. Genetics has always been a fascination of mine, as it plays a huge role in our understanding of our family histories, and our personal identities. I have done autosomal DNA testing through both AncestryDNA and 23AndMe, and I have also uploaded my raw data files to both GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA. Just this week, I also ordered autosomal and mtDNA tests from CRI Genetics (so I cannot comment on them in this article). Please bear my ‘mixed bag’ background in mind as you read this series. I would not wish to create yet more ‘unrealistic expectations’ for you by posing myself as an expert in genetics. I really am just like most people – learning as I go along.

PART 1: Our Unrealistic Expectations About DNA Testing

As a professional genealogist, I have subscriptions to just about every relevant genealogy website on the Internet. And when you have a lot of web subscriptions, you are also on a lot of mailing lists. So, it came as no surprise to me over the recent Christmas season that I received dozens of marketing emails from every genealogy site to which I subscribe, suggesting I buy their products as Christmas presents for friends and family members. And one of the number one ‘gifts’ being flogged this year by all the major sites this year was DNA testing kits.

Unfortunately, many of these marketing campaigns can create unrealistic expectations in their customers. With regards to ancestry (I’m not considering health reports or those for genetic traits), you will see two main promises:

  1. ETHNICITY: Marked by catch phrases like ‘discover your ancestors’ origins’ or ‘uncover your ethnic mix’.

  2. CONNECTION: Marked by catch phrases like ‘connect with relatives’, ‘discover long-lost family’ or ‘meet a distant cousin’.

The trouble is, NEITHER of these promises is 100% honest, and both are somewhat misleading.

Later in Article 3, when we look at ethnicity reports, we’ll see how and why ethnicity and ancestral origin reports are usually very ‘woolly’, imprecise, and often downright WRONG.

And while the media (and marketing campaigns) love to focus on success stories of people who were reunited with parents, siblings and other close relations after doing a DNA test, for most people, the reality of connecting with blood relations through DNA testing is much more challenging, as we will also see later.

Three Types of DNA Tests

Before you decide to spend your money on any DNA test, I strongly advise getting clear about what you wish to gain from being tested. Knowing what you want will determine which of the tree main types of DNA tests is best for you:

  1. Y-DNA – This test is specifically to trace your patrilineal ancestry (your father, his father, his father’s father, etc.). It is only available to men (as women don’t have a Y chromosome), but a female can explore this by asking her father, brother or a male cousin (he MUST be a son of her father’s brother) to get a Y-DNA test. This test is good if you are interested in tracing the history of a surname, for example. I have one client who is using Y-DNA testing to reconstruct the history of a specific Trentino family throughout the centuries.

  2. Mitochondrial (mtDNA) – This test is for tracing your matrilineal ancestry (your mother, her mother, her mother’s mother, etc.). Both men and women can take an mtDNA test, as we all inherit this from our mothers. Be aware that it does NOT tell you about all your female ancestors (i.e. it cannot tell you about your paternal grandmother, the mother of your maternal grandfather, etc.), but only the direct line of females from your mother back in time.

Both Y-DNA and Mitochondrial DNA change very slowly over time, which means these kinds of tests can reveal more about your ancient ethnicity/ancestry than autosomal testing. If you are interested to see how some scientists have used these tests to trace the ancient ancestry of one man, I highly recommend checking out the 2-part BBC television series ‘Meet the Izzards’. You can find it on YouTube at these links:

Meet the Izzards Part 1 – ‘Mother’: https://youtu.be/DIp_xtQelWA

Meet the Izzards Part 2 – ‘Father’: https://youtu.be/vMHQA2nS7tA

  1. Autosomal – This is the most commonly chosen and widely available DNA test, and only one currently offered by companies like AncestryDNA and 23AndMe. You would choose this kind of DNA test you if you are interested in your more recent ethnicity (the last few hundred years) and/or connecting with living people who are biologically related to you. Autosomal tests are also used by companies (23AndMe is an example) to create health profiles, showing which genes you have that may indicate a higher risk of developing certain diseases or conditions, or sensitivity to certain medications. Autosomal tests can also be used for discovering inherited traits, such as eye colour, the ability to roll your tongue, etc. Autosomal DNA tests are available to both men and women.

*** NOTE: I will ONLY be discussing AUTOSOMAL testing in this article series. ***

Choosing the Right Company

Aside from choosing the right test, your reasons for choosing one company over another should ideally have more to do with what they offer (and how that relates to what you want) than with price:

  • If your primary aim is to trace your patrilineal or matrilineal ancestry, there are currently only a few companies offering Y-DNA and/or mtDNA testing. FamilyTree DNA, National Geographic, CRI Genetics are the ones I know of, but there may be others.

  • If your primary aim is to get a health profile, then you might look into 23AndMe. CRI Genetics also has a health report, but I haven’t had it done, so I cannot say how detailed it is.

  • If your primary aim is to connect with living relatives (bearing in mind the caveats we’ll discuss later in this series), you would do best to go with the company with the biggest database of DNA testers, which is currently AncestryDNA.

  • If you’re really serious about finding living relatives, you would do better to get tested through multiple companies. The bigger the ‘net’ the more likely to ‘make a catch’.

  • If your primary aim is to get an ethnicity profile of your recent ancestry, pretty much all the testing companies will give this to you via autosomal DNA testing. However, as we’ll see later in this series, the results you will get are not always as precise as you might like. Also, as we will see, autosomal DNA (or at least our current understanding of it), by its very nature, cannot show details extending much further back than around 250 years (NOTE: that is an arbitrary figure I am gleaning from AncestryDNA’s ethnicity reports). Based on reviews, companies like FamilyTreeDNA and CRI Genetics seem to have a better reputation for accuracy and precision than Ancestry does, but I cannot yet vouch for either personally.

Rather than trying to review all the tests themselves (and they are bound to change over time anyway), I refer you to two good articles that compare a range of DNA tests available as of this date (albeit the one on the Family DNA site is predisposed towards their own product):

PART 2: Entry Level Genetics for Genealogists and Family Historians

Before dipping your toes into your chromosomes, I think it is important to understand a few basics about genetics in general. I don’t mean the scientific side so much as how it ‘works’ in our ancestral inheritance. To that end, I want to explain a little bit about autosomal DNA and how it is transmitted over time, as autosomal tests are the basis for the ethnicity reports people receive from most DNA testing services.

Autosomal DNA – Understanding the Basics

The following illustration gives us an idea of how autosomal DNA is passed on from parents to a child. It looks very simple; each parent gives 50% of his/her DNA to the child:

Autosomal DNA - 2 Generations

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

While, in principle, this seems simple, in reality, it is more complex than it looks.

Why? Because Father and Mother are not just ‘all red’ or ‘all blue’. Each of them has inherited 50% of their genes from their OWN parents.

Again, in principle, that sounds like it would be simple. Logically, it would mean the child inherits 25% of their genetic material from each of their grandparents. But, in practice, this is not exactly what happens. We can understand this better if we look at two children from the same couple:


Autosomal DNA, 3 Generations. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.com
Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

(Forgive any slight imprecision in the diagram; I did it by hand in Photoshop, and I’m not a graphic designer).

In the diagram above, we see three generations of autosomal DNA. Now, we see Father has inherited 50% of his DNA from his parents (red and yellow), and Mother has inherited 50% of her DNA from her parents (blue and purple).

But look, now, at the children. Each child has inherited 50% of their DNA from each of their parents. HOWEVER, the percentage of DNA from each ‘colour’ (i.e. each grandparent) is NOT an exact 25%. They receive more from one grandparent, and less from the other, until it adds up to the full 50% from that parent.

Note how Child 1 has a lot more yellow and blue DNA than Child 2, and Child 2 has a lot more red and purple DNA than Child 1 has. This is what makes siblings unique (except for identical twins, whose DNA are identical).

But it gets even more complicated, the more we work through the generations. Here’s a diagram of the same family with their great-grandparents added into the mix:Autosomal DNA, 4 Generations. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.com

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

From this diagram, we can see yet more diversity entering the ‘gene pool’. At each generation, children have inherited 50% of their DNA from their parents, but now (at least from Father and Mother down) we see how they continue to inherit DNA from their grandparents and the ancestors who came before in varying proportions.

Now, when we look at the two children, we see even greater diversity between them. Child 2, for example, carries a lot more DNA from their father’s paternal grandmother (green) than his/her sibling does.

But the OTHER thing we start to notice is how the slices of DNA are getting smaller, as they combine and recombine to fill in the 50% from each parent. This is an important point:

The AMOUNT of autosomal DNA
we inherit from specific ancestors
DECREASES over time.

Try to imagine, now, if I added another generation to this diagram…and then another, and another, ad infinitum. Not only would some of those colours become so narrow they would be hard to detect (and I would certainly have a rough time drawing them in Photoshop), but SOME of those colours might not appear in DNA tests at all.

This is why:

  • Siblings can sometimes receive slightly different ethnicity reports from the autosomal tests. It doesn’t mean they HAVE different ethnicities. It just means that one of them has genes that appear more in one ‘test group’ than the other (we’ll discuss test groups in the final part of this series).

  • One sibling might have a DNA match on Ancestry, etc. which the other sibling does not share. It doesn’t mean they are NOT both related to the DNA match. It just means that the specific genes they inherited matched the specific genes the ‘match’ inherited. In fact, one sibling could inherit the DNA from an ancestor whose DNA is completely absent in their siblings’ DNA.

  • Autosomal testing CANNOT really tell us our ‘ancient’ or ‘deep’ ancestry. Autosomal DNA is changing EVERY generation, whereas Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA (which CAN tell us our ancient ancestry) are not. So, don’t go into autosomal testing expecting to discover very ancient ancestral roots.

The Mysterious Case of ‘Faded Genes’

Scientists tell us we could indeed be a direct descendant of someone without having inherited ANY of that person’s DNA. The more distant our relation to an ancestor, the more likely this becomes.

While that is the ‘official’ belief amongst scientists, I personally believe we carry DNA of each and EVERY one of our ancestors inside of us, from the beginning of time – even if only in an infinitesimally small quantity.

I confess this is an utterly UN-scientific belief. But having researched so many ancestors for myself and so many others, I have come to believe it to be true, at what I might call a ‘spiritual’ level.

If science cannot yet ‘detect’ the presences of all those ancestors in our genes, I believe it is more a measurement of the current technological limitations than an indication that ancient DNA simply ‘fades away’ over time.

Again, this is simply my personal belief. But I suspect many others (especially genealogists) feel similarly.

Endogamy and Pedigree Collapses

To finish our discussion on autosomal DNA, I feel it is important to touch upon the subject of ‘endogamy’, and how this related to both DNA testing and genealogy.

‘Endogamy’ refers to the practice of small, insular groups intermarrying over many generations – often over many centuries. Intermarriage within one’s own social group occurred amongst ALL human societies, pretty much until the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of mass transportation. Having researched tens of thousands of families over the years, I would say that around 95% of the time, couples tended to marry within their own parish – and often within their own village/hamlet. Moreover, you will often see them intermarrying with the same families over the generations.

Continual intermarriage within a closed community will ALWAYS lead to the inevitability of some couples marrying who were related by blood. The technical term for a blood relationship is ‘consanguinity’ (literally ‘with blood’).

Many of us have heard stories about royal families intermarrying ‘too much’ (I’ll get to that in a minute), but the truth is consanguineous relationships between spouses occurs in ALL family trees, in all parts of the world, from the simple farmer up to kings and queens.

And the further you go back in time, the more of these ‘consanguineous’ ancestors you will find in your tree. In fact, when you start to plot out all the families in a parish over a long period of time (as I am doing for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio), you will start to see that pretty much EVERYONE alive today who is descended from someone in that parish is related to pretty much everyone else – whether they realise it or not. Moreover, if you look back in time to, say, around 500 years ago, you will see that pretty much everyone who was alive THEN in that parish is your ancestor.

It’s a bit mind-bending.

There isn’t a person on earth who, does not have at least some ancestors who married someone who was related to them by blood. It doesn’t mean they were closely related. 4th cousins, for example, were not considered ‘close’ in terms of canonical (Church) law. And more distant relations than that, people didn’t even CONSIDER were ‘related’ to them at all.

But while the Church and its parishioners might not consider 5th cousins and beyond to be ‘relatives’, from a genealogical perspective – and in terms of DNA – they most certainly are.

Every time you have a pair of consanguineous ancestors, it creates something called a ‘pedigree collapse’. Normally, we expect the number of our ancestors to multiply by two at each generation, as we move back in time. But when there is a consanguineous relationship between a husband and wife, it means they share a common ancestor (or, more frequently, a pair of common ancestors). Thus, when we move backwards in time to the generation at which their common ancestors occur, there will be FEWER than double then number of ancestors (minus two, to be precise).

Here are a couple of diagrams to illustrate what I mean:Autosomal DNA, 2nd grade consanguinity. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.com

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

In this diagram, Father’s mother and Mother’s father were brother and sister. This means that Father and Mother above are actually 1st cousins (In reality, most consanguineous marriages are more distant than 1st cousins, but this was the simplest diagram I could draw to illustrate a pedigree collapse). The Catholic church calls this ‘2nd grade consanguinity’ because the blood connection is found  two generations back from the couple who are marrying (i.e. Father and Mother’s grandparents).

Look all the way at the top of the diagram, you will see that Father’s maternal grandparents are the SAME colours as mother’s paternal grandparents (yellow and brown). This is because they are the SAME couple.

Thus, a more accurate diagram to show what is going on is this:
Autosomal DNA, 2nd grade consanguinity, pedigree collapse. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.comClick on image to see it larger in a new window.

Instead of the expected eight grandparents for Mother and Father, we have only SIX. This is why we call it a ‘collapse’: instead of the number of your ancestors multiplying by two at every generation, whenever there is a consanguineous marriage, there will be fewer than the expected number of ancestors – two fewer if both ancestors are shared, and one fewer if only one of them is shared (e.g. if Father’s mother and Mother’s father we step-siblings instead of full siblings).

Really, pedigree collapses are a simple matter of statistics: If we look back at the human population of the planet over the millennia, doubling our ancestors at every generation is mathematical impossibility. There simply weren’t enough people living on the planet for us to have two completely unrelated ancestors for every generation in our history.

SIDE NOTE: In the future I will be publishing an article on this site discussing how to recognise consanguineous marriages and pedigree collapses in your family tree, and also how to USE these as clues to piecing together genealogical riddles in earlier generations.

Collapsing the ‘Gene Pool’

Have a look now at the two CHILDREN of the consanguineous couple in the diagram above. Do you notice anything different compared to the earlier diagram were there were eight great-grandparents?

I’ve deliberately exaggerated the results for purpose of demonstration, but if you look closely at Child 1, you might notice he/she has TWO sets of yellow DNA. In fact, the amount of yellow in the diagram (and remember, it’s just my own drawing, and isn’t scientific) is close to 50% of the child’s DNA. This is because Child 1 just happened to get a double whammy of ‘yellow’ from both Mother and Father, via their shared ancestor.

Let’s consider some of the implications for the children in this diagram:

  • Child 1 and 2 are not just siblings; they are also 1st cousins, 1st removed.

  • If Child 1 were to grow up and marry yet another close descendant (another 1st cousin, for example) of the ‘yellow’ great-grandfather, there is a strong chance that their children would inherit and even higher percentage of ‘yellow’ DNA, for the simple reason that there is that much less diversity in the genes to pass on to their descendants. If that DNA happened to contain genes associated for certain health conditions that were normally ‘recessive’, it would make that child more susceptible to developing those conditions. This is what happened to many of the European royal families, including Queen Victoria’s family and the Hapsburgs.

  • Child 2’s genes appear to be a bit more evenly spread out, but there is always a chance that he/she has also inherited the recessive gene for a disease or serious health condition. So if this child marries another closely related descendant of the ‘yellow’ grandfather, there may be a higher risk that the condition will get ‘switched on’ in the next generation.

Even though you might discover many pedigree collapses in your family tree, a marriage between cousins does not automatically mean their children will inherit health risks. Moreover, marriages between more distant cousins (3rd and 4th cousin marriages were fairly common in the past) still allowed for a fairly diverse ‘gene pool’, especially if cousins from the SAME lineage did not intermarry at the next generation. Consanguinity between marital partners only becomes a genetic risk when close cousins intermarry repeatedly throughout the generations, without ever (or hardly ever) introducing ‘fresh blood’ into the gene pool. This was not the case for most of our ancestors

How Pedigree Collapses Affect Your DNA Test Results

Many people do DNA testing to find and connect with living relatives. Sites like Ancestry can sometimes give you lists of hundreds of ‘cousins’, with whom you share at least SOME DNA according to their tests. Sometimes these DNA matches show up as ‘probable’ 2nd, 3rd or 4th cousins. But others might show up as ‘3rd to distant cousins’ or something equally vague.

One of the reasons for such vagueness is the presence of (possibly many) pedigree collapses.

Because endogamy can cause your genes to become more ‘saturated’ (for lack of a better word) with the genes of certain ancestral lines, a cousin might show up who shares enough common genetic material to be your 3rd cousin in theory, but in fact is your 6th (or even more distant) cousin. Thus, if the two of you try to find your common ancestors at the 3rd cousin level (great-great-grandparents), you simply won’t find them, and are likely to become confused (and possibly doubtful about your own family tree) if you try to.

Moreover, the more pedigree collapses each of you has in your ancestry, the more ‘off’ these estimates will be.

The only way to SEE how you are connected is for both of you to have traced your family history – through genealogy, not DNA.

My gut tells me (although this is just a HUNCH based on logic, and not any scientific evidence) that endogamy can also skew our ethnicity reports. In other words, if the genes for one ancestral line are disproportionately pronounced in our DNA due to pedigree collapses, would it not give the ‘appearance’ of us being ‘more’ of something than we actually are? For example, if we had inherited a lot of ‘yellow’, and ‘yellow’ was associated with a particular ethnic or geographic group in a tester’s DNA database, wouldn’t our ethnicity reports show us as being a high percentage of whatever that ethnicity happened to be – even if it weren’t the ethnic group to which we believed we belong?

To get into the heart of such a ‘loaded’ question, we first need to get clear about what exactly ethnicity is – and what it is not – as well as how DNA testing sites ARRIVE at their ‘ethnicity estimates’.

Coming Up Next Time…

This seems like the perfect place to end the first instalment of this article series, as next time, in Article 2, we will be addressing the next topic on our list, namely:

  • PART 3: Why DNA Testing is NOT a Substitute for Genealogical Research

In that article, we will examine some of the misconceptions people have about DNA tests, how relationship estimates are formed to identify ‘DNA Matches’, and the many the challenges around identifying your connections with DNA matches. We’ll also look at the technique of ‘triangulation’, as well as how ‘endogamy’ can sometimes blur relationship estimates.

YOU CAN READ IT NOW AT:

MORE READING:   Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all the articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

(Closing thought: If you are interested to go more deeply into the fascinating world of genetics, I highly recommend checking out the beautifully written book called A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: the stories of our genes by Adam Rutherford. I assure you it is NOT overly scientific; rather it’s extremely engaging and often funny. I think it’s a terrific book title too.)

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in February and March 2019. 
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from
Trentino Genealogy!

Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form
at the right side at the top of your screen
.
If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form,
you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

View my Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829