By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jake Byrnes, Ph.D., Population Genomics Technical Manager for AncestryDNA
“I am adopted and have NO clues about my birth except a sort of ‘fake’ birth certificate from when I was born in Texas. No family name. No known blood relatives. Would the DNA test be a good option for me anyway? What will I learn about my family from taking a DNA test?” —Rita M
The short answer to your first question is “yes, absolutely:” an adopted person can—sometimes—be fortunate enough to find the identity of their biological mother and father through one of the major commercial DNA tests available today. And the answer to your second question is “quite a lot.”
Let us explain what we mean by sometimes: if your biological parents or grandparents, brothers, sisters, or close cousins have already had their DNA tested, you will always be connected to them, and your relationship identified, by logging into your own privacy-protected account from the DNA company that tested you. We have to say sometimes because not everyone has had their DNA tested. But if every parent who put a child up for adoption had their DNA analyzed, that child would always show a connection to their biological parents in that same DNA database. We are a long way from reaching that goal but it is a noble one to which to aspire.
And the best part of this process is that it is affordable: generally these tests, which analyze your autosomal DNA and automatically connect your results with people in the database with whom you share long stretches of identical DNA, cost less than $100. Before we explain how this miraculous process works, and give you an example of one person who found their parents in this way, we want to pause for a moment to discuss this very normal human impulse to find one’s birthparents. This quest for clarity about the biological basis of our family’s lineage has been encoded in the myths and sacred scripts of human beings for thousands of years.
Establishing the names of our fathers has a long history in many cultures, notably in the West but also in civilizations like the Chinese, among many others. For members of the Navajo nation, an introduction begins with one’s first name, followed by one’s mother’s and father’s first clans, then one’s maternal and paternal grandfather’s first clans. An example quite familiar to Christians, Jews, and Muslims is the Book of Genesis, which scholars believe was composed about 2,500 years or so ago. Chapter 5 of Genesis, which lists the male generations who connect Adam with Noah, surely must be the oldest family tree in Western civilization. We are all familiar with how this first human family tree begins: “And Adam…begat a son in his own likeness, after his own image.”
These key words— “in his own likeness, after his own image”—were the ancient world’s way of describing the fascinating process by which parents share their DNA with their biological children. Though texts like Genesis were explicitly concerned to name paternal lineages, the Bible is also careful to name the “foremothers,” great female figures in history. These are lines of descent, based on a biological connection, and they were quite important in establishing property rights and shares of inheritance when a patriarch died. Many scholars believe that one strong initial impulse for the creation of the science of genealogy was to insure the so-called “purity” of royal bloodlines, for just these reasons.
In the simplest terms, creating a child “in our own likeness, after our own image,” works like this: each child inherits 50% of the DNA that makes up our genome from each parent. That means that each of us has also inherited about 25% of our genomes from each of our four biological grandparents, etc. So, if a person takes a DNA test and is informed that she or he has a connection to a person in a DNA company’s database with whom they share about 50% of identical DNA, that person is almost certainly your mother or father, child, or full sibling. If the result is about 25%, that person is likely your grandparent/aunt/uncle, niece/nephew, or half sibling. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.
Let us make clear that we are describing the manner by which blood ties and bloodlines were traditionally defined in Western culture, and not placing a value judgment on the creation of biological families as opposed to families that are socially constructed through adoption or foster parenting. One’s “parent” can be legitimately defined in various ways, and adoptive bonds can often be much stronger and more meaningful to an adoptee than biological bonds discovered late in life. What DNA tests provide is the choice to pursue biological relationships if that is our desire.
Genealogy research is one of the most popular pursuits in America. Through genealogy, we can uncover the often tenuous or serendipitous circumstances that led to our own existence. Why is this so exciting? Because, in the end, the more we find out about our ancestors, the more we find out about ourselves. That’s right: the secret to the passion for genealogical research is that it’s all about you!
While technology and the increased availability of data have made this pursuit much easier, there are still numerous circumstances under which the discovery of the story of the origins and history of your ancestors continues to be exceedingly difficult. For adopted individuals, an origin story based on bloodline ancestors is often not available and is difficult if not impossible to find by standard genealogical methods. DNA is, slowly, making this process much easier, and will continue to do so the more individuals have their DNA tested.
Before we share with you an amazing example of how a person used the AncestryDNA database to identify his biological father, we want to list the steps any person can take to cast the widest possible net for gathering information of all sorts—both through records and through genetics—about their birth parents and relatives. To prepare this list, Professor Gates consulted with a leading genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, who specializes in the use of DNA to help adoptees find their biological relatives.
- Check state laws. Many states are changing their laws and allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates.
- Sign up for all applicable adoption registries (state focused, etc.) in case your birth family is looking for you, too.
- Apply for non-identifying information from the agency or state that handled your adoption. “Non-identifying information,” as it is called, will not give you the name of your birth parent, but can tell an adoptee the age of their birth parent or parents at the time they were born. In addition, it sometimes provides a description of the birth parent and sometimes it includes clues about their parent’s family structure, occupations, health history, and circumstances surrounding the adoption.
- If possible, test in all three major autosomal DNA databases, including AncestryDNA, since these databases don’t share their clients’ genetic information with each other. Males should consider taking a y-DNA test as well, and check their y-DNA matches for any repeating surnames.
- Visit www.DNAadoption.com for additional search tips and education about using DNA analysis in adoption searching.
Once your test results arrive consider the following ways to use this data to learn more about your birthparents:
- Check your genetic ethnicity results for any unique or rare ancestral origins that might aid in narrowing down your search.
- When you are informed of your autosomal DNA matches, first check for close matches (predicted first or second cousins, or closer). Then check the family trees, such as those posted on Ancestry.com, for branches that lead to the right place at the right time, fitting your non-identifying information (if available) and your ethnicity results. Your birth parent could very well be buried in the branches of one of these family trees.
- Even if you only have more distant matches in the DNA database (beyond 2nd cousins), comparing the family trees of your matches collectively may help identify ancestral surnames or couples appearing in numerous trees suggesting these ancestors are relevant to you.
- If you are able to identify a potential ancestral couple, build their tree forward looking for individuals who were in the right place at the right time to be your parent.
- Finally, and most importantly, always use care and sensitivity in contacting potential birth relatives.
It takes a few weeks to get your DNA analysis back after submitting your sample. Working your way through the first half of this checklist will give you a good foundation while you wait for your results. In our next article, we will explain what you can expect from your results and share an amazing story from someone who received exciting results after taking a DNA test.
Do you have a mystery in your own family tree? Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr and his team of Ancestry experts your question at firstname.lastname@example.org.