From R1b1a2a1a1b4 to DF21, or My brother’s DNA reveals he is human after all

I’ve been fascinated with genetic genealogy for a couple of years now. Mainly, I got fascinated when I discovered that not everyone with the last name Gerald living in this country believes my grandfather’s stories of our family immigrating from Ireland. I stumbled across information online where some distant cousins were speculating that the family may have come from France. We were at a genealogical brick wall with an ancestor that lived in South Carolina in the 1700s. Try as anyone and everyone might, we couldn’t overturn a paper trail going any farther back than that. I’m sure this is why varying theories started emerging. Family researchers needed something new to research and needed to keep exploring new theories to make sure nothing had been overlooked. I, however, just wanted to prove that my Grandpa was right, and I thought I could do it through DNA. Luckily enough, my brother is a willing test subject, and all three of my brothers have been financially supportive of the cause. We’ve learned a lot in two years.

Here’s both a recap and an update for anyone who is following this research in the family and anyone who is interested in doing their own family genetic genealogy project.

First, we had a Y-DNA test done through Family Tree DNA. A lot of places do all sorts of DNA testing, but if you want a test that will help solve genealogical mysteries related to your surname or your patrilineal background, you have to do a Y-DNA test. You also need to test for as many markers as you can afford. I suggest testing for at least 67 markers. As my brother put it, testing for 12 markers basically just tells you that you’re human, and testing for 37 markers might tell you that your ancestors came from Europe. If you want to get closer to yourself in time, you’re going to need more markers. Chances are, like us, you will also keep adding new tests to the original Y-DNA test in order to get more specific information. But this is where you start if you want to get into genetic genealogy. Have a Y-DNA test done on a male who is a direct descendant of the patrilineal line you are researching. Family Tree DNA is a great place to go for this. Lots of genetic researchers hang out there, and lots of family projects are already in progress there. If you are lucky, like us, you can also find people there who will help you make progress on understanding your own genetic history.

Step one for us was the 67 marker Y-DNA test. This did not reveal any recent family matches (though I believe it eventually will as more people are added to the databases), but it did show us a pattern of distant matches to people who claimed Irish ancestry. I found it curious and fascinating that none of these people shared our surname. I didn’t quite know what to think, but I later came to understand that we were looking at people who shared a common ancestor with us from as much as 1000 years ago. The Irish didn’t use surnames prior to the Norman Invasion, so our genetic cousins at that distance could have just about any name at all.

Step two was to add a Deep Clade test from Family Tree DNA to the mix. This tests SNP markers in the Y-DNA as opposed to the STR markers from our original report. The SNP tests place you within a system of genetic clans called haplogroups. Your haplogroup tells your very distant ancestry in terms of where your ancestors were thousands or even tens of thousands of years ago. If you are lucky, though, you can find out much more recent information from the SNP tests. Sometimes in more recent history there have been genetic clusters still all living in one area. What I hoped to find from the Deep Clade test was that we matched a sub-sub-sub-sub clade that clustered in a very particular area, such as a particular county in Ireland.

At first, I was disappointed. The initial Deep Clade test designated my brother’s Y-DNA as belonging to the haplogroup R1b1a2a1a1b4 (now shortened to R-L21). All of the tests run for deeper sub-clades of R-L21 came back negative. R-L21 does occur at higher frequencies in England and Ireland than in other places, but it also occurs throughout Western Europe. It is generally associated with Celtic ancestry, though, so I took that as a step toward verification of Irish ancestry. The combination of the haplogroup finding and the continued pattern of matches to distant relations with ties to Ireland seemed to me to be pretty good evidence that Grandpa knew what he was talking about.

I thought I was going to have to be satisfied with “pretty good” evidence until enough people had the tests done that we started getting closer matches or until I won the lottery and was able to travel to Ireland taking DNA samples from people sharing my surname.

A lot has happened in the world of DNA research in the past two years, though, and it turns out that new SNPs and new sub clades within haplogroups are being discovered all the time.

This brings us forward to the more recent development that my brother’s Y-DNA results have now been added to a research project for one of these more recently defined sub clades. I’ve ordered tests for more SNPs to help verify this classification, but for now we’ve moved forward from the more general grouping of R-L21 to a more specific group within R-L21 of DF21 and within DF21 to group K. Maybe if you are a genographic researcher, you will know what this means. I don’t actually know what it means, but I know what I’ve been told.

The person who contacted me about the research project says this is for a very particular genetic cluster with roots in Southern Ireland, specifically in the counties Laois, Offaly, and Tipperary. It is thought that the people who have these genetic markers share a common ancestor who lived in one of these counties possibly prior to the Norman Invasion.

That’s getting pretty specific, and it moves the likelihood up even higher that our genealogical brick wall did indeed come from Ireland.

I believe the next few years will continue to see rapid advances in what we can do with this kind of genetic information. For now, though, we’ve learned a couple of important things. Grandpa was likely telling the truth, and we will probably find a match to a specific family in Ireland before this is over. Plus, my brother is human after all. You never know when you start testing the DNA of brothers what they will turn out to be, but mine has the same DNA as the other 7 billion people on the planet.

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