How to Find Your Haplogroup

by Marc McDermott on

With the recent surge in genealogical DNA testing, it’s now quite easy to determine your ancestral haplogroup. But what exactly is a haplogroup, and why should you care?

Quick Summary

For basic haplogroup information, I recommend 23andMe. For more advanced and full sequence testing, I recommend FamilyTreeDNA.

What Are Haplogroups?

At its simplest, a haplogroup is a group of people who share ancient origins. That’s important for two reasons.

First, because we get our genes through our ancestors, that means nearly everyone who is part of a certain haplogroup is related, though it could be many, many generations back.

In some cases, your haplogroup can help you connect with living relatives today, and even groups of genealogical researchers all tracing the same family lines.

While this is technically possible, it is somewhat rare because most matches will be a distant relationship that’s too far back to research.

Second, because our ancestors didn’t move around nearly as often or as far as we do today, many haplogroups can be traced to a certain region of the world. In other cases, we can trace how a haplogroup migrated over time.

Knowing either of those can help you narrow your family history search to a specific area.

Maternal and Paternal Haplogroups

There are two specific pieces of DNA that are used to determine haplogroups.

A paternal line, stretching father to father to father back through time, is traced using YDNA testing. This tests part of the DNA that only men have, and it is passed down almost unchanged from one generation to the next.

Maternal lines use mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, which is passed from each mother to all of her children. Like YNDA, mtDNA changes very slowly over time.

Chances are your mtDNA is identical to your mother’s, and her mother’s, and her mother’s. Men carry mtDNA, but do not pass it on to their children; only women do.

What Are Your Haplogroups?

So just how can you find out what your personal haplogroups are? You have to take a DNA test. But not just any test will do.

Most DNA tests on the market today test autosomal DNA (see my DNA guide here), which is the mixture you get from all of your ancestors. That can be great for finding living relatives and ethnicity, but tells you nothing about your ancient past.

For that, you need an mtDNA test or a YDNA test (or both). Be sure to check which test you are taking before you pay.

Your maternal haplogroup is based on your mtDNA, and your paternal haplogroup is based on your YDNA.

Because a woman does not carry YDNA, if she wants to determine her paternal haplogroup, she needs to have a male relative tested instead, like her brother, father, or paternal uncle.

Identifying Haplogroups

Scientists use letters and number to identify different haplogroups. The first letter indicates the major group, while other letters and numbers are used for more recent changes in the DNA.

Consider the paternal haplogroup E.

E haplogroups are historically found in Africa. There are two major divisions of the E haplogroup, E1 and E2. There are also many subdivisions, and these are what really help narrow down your ancestor’s homeland.

For example, if you are part of the E1b1a1 haplogroup, your ancestor likely came from southern Africa. But if you are part of E1b1b1b1a, then your ancestors were likely Berbers, who lived in northwest Africa.

Maternal haplogroups use a similar system, which can get confusing. It is very important to note that the maternal and paternal groups are completely different, even if they have the same number. The YDNA J1 haplogroup and the mtDNA J1 haplogroup are not the same! Be sure you know which type of DNA you are looking at.

Mapping Haplogroups

One advantage of identifying your haplogroup is that it can give you a good idea of where your ancestors came from. You may already know that for the past 200 or even 300 years, but some haplogroups go back 10,000 years or more!

If you belong to a much newer haplogroup, say one that appeared only one to two thousand years ago, that can narrow your search down even further.

They can be particularly helpful if you’re trying to identify things like Native American ancestors. The Y haplogroup Q-M242, for example, is very common in Native Americans. More on Native American DNA testing here.

Also keep in mind that people did migrate from region to region, and people did intermarry. That means that any particular country or region will have certain maternal and paternal haplogroups that are most common, but several other haplogroups will often be present as well.

Genealogical Projects

Probably one of the most useful reasons to learn your haplogroups is so you can join with other family history researchers who are tracing the same genetic lines. They may have already uncovered records that can save you countless hours of searching.

YDNA Haplogroup Projects

One of the most common YDNA haplogroup projects is called a surname project or surname group. That’s because surnames are passed down exactly the same way YDNA is, through the direct male line.

Finding a surname project that links up with your DNA can be incredibly helpful. Everyone involved is interested in genealogy, and is somehow related to you (though it might be pretty far back).

And don’t be surprised if your DNA links you to an unexpected surname. A lot of people have changed their names over the years for a lot of reasons. Among the most common is to fit in after immigrating to a new country.

mtDNA Haplogroup Projects

Because surnames historically have not been passed down from mothers to their children, there are no mtDNA surname projects. But there are similar projects that identify earliest known ancestors. These trace maternal lines back as far as possible, and can help you link up with other descendants from that maternal ancestor.

Other Benefits of Y-DNA, mtDNA Testing

Knowing your haplogroup designation and ancient origins can be really neat and an interesting topic to discuss with your friends.

But does it really help us with our genealogy?

Honestly, not really.

To me, the primary advantage of Y-DNA and mtDNA testing is to test a hypothesis.

For example, pretend I’m working on a complex research problem that involves determining the correct identity of a certain McDermott who lived in New Jersey in the 1800s – potentially my 3x Great Grandfather.

I’ve done all my genealogical research, but still don’t have enough evidence to prove that person was my 3x Great Grandfather.

Based on all the evidence I’ve collected, my gut tells me I have the right guy.

If I want to test that hypothesis, I can build out family trees for that person’s sons and follow their direct male lines to present day until I can identify living descendants.

I can then reach out to that person and ask them to take a Y-DNA test. If he matches me, then the evidence is quite strong I have the right 3x Great Grandfather.

The limitation here is that this only works on direct paternal lines. This example works for me because I’m trying to confirm the identity of my 3x direct paternal great grandfather.

Confused?

At first glance, it all sounds pretty confusing. But the more time you spend working with haplogroups, the clearer it becomes.

And it can be well worth the effort. Knowing your haplogroups doesn’t just link you with your past. It connects you with fellow family history buffs in the present as well, who share the same passion, genes, and ancestors as you.

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Comments

  1. I recentley did the 23andMe and found out that my Maternal Haplogroup
    is H5’36 but, other ancestors that I share have different letters and also more letters and numbers than I have. How is this relevant?

    Reply
    • Hi Kelly. mtDNA is shared with your ancestors on your direct maternal line – your mother’s mother’s mother etc. Are the other family members who tested on this same direct line?

      Reply
  2. Hi,
    If I tested with 23 and Me, can I count on my mtdna Haplogroup being exact? I was under the impression it was. I was given mtdna Haplogroup U4a.

    Reply
    • It’s possible, yes. But FamilyTreeDNA is the only company that tests the full mitochondria for the most accurate results.

      Reply
  3. I am female have my Maternal Haplogroup from a dna test I had done through 23 and me. My dad had dna test done through ancestry. I have his raw data files. Is there any way for me to determine my Paternal Haplogroup using his raw data? Ancestry won’t let me upload my dna and 23 and me won’t let me upload his. Thanks.

    Reply
    • I believe you can upload his raw data to LivingDNA to get the haplogroup. I’d give them a call first to confirm. Ancestry doesn’t report on haplogroups even if you could upload.

      Reply
  4. Hi.
    I have a ”brickwall” with my Paternal surname & can only get back to my great Grandfather.On his birth certificate is recorded his Mothers name , but there is NO Fathers name recorded.I have been informed this is a sure sign he was illegimate (ie , the result of a one nite stand so to speak)
    His Mother (my gt gt Grandmother) has my Paternal surname on the certificate, so im assuming thats her ”maiden name”.This means her Father, (my gt gt gt Grandfather) is the one i want to identify.If i took a ”Y DNA” test is it possible i could find who my gt gt gt grandfather is , & if so , how ?

    Reply
    • Hi Kerry. Your assumptions seem likely. But Y-DNA testing wouldn’t be best in this situation if you’re looking for your gt gt gt Grandfather because he did not pass his y chromosome to his daughter (your gt gt Grandmother). So if that’s the person you’re looking for, your best bet is to find him with some genealogical research instead of dna testing. It shouldn’t be too difficult – if you want to post the details here I can take a quick look for you.

      Reply
  5. Hi. I love reading your website. Very clear and friendly. I have a question rather than a comment. What do you think of the CRI Genetics ancestry test. I had read a great review of it ( from Genetics Digest) but I never see it compared in any other Genetic Testing comparisons, of which there are many. Any thoughts on this matter? Thanks! Carla Burman

    Reply
    • Hi Carla. I don’t know much about that company and haven’t yet tried their product. Right now it’s not very popular in the genealogy community.

      Reply
  6. Hello;
    My mother, my daughter and I all processed our DNA through 23and me. My maternal haplogroup is H36 but my mother and daughter are both H5A. I am confused. I thought my haplogroup would be the same as my mother’s. Why is mine different?

    Reply
    • Hi Barbara. Remember that the mtDNA test at 23andMe is not as detailed as dedicated testing at FamilyTreeDNA. It doesn’t look at the same number of positions. It’s likely that all three of you are the same haplogroup in reality because H5A and H36 are both branches of the H5’36 haplogroup.

      Reply
        • M4451 is a branch of the haplogroup E and is shorthand for E1b1a1a1a1c1a1a3a1a1 and referred to as CTS9106. A quick search on this tells me it’s sub-Saharan Africa. FTDNA shows a high concentration of people on the west coast in the area stretching from Ghana to Cameroon.

          Reply
  7. Hi Marc,
    I’m trying to determine if I’ve Fulbe or Native American heritage on one ancestral line–my maternal. I’m a woman and I took both of the following tests.
    My mtDNA result from 23andme is Haplogroup L3d1a1, which is African. However, the AfricanAncestry.com mtDNA result is Haplogroup A, which is Native American. I discovered that 75% of the Choctaw are Hap A. 23andme reports that I have less than 1% Native American (me and Elizabeth Warren), that occurred about six+ generations ago. In the 1880 Census of Alabama (mother/grandmother/great-grandmother’s birthplace), I learned that my maternal 2xgreat-grandmother was born in Mississippi, where Choctaw are the most populous tribe. But, I don’t know if she was NA. My research uncovered that due to mutations and migrations “out of Africa,” mtDNA L3 became M and N, and N became mt-DNA Hap A. I also discovered that mtDNA L3d1a is found at a high frequency among the nomadic Fulani/Fula/Fulbe peoples of West Africa. How do I find out which Haplogroup is accurate, L3d1a1 or Haplogroup A? Could it be that both 23andme (Hap L3d1a1) and AfricanAncestry (Hap A) are right considering L3 became M and N, and N became A? By the way, my family has no interest in trying to claim Native American tribal rights or anything. We are just trying to understand our genetic genealogy. I present at my family reunions. I wrote to both companies and both stand by their result. I’ve also tested with Ancestry.com, but they don’t provide Haplogroup info. I’ve done a lot of online searching as you can tell, and that’s how I discovered your wonderful website where I’ve learned a lot. I hope you can help me and maybe others will learn from your response also. Thank you!
    Blessings to you and yours!

    Reply
    • Hi Celena. I’m not too familiar with Africanancestry.com but I believe L3d1a1 formed out of L3c’d which would be a separate branch from the M group that was formed from L3. So based on that I’d say your mtDNA’s origin is more likely to be Fulbe vs Native American.

      Reply
  8. Hi Marc
    I did a test with 23andme to know about the origins of my ancestors. My paternal haplogroup is B-M109 but I couldn’t match it with the database of the Saudi tribes. Is there another shorthand referring to it I could possibly try.

    Reply
  9. Hi. My 23andme Haplogroup is R-S7834, but I cant seem to find anything more, about where my decendents are from. Is there a list?

    Reply
    • Hey Rob, I am also R-S7834 and it seems it pretty rare. It probably traces back to MacKenzie’s in Scotland over 1000 years ago. It also seems to trace back to the north east of Ireland before that. My ancestors (Y male ancestors) were in the north west of Scotland (the highlands) in the late 1700’s. Most of my Y DNA connections on Family Tree DNA are MacKenzie’s and not Macdonald’s…but haven’t figured out when the name changed. Maybe adoption, marital affair or such. Best of luck, Kevin Macdonald

      Reply
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