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?
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 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.
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.
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.
Some haplogroups spread out across vast areas, like the YDNA group Q1b2a1a, which covers part of North America and most of South America. Others cover smaller areas, like N1c which is found most in Finland and the Baltics.
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.
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.
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.