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Family history: going way back via DNA

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PHOTOS ARE FOR YOUR ONE-TIME USE ONLY AS A TIE-IN WITH THE GENOGRAPHIC PROJECT. NO SALES. NO TRANSFERS. NO ARCHIVES. Credit: Courtesy, IBM DNA molecule. The Genographic Project, a global, five-year research initiative launched by National Geographic and IBM, will trace the migratory history of the human species. (Courtesy of IBM)

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PHOTOS ARE FOR YOUR ONE-TIME USE ONLY AS A TIE-IN WITH THE GENOGRAPHIC PROJECT. NO SALES. NO TRANSFERS. NO ARCHIVES. Credit: Becky Hale, National Geographic Genographic Project Public Participation Kit. The Genographic Project, a global, five-year research initiative launched by National Geographic and IBM, will trace the migratory history of the human species. (Courtesy of Becky Hale, National Geographic)

All they had in common was a name.

Two strangers from different states sent away swabs of their DNA to be tested. The results came back: They were related.

But what does that mean? For Justin Swanstrom of Denver, it meant he could be confident in the genealogy he had compiled through years of meticulous research. For others, the answer is not so clear.

Genealogies used to stop at the end of a trail of yellowed documents. Now, genealogical DNA testing can fill in the gaps where court records and birth certificates fall short. Since the advent of the technology at the turn of the century, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have looked for keys to their ancestry through documenting their genetic code. The testing can be a tool for genealogical research or give clues to ancient history, but sometimes the paper trail is still more telling than the double helix.

Swanstrom, 51, began studying his genealogy 35 years ago the old fashioned way--he sent a letter. According to family tradition, his great grandfather ran away from home at age 12 and joined the Mormons. He wrote to the Family History Library of the Latter Day Saints to see if the story was true. A letter came back that debunked the family myth but hooked him on genealogy.

“This wonderful woman at the LDS library” helped him begin his lasting pursuit by “taking the time to actually write a long letter to me and talk about what she found,” he said.

Since then, Swanstrom has traced dozens of branches of his family tree. Online resources, like RootsWeb.com, have made it easier for genealogists to connect and share information, he said, and he now does most of his research on the Internet. Still, the records could not clarify if someone along his father’s line--the Howerys--had been a stepfather, as his grandfather thought. Just as DNA technology was becoming available to the public, he decided to test his grandfather’s theory in 2000, he said.

To find out if he really was descended from Howerys, he had to compare his genes with a member of that family. He found a Howery through RootsWeb who sent a genetic sample to Family Tree DNA, a testing agency. The results showed that Swanstrom was part of the Howery family. He said the test was only useful because he was testing a specific hypothesis about his family history.

“I think it really depends on whether you’re framing the right question,” he said. The tests can clarify points of history, but they need context and a point of comparison.

The convenience of the Internet and DNA testing have drawn more people to the study of genealogy, Swanstrom said, but their understanding of what the results mean is superficial. People have begun to abandon older, more effective methods of studying family history.

“DNA is not genealogy,” said Tony Burroughs, author of "Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree." “People need to know it’s not genealogy and it’s not a substitute for genealogy.”

Using the tests may be appealing for blacks because the traditional routes of tracing family history are complicated by a past of discrimination and slavery. Because of segregation, old marriage records of blacks may be filed separately from the records of whites, and black cemeteries may be separate and less well documented, Burroughs said. Black slaves were often listed as property of landowners and only by a first name, he added, making it nearly impossible to trace an ancestry back to Africa.

But DNA offers the possibility of looking further back. As databases have grown over the past several years, a person can get a general sense of one line of ancestry back 60,000 years. The Genographic Project, a five-year research effort by National Geographic and IBM, has attracted more than 190,000 participants since it began in 2005, according to Glynnis Breen, a spokeswoman for the project. The project offers to track the deep ancestry of participants to a common ancient root in Africa.

Participants send in a cheek swab and receive back a map of their “genetic journey,” the migration of one direct line of descent over thousands of years. The database still leaves millennia-long gaps in the history, painting man’s journey with broad strokes. It is not a genealogy, but it offers insight into migration patterns and ancient history.

Several other organizations of this sort can give clues to what region someone’s ancestors came from, but tracking one’s history to a tribe in Africa is overly optimistic, said Dr. Bruce Jackson of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

“Anybody that tells you they’re matching you to some group is just bilking you,” said Jackson, who is a head of the African-American DNA Roots Project, a molecular anthropology project whose goal is to match lineages of blacks and Caribbean people of African ancestry to West African tribes and ethnic groups that were the sources of slaves. He said so far the databases can only match people to a region; matching to an ethnic group may be a possibility 20 years down the line, as databases improve.

“I think most Americans want to be connected to somebody,” he said. “I think it’s a very American thing to want to know where your roots are.”

After decades of research, Swanstrom still occasionally turns to the envelope and stamp to unlock keys to his history. He recently found what might be additional information about his ancestors in Utah and mailed a form to a historical society requesting additional information. It felt bizarre to use mail again, he said.

Still, an even older method may be the key to finding one’s history.

“The things that would come the closest to being some part of me are the things that I learned not by looking at genealogy but by listening to my grandmother’s stories about her ancestors,” Swanstrom said.

E-mail: ssb2130@columbia.edu