Customer Reviews: Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree
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on November 5, 2004
Millions of Americans have become hooked on genealogy, the science or study of family descent. The popularity of pursuing one's ancestors through tracing one's roots backward generation by generation has soared since the advent of the Internet, which made it possible to rapidly search the world for even remote family members and set up family websites, and the creation of special computer software which enables anyone to use the power of the computer to trace his or her domestic roots. Now it is possible to go to the next level of searching one's family tree through the availability of DNA testing. And that is what this book, "Trace Your Roots with DNA," is all about.

Co-author Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (no, that's not a typo!) has been an eager genealogist for more than thirty years, is an authority on family history research, and was the lead researcher for the Ancestors series on PBS. She is also a contributing editor for "Heritage Quest" and the author of a number of books related to genealogy and ancestor historiography. The other co-author, Ann Turner, became interested in genealogy when she learned that her parents' ancestors had arrived in the United States on the same ship, yet went their separate ways until her parents met 300 years later. That sort of coincidence would also have piqued my interest in my family history if I knew something like that about my parents. Sometimes facts are really stranger than fiction.

"Trace Your Roots with DNA" is not really for leisure reading, but it does contain very valuable information for those who want to use the new DNA tests for help in tracing their family ancestry. It contains a lot of technical material (although I hope that point does not scare anyone away), but the authors explain everything in terms which any ordinary person of average intelligence can understand and there are ample illustrations provided to help clarify what is being described. I suggest the reader do a rapid once-through-reading of the book and then consider it a sourcebook, guidebook, or resource to be consulted often. The authors provide a brief introduction to the fundamentals of genealogy and genetics, including a brief overview of classical genetics, blood types, phenotypes, genotypes, molecular genetics, the principles of DNA, and even a short section about mutations.

I found their discussion of the Y chromosome and its ramifications to be especially interesting. The Y chromosome is inherited from fathers and occurs only in males. This was of particular interest to me, not merely because I am of the male gender, but because of the following statement made by the authors: "If we had a time machine, we could trace the Y chromosome of every man living today back to one man." Furthermore, say the authors, this "Most Recent Common Ancestor" of all men was a real person, not an abstraction, and is sometimes called "Y-Adam," almost certainly born in Africa less than 100,000 years ago. That to me means that in one important sense all of us males are really related to one another and the differences between us are mainly cosmetic. Talk about male bonding! And that, by the way, is what they called the chapter about this topic: "Male Bonding."

Now, don't think that the female of the species is left out of the picture. There is an entire chapter devoted to the "Maternal Legacy" and the importance of mitochondrial DNA. Since the paternal lineage of all men living today focuses on one man, Y-Adam, can everyone today trace their straight maternal lineage back to one woman? "The answer is yes," say the authors, "and she is dubbed mitochondrial Eve." Furthermore, similar to Y-Adam, "mitochondrial Eve was born somewhere in Africa." But, interestingly enough, "she did not live at the same time as him" and, "while her date of birth is uncertain...most estimates fall within a range of 120,000 to 200,000 years ago, long before Y-Adam." The conclusion? According to the authors, "Adam never met Eve!" You'll have to read the book yourself for the rest of this story.

The discussion surrounding Y-chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA, geographical origins, and kin relationships includes information about the types of available DNA testing, what kind of information the tests can provide, how to interpret the results, and how the tests work. These test are becoming increasingly inexpensive and reliable and they are as effortless as swabbing the inside of your cheek and mailing a sample to a testing facility. The authors also provide information about joining an ongoing genealogy project or starting and running your own project, as well as information about finding prospects for your project, contacting and courting participants, and interpreting and sharing results.

If you are interested in your family ancestry and want to use the latest tools available in your genealogical research, then this book is one you should have in your personal reference library. The very helpful appendix includes a list of genealogical resources, including special forms which can be downloaded on the Internet, a list of genealogical computer software (some for free!) and websites, both free and commercial, devoted to genealogy and tracing your roots, plus there is a list of DNA testing companies and products, and a glossary to help readers understand the technical terms involved in this subject. The standard index of topics is also provided at the back of the book. All in all, this book is a highly recommended work for those who are participating in or want to participate in this fascinating avocation.
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VINE VOICEon November 23, 2004
This book explores the convergence of genetic research and genealogy, and provides its own convergence of the academic with the practical.

Some people make a life's work of tracing their family roots. I'm not one of those people. But a few years ago, my sister researched our family's immigration on the paternal side and found the account we'd been told our whole lives simply wasn't true. So when I saw this book, I thought it might be interesting. That's exactly what it turned out to be--in spades.

The authors took care to make the book readable to both novices and experienced genealogical researchers. As I have no experience in genealogy, I very much appreciated Part I. It gave me a good background, so I could understand and enjoy the rest of the book. Folks who already knew the basics could skip over Part I, without missing out on something of value to them.

This modular organization of Trace Your Roots is something I want to explain a bit more, by looking for a moment at a different genre. One of my pet peeves with computer books is most of them are either extremely basic throughout so you get bogged down in boring detail, or they are so advanced you just can't move forward. The correct approach is to include a primer on the basics for those who need it, and then write the book as though everyone knows the basics. I was pleased that Trace Your Roots took this approach.

Moving beyond the primer (which addresses genealogy and then genetics), the book takes one subject at a time and explains it in a clear and interesting way with examples and anecdotes.

In Part II, we start with tracing roots along the paternal path. There are two basic reasons for taking this path. The first is biological--the Y chromosome. The second is cultural--many cultures, especially in the West--preserve the paternal surname.

There are some twists in this approach, though, and the book explains what they are and how researchers handle them.

The next topic is, as you might expect, tracing roots along the maternal path. The main reason for taking this path is biological--the mitochondrial DNA. I was fascinated by the explanation and implications of this. And here's a tidbit. The father's contribution (Y chromosome) contains nothing essential, which makes sense when you realize that female offspring don't have Y chromosomes (and so don't pass along the paternal line).

The mitochondrial DNA, however, is very different in that respect and in other ways as well.

Part II also explains where various genetic groups seem to originate and why. Chapter 5 contains a fascinating account of a man who had made his African American heritage a major part of his life and identity. But through genetic testing, he discovered he had no African American heritage--what he "knew" was based on faulty family lore.

Where Part II delves into tracing next of kin relationships, the implications cover a wide area of interests. This kind of research affects everything from paternity suits to family reunions to identifying natural parents. Consider one anecdote the book revealed. An adopted child of unmarried parents finds her natural father, and they develop a close relationship. But, she struggles for years to find her natural mother. She uses the tracing techniques in Part II and finds her mother. But, the mother denies the man is the woman's father--and genetic testing proves he's not. You'll read other accounts where truth seems stranger than fiction, as well.

Part III puts the paddle in the water. It's here where you see how to apply the knowledge gained in the previous pages. This part explains how to join or run a research project, how to contact research participants, how to persuade people to donate genetic material and information, how to interpret test results, how to share results, and how to obtain the shared results of other research. If you want to research your roots, this part of the book will save you hours of frustration.

The final chapter of the book explains current trends and extrapolates them into some interesting predictions. The appendices are valuable to those engaged in genetic or genealogical research. There, you'll find a comprehensive guide to resources (magazines, books, societies, forms, Websites, software), a directory of DNA testing companies and DNA testing products, and a comprehensive glossary. The book is also well-indexed, making it a good reference tool for your bookshelf.

If you are involved in any research into your lineage, Trace Your Roots with DNA is a "must have" book.
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on August 6, 2005
Genetic genealogy is a blossoming market and the number of books in this space is rapidly growing. Major books include: Seven Daughters of Eve, Adam's Curse, Trace your Roots with DNA, and DNA and Family History.

Professor Bryan Sykes' book The Seven Daughters of Eve was a seminal work. This book focuses on mtDNA (Mitochondrial DNA) that is passed down the maternal line. This book is written in an easy to read style that creates the tone and tenor of a mystery novel. The punch line of this book is that all maternal lines can be traced back to seven theoretic women who lived at different places in the worlds at different times. This book is very light reading and similar to picking up a pop culture magazine. This book is not recommended other than as the most basic introduction to genetic genealogy. It also suffers from it's minimal discussion of paternal DNA testing (Y-chromosome) which is the most popular form of DNA testing today.

Sykes second book "Adam's Curse" discusses the long term de-evolution of the male chromosome. It's a shame that Sykes has stooped to pandering to sensationalistic popular culture instead in more serious genetic research. Sykes made a name for himself in this space, but it seems that this segment of science has passed him by.

Two excellent introductory books were published in 2004 -- "Trace Your Roots with DNA : Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree" by Megan Smolenyak and Ann Turner and "DNA and Family History: How Genetic Testing Can Advance Your Genealogical Research" by Chris Pomery.

In Trace your Roots, Smolenyak, who makes her living as a professional genealogist, branches out into genetics and DNA testing. She hooks up with Ann Turner, the past administrator of a key DNA message list, to create a good introductory book on genetic genealogy. This book covers all the basics for someone who is considering having a DNA test done. I was disappointed that almost half the book (90 out of 235 pages) was dedicated to starting and running a DNA project. I view this material as fluffy filler since most readers aren't likely to need this information.

A similar book is Chris Pomery's "DNA and Family History". This book also covers all the basics in a straightforward and informative way. This book focuses primary on the most popular form of DNA Testing -- testing of the paternal Y-chromosome line. The book includes numerous references to the book's online site ([...] This site is supposed to contain supplementary information but many links don't seem to have been activated.

Pomery does a nice job contrasting genetic families that might be derived from a single ancestor with those that might be derived from multiple ancestors. He also discusses the origins of various classes of surnames which is important in understand this issue. Pomery also uses many examples from surname projects that can be found on the web.

One knock on both books is their minimal discussion of what DNA testing can't do. Neither book elaborates on the limitations of DNA testing for genealogists such as testing inability to definitively identify parents and brother and the small and biased sample sizes that home geneticists are using to make sweeping conclusions. Neither book describes in more than a paragraph or two the lasting thinking about haplogroups -- i.e., the origin of R, E, J, etc. Y-DNA clusters. In addition, neither book will aid the experienced DNA researcher.

My recommendation:

If you looking for one day's worth of beach reading, try Seven Daughters of Eve or Spencer Wells, Journey of Man. Also consider getting these books at the library as these seminal works are quick reads that you don't need cluttering up your shelves.

If you are a serious genealogist or are considering DNA testing or joining the National Geographic Genographics Project, then stick to Smolenyak or Pomery. After reading both, I find them both excellent and roughly equivalent. However, I clearly prefer DNA and Family History by Chris Pomery. The book simply contains more information which is presented in a more straightforward fashion.

Kevin Campbell

Campbell DNA Project Administrator
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on November 9, 2013
Science moves very quickly and this book is ten years old. Consumer-level DNA testing has made huge leaps and if you need to keep up with what is available and what you need to know to be an educated consumer of these products, find one of the excellent blogs online. This not a bad book, it is just out of date.
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This is an interesting book that examines the use of DNA to trace your ancestry. With the cost of such testing going down all the time this becomes a reasonable way to determine if you are related to someone or not. The text covers Y chromosome DNA testing to follow the father's side and mtDNA for information on the maternal side. Of course you really need to understand how all of this applies to ancestry and the authors provide an excellent discussion of the various types of DNA tests, what they show, and even places where they can be ordered. This includes a lengthy exposition of ancestry informative markers and their use. Ancestry informative markers allow the tester to determine the percentage of their ancestry that came from a specific area. So, the results of the test might indicate you are 70% Indo-European, 15% Sub-Saharan African, 10% East Asian and 5% Native American. This does not tell you anything about specific ancestors but it does give you an idea of the makeup of your family history. Since you are not going to be able to dig up ancient ancestors and test their DNA to see if you are related, the predominant use of the system at this point seems to be to determine if you are related to someone else who has the same surname (although you may never figure out exactly how) or to determine your ancestry mix with the information markers. This book completely demystifies the use of DNA as a genealogical tool. The appendixes include a glossary, where you can get specific tests performed, places where you can add your results to surname projects, sources for genealogical information, etc. Trace Your Roots with DNA is highly recommended for anyone interested in their ancestry or genealogical research in general.
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Even a decade ago, "genetic genealogy" barely existed as an almost science-fictional idea. Now, it's one of the most debated topics in our field and thousands of family researchers are involved in projects to identify ancestors through DNA analysis. (I'm in two projects now, myself.) It's a rather complicated subject, though, and for those (like me) who barely scraped through high school biology, the more books for beginners, the better. Smolenyak is a well-known genealogist and lead researcher for the PBS Ancestors series and Turner has become one of the principal popularizers of genetic genealogy on the Internet. The important point is that both have been pursuing family research since the days of manual typewriters and paper library catalogs, and that's the perspective from which they approach the discussion. They explain very clearly why DNA analysis can tell you only who your ancestors *aren't*, not necessarily who they *are*, and the strategic differences between researching your father's and your mother's lineage. They lay out the options and limitations among uncovering ethnic origins (what about that Indian great-grandmother?), global origins (Eastern European? or Scandinavian?), "deep maternal" ancestry (the "daughters of Eve" thing), and even African tribal origins. How do you set up a family or surname research project, attract participants, ensure their trust, and analyze and publish the results? And what do all those numbers in the lab report mean? This is very much a practical book and I strongly recommend it, perhaps in conjunction with Thomas H. Shawker's _Unlocking Your Genetic Heritage_ (2004).
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on October 24, 2010
I had heard of this book a few years before I decided to buy it, but when I discovered it was published in 2004, I mistakenly assumed some of the information would be outdated. Even now, near the end of 2010, it is not dated. The author does her best to make it understandable for the reader. That's not to say it is written for a total novice, but it doesn't require a Ph.D.either. It is loaded with ways DNA testing can be utilized in a family history.
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on September 3, 2007
As a DNA-surname research group administrator, I tend to buy every book, VHS, or DVD I can find regarding the use of DNA research in support of traditional genealogy.

Of the 12-15 books I have purchased so far, Megan Smolenyak's touchstone reference work continues to be the one I reach for when I have a question myself.

Easily read and understood, this book makes complex concepts readily accessible with clear illustrations, definitions, real-world examples, and authoritative references when needed. I am not naturally science-minded, but as a good researcher, I want to be able to use every tool in the box. This is my go-to book for that purpose.

Buy as many DNA books and tapes as you want, but your DNA library will not be complete without this classic introduction to the concepts involved in genetic genealogy.

I highly recommend it!

CHT in Virginia
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I picked up this book after taking a DNA test at FTDNA for genealogy purposes. I read that site's FAQs and a couple guides, and had a basic understanding of DNA testing, but was still fairly confused and did not quite know how to interpret my results, so I turned to this book for more information. "Trace Your Roots" was published in 2004, meaning it was probably written in 2003. A LOT has changed in DNA research for genealogy in the last eight years. Given that very few people were doing testing back then, I expected this to be very outdated and not of much use. I was pleasantly surprised, to find that although this book does reference some outdated testing methods and information, the overwhelming majority of it is still applicable to current testing methods. Even though there was a lot of the science discussed in it, I found the explanation of DNA testing, especially with regard to YDNA and mtDNA testing easy to understand and very useful. Despite many attempts before, I was finally able to figure out the difference between the terms "haplogroup" and "haplotype." The book shed some light on why my YDNA results return so many matches with a different surname (most likely due to a non-paternal event such as an adoption somewhere in my line), and explained how mtDNA is tested and what it is compared with. In addition, there is a lot of information in it that many of the current sites don't mention right away, such as how you can't test human hair for YDNA because it only contains mitochondrial DNA, etc. There is a glossary of common DNA terms which I ended up photocopying for future reference.

Overall, while there are some references that clearly show their age, and many of the links in the site no longer work, due to consolidation with larger sites, this is still a very useful book for those beginners who want to understand DNA testing and what they can expect. I think it would definitely benefit from a second edition to update the links and expand on new advances in the field, but even without it, it should still be relevant for at least another four years.
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on November 22, 2011
First, the good - there's a lot of information here. If you read, and re-read, as I have done, it will sink in, and, if you heed it, the clear admonition that you should have a purpose or working hypothesis to guide your testing will be something that helps you understand the topics better.

Negative for me - if you are looking for a book that will tell you which of the dozens of DNA tests being offered, today, for genealogical research, this is not going to give you a quick answer. Some of that problem is more a criticism of the industry, which creates new tests and names for tests, more for marketing than real, added value, and some is the consequence of the book not being current with what is available. (Difficult to keep up, admittedly, but this is a Kindle book, after all.)

Finally, some of the diagrams and tables that are reproduced in the book are simply illegible in the Kindle. They do *not* zoom at all, or even the one or two that do, are still very small. Since these are referred to in the text, I would not recommend the Kindle edition book unless you plan to also read it on a larger format device that would render these figures in a form that could be read.
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