Now it's relatively easy to determine if you share important DNA markers with others from hundreds of years ago, revealing useful information about your genetic origins.
Genealogists have determined that all of us share an ancestor who lived in what we know as Africa several thousand years ago. Over many generations that individual's descendents migrated throughout Europe, Asia and the rest of the world, while at the same time small mutations, or changes, took place in their DNA. Research has linked certain mutations - for example, to bone structure or skin pigmentation changes - with specific periods of time and locations, enabling genealogists to develop a timeline and geographical location of human development. Even though our own DNA is unique, it carries a great deal of information about our biological past.
There are several DNA tests that can give you information about your ancestry:
Through biogeographical testing, your ancestry can be determined to be relatively pure or an admixture, which indicates a mingling of two or more separate populations. By comparing 175 of your ancestry-informative DNA markers, or AIMs, with already-established markers from generations over the past 400 to 500 years of Europeans, Asians, Africans and Native Americans, you can learn approximate percentages of your genealogical makeup.
Although biogeographical ancestry testing is unable to tell you specifically who your closest relatives are, it can tell you the geographical region and specific populations from which you are descended. For example, you can learn if your ancestors were Native Americans, Indo-Europeans, sub-Saharan Africans or East Asians.
Specific information can be gathered through the Y-chromosome test, which uses the chromosome unique to males and provided only by their fathers to discover their lineage, or haplotype. This kind of testing is frequently used to determine links between males with the same surname.
Similarly, mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, is passed to her male and female children only by a female. MtDNA testing can determine links to about 30 maternal haplogroups.
You can also be tested to see if your DNA matches markers found in these groups, and by what percentage: Northern European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and south Asian.
A search of online genetic testing services will give you a range of services, tests and fees. Ancestry testing fees range from a few hundred dollars up to $1,000, depending on the specific tests required and the particular lab's service charges. Some online services will direct you to a nearby health facility's lab for the actual testing, while others will send you a kit to be used at home.
When you're shopping for an online lab, look for a member of the American Association of Blood Banks, which sets quality standards for its members, assuring you of reliable results.