Of Mirroring And Shared Ancestors: Exploiting AncestryDNA To Find Biological Families


What we aim to accomplish in this post:

  1. Provide definitions and an overview of methods for finding biological families of those who don’t know one or both biological parents, using tools at AncestryDNA.
  2. Discuss possible future methods that may be helpful in reaching the same goals.


Finding a bio-ancestor is like finding the horizon on a foggy day - keeping looking and you might find it.

Looking for a bio-parent may feel like looking for the horizon on a foggy day – but keeping looking and you might find what you seek.

Edit 10 May 2016: The May 2016 change in the matching algorithm at AncestryDNA makes some of the details in the PDF out of date, but the basic ideas still apply.

One of the more common uses of autosomal DNA matching products such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and FTDNA Family Finder, is for people searching for their biological families, including:

  1. Adoptees searching for their biological ancestors;
  2. Those who discover that one of their presumed biological parents turns out not to be so – often a shocking surprise, but sometimes also a deeply and long held suspicion that turns out to be true;
  3. Those who never knew one or both parents (usually but not always a missing father.)


The processes described here are not new nor invented by me.  An entire community of people dedicated to genetic genealogy and helping others (such as adoptees) have arisen and the methods being used are continually improving, especially as creative software developers bring forward new tools to make use of autosomal DNA matches.

However, on forums and Facebook groups it seems that the same questions get asked continually about finding family using DNA, sometimes posters presenting the same question within minutes of each other. Thus we believe that there is still a need for more educational material on this topic.

In the presentation below, as a PDF file, is an overview of how to exploit one’s DNA test at AncestryDNA, including:

  1. mirror pedigrees;
  2. shared matches;
  3. ancestor harvesting.

This presentation is not an exhaustive exploration of these topics, but hopefully will be helpful to many seeking bio-families.

Data Mining Through Mirroring

Download (PDF, 3.35MB)



I believe there are two possible tool types that AncestryDNA could give us that would help in research, both for more traditional genealogy goals (i.e., finding ancestors beyond those we knew personally) as well as for those searching for birth families:

Surname analysis

See my post “Surnames, 23andMe, and AncestryDNA: Making the Most of Match Counts and “Enrichment”

Geographic analysis

Our ancestors lived in locales at specific times and much family history work depends upon locating our ancestors within their landscape.  Not enough of this is done by novices to family history but often analyzing locations are key to unraveling complex families.  Anyone who has spent some time reviewing family trees knows that the location fields for deaths and births and many of the events in-between are often left off, or given inaccurately.

AncestryDNA does provide a map tool for every DNA match, to see where the match’s ancestors were born, according to the tree to which the DNA kit is attached. This is very useful for my matches where surnames are of little to no use (such as my Norwegian ancestors).  AncestryDNA also provides a filter for searching matches by location.  Both are limited by the difficulties in conforming geographic names to standards, as well as the sad fact that even those of our matches who have family trees often do not have birth locations for their ancestors.

Still, it ought to be possible for an automated process to sort the ancestors of our matches into location groups.  In this regard even the rudimentary Map View in the DNA Relatives tool at 23andMe offers a capability not at AncestryDNA.  For example, there are  3,144 counties (or county equivalents) in the US – why can’t we have a heat map at the county level, for the birth and death counties of the ancestors of our matches?  There are analogous (to the US county system) geographical divisions in many nations that could also be heat-mapped.

In the bigger picture we are discussing what might be called “data mining”. We want to use automated systems to find patterns in large data sets. Here we have two large data sets: DNA matches, and Family Trees.

The collected family histories available both in traditional publications (books, journals, monographs) and electronically represent our families and their culture through the collective historiography work of many thousands of people, some professional genealogists, many of them not.

Connecting this family history to that of our physical inheritance – as presented through our genotypes, created by these direct to consumer DNA testing companies – is the goal of everyone in genetic genealogy.  Of the companies involved, so far AncestryDNA has proven for me and many others to be the most able to reach this goal (though as a product it is still wanting for some basic tools, such as a chromosome browser for those wishing to do segment mapping.)   I’m hoping someday they will add tools in the categories I list above.

Reasons Why I’m Not Picking MyHeritage Even Though 23andMe Tried

Over the past year I’ve played with a few items on MyHeritage, always looking for online resources besides ancestry.com by which I can make progress on my difficult branches of my family tree.

As a customer of 23andMe, as part of a new promotion they are doing with MyHeritage I get a “free” account at MyHeritage to post a family tree, that can be linked with my 23andMe profile for my matches to view.

However, as I wrote on a 23andMe Communities thread earlier, in response to the roll out on 15 Jan of the integrated MyHeritage family tree capability for 23andMe customers:

 I find MyHeritage way too frustrating to use.   I did the transfer thing, but when I wanted to delete someone it wouldn’t let me do it.   And there are no instructions for disconnecting people.   When I wanted to delete the person I had intended, the warning box said I had to delete his relatives first, which I didn’t want to do.

And for us Mac users, MyHeritage’s downloadable tree management software is like a trip back to the bad old days of Windows, complete with “C:” in filenames?!

So I deleted the whole tree.   I will just change my public profile here to state that if anybody is interested they can visit my trees at ancestry.com .


My frustration at times with exploring MyHeritage stem from more than just a few issues, but I thought it worth noting a handful here:

  1. Awkward Tree Management;
  2. Lack of novel records for my ancestors;
  3. Overpriced for what I get;
  4. Mac-unfriendly computer tool Family Tree Builder and poor web tree controls;

Let’s take these one by one:

1.   I find tree management at MyHeritage to be quite awkward.   As I complained on a 23andMe community post, MyHeritage’s online software will not allow me to delete someone, without deleting others who I do not want to delete.   This is just unacceptable.   I have not been able to discover how to selectively edit relationships of individuals, thought that capability might be lurking somewhere under the obscuring user interface.    I couldn’t even find a way to add a mother for someone, as the pop-up (transparent) window wouldn’t give me that option for some people, without telling me why.

Add to that no pedigree view and too-sparsely spaced nodes in the family view and one ends up with a most uncomfortable viewing and climbing experience to get around the tree.

2.  As a test for Record Matching and “Smart Matching” I uploaded a 289 person tree of a relative of mine, and let the computers do their thing over night.   When I finally got the Record Matches and Smart Matches, what was found by the algorithms were few and not very enlightening.   There was nothing that I had not already found elsewhere.   And the few matching trees that were found were of no real use and had less information that I had.    A review of the MyHeritage records database – something not quickly obvious – revealed a very limited set of records for my (American colonial) use.

3.  Here’s the deal on pricing at MyHeritage – no one with a decent size tree can get away from paying extra.    23andMe is advertising that its customers get a free tree, but it is really not different than the usual 250 node-limited trees that MyHeritage lets anyone creates.   However, one cannot practically include descendants with that limited of a tree, even though a well documented family trees should include the nuclear family, at a minimum, of your direct line ancestors.   A serious researcher will need the “PremiumPlus” package, and the regular price for that is $13.27/month, or $9.95/mo if bought in annual increments.   While not exhorbitantly priced, that is not significantly different than my AARP-discount price at ancestry.com, which has much more of what I need to research my American family tree.

4.   Not only is MyHeritage’s  “Family Tree Builder” a knock-off name of ancestry.com’s Family Tree Maker, but for a Mac user like myself the program Family Tree Builder (FTB) is painful to use.    It is  simply the Windows version ported with some underlying bridging software, so the program is very much not following the user paradigm of OSX that all Mac programs ought to use.   For example, the menu bar is floating with the window, and not anchored at the top of the screen.  File names and file operations are highly reminiscent of DOS  ( “C:\” does not belong on a Mac!)   Here, for example, is what the file browser looks like when one chooses to open a file using the file menu of the native program:


Native file browser in FTB


… which is decidedly not what one wants to see in OSX.   Even more on point than the poor aesthetics is the loss of functionality that native Mac programs provide, even in file browsers.

But wait, there’s more.

You see, there is a second menu bar after all, the standard Mac menu bar, but it only has very limited functionality, such as opening and closing a FTB tree.   But let’s look at what that file browser looks like:



Second file browser in FTB


Read carefully the text at the top of the file browser.

FTB as a family tree database management tool is woefully lacking in capability, and that is why clearly it is “free”.   It is intended for a hook to get people to use MyHeritage, but the inability to view and manipulate trees, etc., means that it cannot replace a full featured software like FTM.


The Bottom Line:

Though 23andMe has sold their connection with MyHeritage as a new capability, it is really nothing than a mutual marketing gimmick.   MyHeritage now adds an advertisement (featured above the FTDNA tests) for 23andMe on their DNA page.   Meanwhile, over at 23andMe, their roughly 750 thousand customers will be directed to MyHeritage to buy online family tree services.   There is no indication that there will be integrated tree-matching with the DNA matching (such as at AncestryDNA), which will require integrating the 23andMe DNA Relatives (or the Countries of Ancestry .csv file) with a MyHeritage tree.  So, a 23andMe user will have to hope that their DNA Relative (1) has a public profile, and (2) has put a tree on MyHeritage, and (3) made that link visible and then the user can manually click on that link to be sent to the MyHeritage site.

So for all the above reasons and more, I say to MyHeritage and 23andMe … No Thanks.