By: David Vance

Shifting your mindset from traditional genealogy to genetic genealogy can be difficult, but not impossible. Read through David Vance’s metaphor of portraits vs. stained-glass windows to understand exactly how DNA can help you break through your genealogical blocks.

What tips do you use to help the traditional genealogists in your project make the shift to genetic genealogy?

I’m not talking about helping them understand the mechanics—the different types of DNA testing, how to read their results, how to collaborate with matches, and so on. But exploring our ancestry with DNA also requires that our members think differently about their genealogy research.

A Mindset Shift on Genealogy

DNA can answer many questions, but not always the ones we set out to answer. DNA can reveal tiny new pieces of information about our ancestry, like ancestral population percentages, or whole new surprises, forcing us to make choices about what we consider “family.” DNA often requires that genealogists spend more time building family trees and connecting them to other living people than just focusing on their own family trees.

DNA can also find connections and shared origins between testers that reach back to generations where we’ll never put names to those ancestors (and is that even genealogy?). Making the shift to genetic genealogy can require a real shift in mindset. Sometimes it even challenges our members to question their definition of genealogy itself.

Do you have to get them to think differently? Of course not; whether and how you do it is up to you. But sometimes your members may be frustrated because this new science changes how they’ve always looked at genealogy. A fresh way of looking at their hobby may be just what they need.

One idea is to challenge the very language they use when they talk about genealogy. How we think shapes our language, but in return, our language also influences how we think (this is called linguistic relativity). Changing how we describe our genealogy research may well help us think differently about it.

I use this example sometimes to help people see how differently they might look at their genealogy (and for this article, I’ve used an AI tool called to help visualize the concepts).

Change the Metaphor, Change the Perception

An image of a Brick Wall
Figure 1. The Brick Wall

Take the best-known metaphor in traditional genealogy, the “brick wall.” It represents the barrier we all run into in each of our ancestral lines when we can’t identify the father and mother of a known ancestor. Maybe that ancestor left his home country and started fresh somewhere new, or a building burned down and records were lost. For whatever reasons, nothing has yet surfaced that identifies the previous generation.

We all celebrate when new information comes to light and we get to break through that brick wall and identify those parents. (Though the brick wall usually moves back in time another generation or two.)

If we look at our traditional genealogy knowledge, we often (but not always!) have some number of generations where we reliably know who our ancestors were. Then there may be some generations of possible ancestors for whom we have an idea of their ancestry. But this is usually only from partial or secondary information. Then, at some point on every ancestral line, we hit that brick wall.

A Fan Chart with varying degrees of known, possible, and unknown ancestry.
Figure 2. The Brick Walls of our Traditional Genealogy

Brick is hard. It completely blocks our path. We can’t see through it, and it’s very resistant to attempts to break it down.

Building on that metaphor, in my days of traditional genealogy research, I could say I was building an imaginary brick mansion room by room. Each room had portraits of my ancestors on the walls, representing the knowledge I collected about them. Every once in a while, I would stumble across a new piece of information that added details to a few portraits, or in rare cases, I got to break down one of the walls of the mansion and add on a new room and hang a few new portraits in there.

Four AI Generated images of portraits adorning brick walls
Figure 3. Some fo the walls of my "brick mansion"

Now we have genetic genealogy, and we get to integrate autosomal DNA, Y-DNA, and mtDNA information into our virtual mansions. This changes what we know about our ancestry.

A fan chart expanded to include autosomal DNA, Y-DNA, and mtDNA.
Figure 4. Our Ancestry Information with DNA

We still have our known ancestry, however far back, plus some generations of possible ancestors as well. Our known ancestry hopefully gets pushed back a bit. Our possible ancestry may get pushed back further, even into generations where we know we connect to certain matches. However, we may never know the names of the common ancestors who gave us the DNA we share with those matches.

Y-DNA and mtDNA, of course, give us patrilineal and matrilineal haplotree branching going back thousands of years into prehistory, giving our ancestral tree a “two-horned” look. Autosomal DNA can also tell us the heritage of our inherited ancestral populations.

So… Now where are the brick walls?

If you want, you could say the brick walls are where they always were. If you can’t name the next generation back then that’s your brick wall on that line. But the truth is, you may know a lot about the earlier generations on that line—perhaps:

  • The country of origins
  • DNA segments you share with others
  • Common haplogroups
  • Other immigrants of the same surname who connect to a common family
  • Something about their prehistoric origins
  • Other clues found from testing and research

The hard, impenetrable brick wall is not really as hard and impenetrable as it was.

A New Metaphor for Genetic Genealogy

Now I no longer think of portraits in a brick mansion. In the rooms where portraits of my known ancestors used to hang on walls, I have them in stained glass windows instead. The first key difference is that what I’ve learned about those ancestors is illuminated beyond the glass—by their past ethnicities, shared connections with others, even knowledge of their own prehistoric ancestors, and other bits of collected information. Though those may be dim and uncertain, they still give me information about those ancestors’ past heritage and, by extension, my own.

The second key difference is that they will break more easily because I have more information and more sources of future information. DNA connections may help me make more sense of traditional genealogy information. Upgrades and new matches may give me new information. Even the information from someone else’s test may help shatter a portion of one of my stained-glass windows and let me replace it with a new one that includes portraits and more detail.

Four AI generated stained glass windows of people.
Figure 5. My new windows for my known ancestry

I have more rooms in my mansion too. Some are filled with windows representing ancestors that I can’t put a name to, but I know they are connections I share with other family lines. I may know the range of generations in which they lived or the region or country in which they lived. I may even know their surname. But I may never know who they were as individuals. I will represent those unnamed ancestors that I only know from DNA research with geometric patterns that incorporate the double helix, which represents DNA.

Four AI generated windows with double helix strands to represent DNA and unknown ancestry.
Figure 6. My new windows for unnamed ancestors

In other parts of my mansion, I have windows that I’ve built using both traditional genealogy and DNA. These are the windows where DNA has helped me connect to other named ancestors to extend either my known or my possible ancestries. In those cases, I’ll put up their portraits in stained glass and also incorporate the double helix patterns to represent both sets of knowledge.

Four AI generated images of stained glass DNA and portraits to represent genetic genealogy.
Figure 7. My new windows where I've connected known ancestors with DNA

New Eyes, New View

How does this help me? It’s really only a mindset shift, but now I have a perception of my ancestry that includes all the information I get from both traditional genealogy and DNA. I have a larger and more varied mansion, which represents more of my heritage than when I was limited by my old brick walls. I’m looking at my ancestry with new eyes and thinking differently about what my mansion means to me and how to grow it.

And perhaps best of all, I’m no longer trying to smash down the same hard brick walls or limiting myself only to the information that helps me do that. I might be looking at what information could help provide more light for one window or how I might add a portrait or two in a DNA pattern window that I already have.

I can also expand my mansion just with DNA pattern windows if I want to. Other people are also helping me now. This could be because new matches will come along. Just from their information, I might get to smash an old window and add on a new room with more DNA windows—or maybe even windows with portraits.

Not everyone will want to make this particular leap, nor should they have to. But I do think it’s important that we keep an eye out for those who are struggling to bridge traditional genealogy over to genetic genealogy. If they’re still beating their heads against their old brick walls, maybe instead you can help them kick glass.

Dave Vance has been a computer services executive for more years than he can remember, and it was through IBM’s partnership with the National Genographic Project in 2005 that he submitted his first test kit and became interested in the growing field of genetic genealogy. Since then he has tested with multiple companies and become an experienced project administrator and co-administrator. He has also been an avid genealogist for over 30 years since his father passed on the hobby. He is the DNA Advisor for the Vance Family Association (a surname-focused genealogy association) and is currently also serving a term as the association's president. In 2016 Dave wrote the SAPP tool for Y-DNA group analysis and in 2020 he published

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