By: Katy Rowe-Schurwanz

Learn how Y-DNA haplogroups can be used to trace your paternal lineage, revealing your migration paths and ancestral origins.

Editor’s Note: This is part three of a five-part series about what Y-DNA is, what Y-DNA can tell you, and how to apply Y-DNA results to your genealogy. Continue reading the series here:

Understanding Y-DNA haplogroups

Eventually, if you trace everyone’s fathers back as far as you can go, there is one man who is the most recent common ancestor of all patrilineal lineages. This man has been dubbed “Y Adam.”

Y Adam lived in Africa over 200,000 years ago. He was not necessarily the only man alive at the time, or the only one who had descendants, but is the only one with tested patrilineal descendants still alive today.

This does not necessarily mean that there are no other potential Y-DNA lineages, just that if there are, they have not yet been discovered. The same holds true for the age of Y Adam. Through additional research and testing of modern and ancient DNA, different and/or older lineages may be discovered in the future.

Y Adam was the founder of Y-DNA haplogroup A, the haplogroup from which all other branches on the Y-DNA Tree of Humankind descend today.

A haplogroup can be considered like an ancestor on your family tree. Each haplogroup forms a branch on that family tree. Depending on the age of the haplogroup (when it formed), you may have the name of that ancestor, or the ancestor may have lived so long ago that their name has been lost to time.

Each haplogroup formed at a specific time and in a specific location. Testing of modern peoples and ancient DNA informs us of those locations and phylogenetic experts are able to build not just a tree of humankind, but also migration paths that those haplogroups took across and out of Africa and to the other continents. Those migration paths have been mapped, and you receive a copy of that map with your Y-DNA results.

Haplogroups can give you valuable insights into your migration history, and a haplogroup from the Big Y-700 test can determine when you share a common ancestor with your paternal line matches.

Each haplogroup is associated with a mutation that occurred at a specific place and time in history. Discovering your branch on the Y-DNA Tree of Humankind allows you to unlock information about your paternal line that you can’t discover any other way.

You aren’t typically going to find historical or genealogical records about where your paternal ancestors were a thousand or more years ago and where they came from before then, but through testing of modern peoples and through ancient DNA testing, we’re able to piece together when and where mutations occurred and deliver that information to you.

Because we can determine the age of a specific haplogroup, comparing your haplogroup to that of your Big Y matches can determine when you share a common ancestor with each match. We can determine if your shared ancestor lived during genealogical times, if they’re from a time before surnames were standardized, or if they lived a thousand or more years ago. Knowing when you share a common ancestor with a match can help you discover who that shared ancestor was.

Full vs. partial Y-DNA haplogroup

Depending on what type of test you have taken, you may have a partial haplogroup or a full haplogroup.

FamilyTreeDNA’s Y-STR tests like the Y-37 and Y-111 only look at STRs. While FamilyTreeDNA is able to predict your haplogroup from one of these STR tests, this prediction places you at the top of one of the major branches, providing you with a partial haplogroup that is likely from the Stone Ages.

Some autosomal DNA tests are able to provide you with a partial Y-DNA haplogroup. This is provided with autosomal results from FamilyTreeDNA’s Family Finder, 23andMe, Living DNA, and was provided with the Genographic Project 2.0 and 2.0 Next Generation tests.

These autosomal tests are performed on customized microarray chips. The goal of these tests is to provide autosomal results (like close matches on all any ancestral lines and ancestral population percentages), so the majority of the SNPs on these chips are from chromosomes 1-22 and the X chromosome. However, some companies have also added enough SNPs from the Y chromosome and the mtDNA to be able to provide a partial haplogroup.

The haplogroup you receive from an autosomal test is likely from sometime in the Metal Ages. So it’s more specific and recent than a predicted haplogroup from your STR test, but still not a full haplogroup.

FamilyTreeDNA also offers select individual SNPs and SNP packs comprised on about 100 or so SNPs for testing. These tests look at one or more specific SNP that has been placed on the haplotree and will tell you whether you are positive or negative for that SNP (or if a clear result was unable to be obtained, you’ll receive a “no call” result). These may be SNPs anywhere from the top of a major branch to the bottom of a branch. However, even if one of these SNPs is at or near the bottom of a branch, it is still a partial haplogroup.

The Big Y-700 is the only Y-DNA test that can provide you with a full haplogroup. The Big Y not only tests for known SNPs that have been placed on the haplotree but also discovers new SNPs that are unique to your direct paternal line—these new SNPs are referred to as Private Variants. Typically, a haplogroup from the Big Y-700 will have formed sometime during the Middle Ages or in Modern Times.

By comparing your Big Y SNP results to other testers’ results, the Y-DNA haplotree grows, and your placement on the haplotree can be updated.

A partial haplogroup can give you the beginning of your father’s story, the part from Y Adam to your patrilineal ancestors in the Stone Age or Metal Age. A full haplogroup will give you your father’s full story, from Y Adam to you.

Think of your haplogroup like directions to your ancestral homeland. A predicted haplogroup from a Y-STR test will tell you what continent the location you’re headed to is on. A partial haplogroup from the Family Finder, Geno 2.0, or a SNP pack will get you a little further on your journey, likely to a region on that continent. The rest of the directions are in the Big Y-700 results. The more specific placement on the haplotree from the Big Y can tell you what county, region of a country, and potentially even a village where your ancestors lived, depending on how well-tested your branch is.

Y-DNA Tree of Humankind

All haplogroups have been added to the Y-DNA Haplotree, or Y-DNA Tree of Humankind, a giant family tree of all patrilineal lineages going back to Y Adam.

More Big Y testers adds more data to the Haplotree and allow for more branching and younger branching. Before the Big Y-700, many Y-DNA haplogroups were estimated to be several thousand years old. With tens of thousands of new Big Y testers, we’ve added tens of thousands of new branches and haplogroups to the Y-DNA Tree of Humankind and today half of all testers have a Y-DNA haplogroup within a genealogical timeframe—making it easier to discover the common ancestor with your matches.

Learn more about how the Y-DNA Tree of Humankind is built.

Y-DNA Haplotree & SNPs

Think of the haplotree as a family tree for the Y chromosome. Each SNP, or variant, is a mutation or new branch on the tree. This page will always default to the large branch that is your haplogroup.

If you have done SNP testing, it will show your positive and negative SNPs, and also those that are presumed positive or presumed negative based on those. If you have taken a Big Y, SNPs you have negative results for that are downstream of your branch will not be indicated here, but those results can be viewed in the Big Y Results section.

The default view of the haplotree is the Variant view. This view will show you not just the structure of the haplotree on your placement on it, but also the equivalent SNPs, or variants, for each branch.

variants screenshot

The Haplotree & SNPs page will default to show your placement on the haplotree. You may only have one SNP defining your branch, or multiple SNPs, referred to as equivalents.

Equivalent SNPs are variants that occupy the same branch as one another. This occurs when multiple SNPs are tested positive and negative for the same upstream and downstream SNPs and have all yielded the same positive and negative results from testers as the main SNP on the branch, making it impossible for our phylogenetic expert to confidently determine which of these variants are upstream or downstream of the others.

equivalent snps screenshot

Child branches will be placed below their parent branches and sibling branches will be represented in line with each other and downstream of their parent branch, the same way you would place relatives on a family tree.

sibling branches screenshot

Sibling branches occur when two or more unique mutations split descend from a parent SNP or branch. They may have their own unique descendants as well. An example of siblings here is the blocks for R-P312, R-U106, R-S1194, and R-A8053. These are unique mutations that have descended from, or are downstream of, their parent branch R-L151.

Downstream and upstream refer to the placement of SNPs and branches that descend from each other.

upstream and downstream branches screenshot

Let’s look at the branch with the middle arrow here—R-L389. You can trace the line descending from the bottom left corner of R-L389. Notice that the line not only continues to descend but also splits to the right into R-P297. This indicates that R-P297 is a child branch of R-L389, and therefore, that R-P297 descends from R-L389, so R-L389 would be considered upstream of R-P297.

This same type of connection is not shown between R-M420, the top arrow, and no line descends from the bottom of that node to R-P297. Although R-M420 is visibly higher in the tree than R-P297, it is not directly related to R-P297, and therefore would not be considered as an ancestor of, or upstream of, R-P297.

Using the same section of the haplotree, R-P297, the bottom arrow, is considered downstream of R-L389 (though not downstream of R-M420).

Also, any descendants of R-P297 would be considered downstream of R-L389 as they are all connected to R-L389 through R-P297.

In the Variant view, the left side of the screen will show the haplotree and the right side will show the variants, or equivalents, at each branch. Some branches will have more equivalents than what is shown, and you can click the number in the variant box to view the full list. You can click the three dots to view the country or surname reports for each branch.

You can search the haplotree for specific branches and variants in your haplogroup in the top right corner.

In the top left corner, you can switch the Variants view to Surnames, Countries, or Recommended Projects. Each view will change the portion of the screen on the right.

views screenshot

The Surname view will show all surnames where two or more kits with public project profile sharing and the same surname spelling have a confirmed haplogroup at that branch. All surnames are self-reported by the participants and may not reflect accurate haplogroup ancestry.

If there are more surnames than what is listed in the surnames box, then you can click the number in the box to view all. You can click the three dots in each box to view the country report and the surname report.

The Countries view will show all self-reported countries of the earliest known direct paternal line ancestor of those with a confirmed haplogroup at each branch.

If there are more countries than what is listed in each box, then you can click the number next to each box to view the full list. You can click the three dots to view the Surname report and the Country report.

The Recommended Projects view will show suggested group projects for a particular branch. Each project has different goals and interests.

If there are more projects than what is listed in each box, then you can click the number next to each box to view the full list. You can click the three dots to view the Surname report and the Country report.

country report screenshot

The Country report provides you with:

  • Paternal Origin: The self-reported country of the earliest known direct paternal line ancestor of Y-SNP testers. All Paternal Origins are self-reported by the participants and may not reflect accurate haplogroup origins.
  • Branch Participants: The number of Y-SNP testers placed on this branch that specified this paternal origin. Further SNP testing could give more specific placements.
  • Downstream Participants: Number of Y-SNP testers placed at or below this branch that specified this paternal origin. Downstream testers descend from a common paternal ancestor.
  • All Downstream Participants: The number of Y-SNP testers placed at or below this branch that specified this paternal origin. All testers descend from a common paternal ancestor.
  • Distribution: Percentage of descendants of this haplogroup that reported this paternal origin. This can provide a hint as to where the common ancestor lived. Please note: Unknown origins are not included in the calculated distributions.
surname report screenshot

The Surname report provides you with:

  • Surnames: A shared surname with identical spelling with at least two SNP testers placed at this branch. Requires opting in to Group Project Profile sharing. Please note: All surnames are self-reported by the participants and may not reflect accurate haplogroup ancestry.
  • Participants: The number of Y-SNP testers with this surname placed on this branch. Requires at least two participants opted in to Group Project Profile sharing.
  • Distribution: Percentage of surname participants placed on this branch compared to other shared surnames on this branch.

If you’ve done SNP testing, you can view and download the raw data by clicking on SNP Results in the top left corner.

You can download the list as a CSV file, search the list for a specific result, or scroll through the list.

The results table will show the following information:

  • SNP Name: SNPs are specific mutations that happened in one or more paternal lineages. SNPs are assigned names as they are discovered and placed on the haplotree.
  • Test Results: Positive (+) means that you have the SNP, Negative (-) means that you do not have the SNP, and ? is a no-call, or inconclusive, result.
  • Test Type: The Y-SNP testing product that produced the SNP test result. If multiple products have tested the same SNP, typically only one is shown here.

Haplogroup origins

Similar to the Ancestral Origins report, the Haplogroup Origins report provides an aggregated list of the self-reported countries of origin for your matches’ paternal earliest known ancestors, compared to the self-reported database totals, broken down by test level, genetic distance, and haplogroup.

If you match any academic or ancient samples that have been added to the FamilyTreeDNA database, these will be included here as well, unlike on the Ancestral Origins page.

This list is sorted by current haplogroup assignment and can provide hints to later migrations of your haplogroup, past what is displayed on the migration map.

haplogroup origins screenshot

The column headers provide the following information:

  • Haplogroup: This is your match’s haplogroup predicted by their STR testing or confirmed by their Family Finder, Geno 2.0 or Geno 2 Next Generation testing, individual SNP or SNP Pack testing, or their Big Y.
  • Country: The self-reported country of origin for a match’s paternal earliest known ancestor
  • Comment: Additional information about a match’s paternal earliest known ancestor location, such as an ethnic group within a country or a more specific region.
  • Match Total: The number of matches who reported their paternal Earliest Known Ancestor is from this country

There are three things you’ll want to keep in mind when viewing this report:

  1. This information is all self-reported. Your match may have based their answer on a family legend and not proven fact. For example, you may see matches that have said their earliest known direct paternal ancestor is Native American, but your haplogroup is not one that migrated into the Americas in pre-Columbian times.
  2. The age of the haplogroup may not match up to when your match’s earliest known direct paternal ancestor lived. For example, if the haplogroup was formed 4,000 years before the present but your match’s earliest known direct paternal ancestor was born in 1750 C.E., it’s possible that the haplogroup formed in a different location from where the earliest known direct paternal ancestor was born.
  3. Your most recent common ancestor with a match on a specific branch of the Y-DNA Tree of Humankind may be before or after their self-reported earliest known direct paternal ancestor lived. This report does not mean your ancestors are from a specific location, but instead provides hints to where they might be from, based on your connection to your matches.

How to interpret and compare results from different Y-DNA tests


You will likely have matches that have a different haplogroup than you do. That haplogroup may be directly upstream or directly downstream of your haplogroup, or it may be on a branch that split off into a sibling branch of a haplogroup directly upstream from you.

If both you and the match with a different haplogroup have tested at the Big Y level, these differences can help you determine when your most recent common ancestor lived.

The Compare Haplogroups tool in Discover can help you determine how you and another tester’s haplogroups related to each other.

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Headshot of Katy Rowe-Schurwanz - Product Manager at FamilyTreeDNA

About the Author

Katy Rowe-Schurwanz

Product Manager at FamilyTreeDNA

Katy Rowe-Schurwanz has always been interested in genealogy, inspired by her maternal grandparents, who told her stories about their family and family history when she was little. After studying anthropology and history in college, she joined FamilyTreeDNA in 2015 and became the trainer for Customer Support. Katy created and improved training processes and was fundamental in the creation of the Big Y Specialist team. In September 2021, she became Product Manager and has focused closely on improving FamilyTreeDNA’s genetic genealogy products.