Monthly Archives: April 2011

Using DNA for Genealogy: Y-DNA and mtDNA

This is the first in a series of articles on using DNA for genealogy. I’m going to start by taking a look at two types of DNA that are used in genetic genealogy, Y-DNA and mtDNA, and explain how they can be used by family researchers to help in finding relatives and in confirming relationships. A later post will look at autosomal DNA, and how this newer test can be both very useful, but less accurate as a genealogy tool. Keep in mind that nothing I will be discussing in these articles will relate to the issue of DNA testing for health reasons. While there are companies that do both genealogy and health related DNA tests, I will only be focusing on the genealogy side.

DNA Basics

Let’s start by explaining some of the basic terms and concepts of DNA, and DNA testing. As some may recall from high-school biology, humans each have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Twenty-two pairs of chromosomes are what we call autosomal chromosomes, and are inherited in equal part from both of a persons parents. In general, it is these 22 pairs of autosomal chromosomes that contain all the information that make up who you are physically – what color your hair is, what color your eyes are, how tall you are, what diseases you are pre-disposed to, etc. While interesting, most of this information is not particularly useful for genealogy purposes. The last pair of chromosomes are the sex chromosomes – two X chromosomes in a woman and an X and a Y chromosome in a man.

For the most part, the X chromosome is not very interesting from a genealogical point-of-view, or at least not any more interesting than autosomal chromosomes, since in women they are combined from each parent like autosomal chromosomes, and in men they get combined when passed on to daughters and are not passed on at all when the man has a son. Technically a man does receive the complete X chromosome from their mother, but this has limited genealogical value. From a genealogy point of view it’s best to ignore the X chromosome, or at least group it with autosomal chromosomes (which will be discussed in a future article).

Y-DNA Basics

The Y chromosome, unlike autosomal chromosomes, is only passed on from father to son, and is not modified at all. Thus if you are a man you have the exact same Y chromosome as your father, as your father’s father, etc. This is true going back many more generations, except that over time small mutations are introduced to the Y chromosome so eventually you will find a father who has essentially one character out of thousands that is different in the Y chromosome he has compared to his son. These mutations over time are what allow us to use the Y chromosome (or Y-DNA) for genealogical purposes.

If you find someone who has the exact same Y-DNA as you, then they are descended from a common male ancestor. Figuring out how far back that common ancestor is is where the mutations come in to play. If you find someone who has the same Y-DNA as you, except for one mutation, then you can assume the connection is further back than someone with no differences in their Y-DNA. If the person has two mutations, than the common male ancestor is even further back in time. By looking at the exact mutations, one can even figure out which people are in which branch of a family. For example, if you find three people with two mutations difference from your Y-DNA, and two of them share the one of the mutations, then you know it is likely that those two people descend from a common branch.

mtDNA Basics

You may have noticed that Y-DNA is only found in men. So how does one track their maternal line (mother to daughter)? The answer is not found in the 23 chromosome pairs of one’s DNA, but in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is the DNA in the mitochondria of cells (essentially the engine of cells). Mitochondria, found in all cells, converts food in energy to power the operation of the individual cell. The mtDNA is the DNA of the mitochondria and is passed down from a mother to her children (both daughters and sons).

There are probably a few reasons that mtDNA is only passed from mother to child, and not from the father. The first reason is that the mtDNA of sperm is found in the tail section, and the tail breaks off during the fertilization process, and only the front section of the sperm makes it into the egg to fertilize (and contribute DNA). There have been some rare occasions where it has been shown that the entire sperm has made it into the egg, but in this case there are orders of magnitude more mtDNA molecules in the woman’s egg than there are in the sperm, so through dilution alone, the male’s mtDNA has little chance to have an effect.

Like Y-DNA, mtDNA mutates over time, and thus can be used for genealogical purposes. However, mtDNA mutates at a slower rate than Y-DNA, and thus a single mutation would push a common maternal ancestor back much further than a single Y-DNA mutation would push back a common paternal ancestor. This slower mutation rate makes mtDNA less useful for practical genealogy.

The Path of Y-DNA and mtDNA

Thus, Y-DNA allows one to trace back direct paternal lineage (for men) and mtDNA allows one to track back direct maternal lineage (for both men and women). The following chart illustrates the path of Y-DNA and mtDNA inheritance (click to enlarge).

The path of Y-DNA and mtDNA inheritance

Note that out of thirty-one ancestors on each side of your family going back five generations (parent + 4 grandparents + 8 great-grandparents + 16 gg-grandparents) only five people on each side share the relevant DNA (i.e. mtDNA on your mother’s side, and Y-DNA on your father’s side) with you. Another way to look at this is that out of the 62 ancestors you have in the past five generations, only 5 match your Y-DNA and only 5 match your mtDNA.

That, of course, is only true when looking in one direction of your family tree (from you up). For example, you share the same mtDNA with all your siblings, as well as your mother’s siblings, your mother’s mother’s siblings, etc. and the children of all the women included among those people. Thus if your mother had a sister, then her children, your first cousins, would also share the same mtDNA that you have. If you find someone whose mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s sister was your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, you would also share the same mtDNA, even though you are fourth cousins. Of course, as mtDNA mutates slowly, you may share mtDNA with people much farther away as well, so sometimes this information is not so useful (and can be frustrating). The same is true of Y-DNA, except it is only in men, so if you are male you will match with your father’s brother’s son, but not with your father’s brother’s daughter since she has no Y-DNA to match, and not with your father’s sister’s son, since he inherited his Y-DNA from his father, not from his mother (which is your blood relative).

How Y-DNA is used for Genealogy

I’m going to start on the genealogy side by looking at Y-DNA because it has some significant advantages over mtDNA for using as a genealogical tool. First, as traditionally surnames were passed down from the father to his children, Y-DNA should in most cases match with people’s surnames. For example, just like your father’s father’s brother’s son’s Y-DNA should be the same as yours, so should his surname. This makes doing genealogy research using Y-DNA significantly easier.

Keep in mind that only men can take Y-DNA tests. If you are a woman and want to test your paternal line, you will need to have a male relative in the same paternal line take the test instead. For example, your father or brother could take the test, or your father’s brother, or your father’s brother’s son, or any number of other male relatives that are descendent father-to-son from a common paternal ancestor.

Another important point is that some people’s families only started using surnames in the past two hundred years (such as much of the Ashkenazi Jewish population) and you will find many different surnames that may match your Y-DNA since the matches (depending how close of a match) may have happened before two hundred years ago when your ancestor started using a surname. In fact, sometimes brothers in the same town were assigned different surnames (if they lived in different houses at the time surnames were assigned) and thus even if you find a close match that shares a common ancestor close to the time your family started using surnames, you might find a person with a different surname, and not realize how they are related.

This brings up an important point in using DNA for genealogy – DNA by itself will not build your family tree for you. Using DNA for genetic genealogy is just a supplement to traditional genealogy, and without pre-existing research of your family back to when there was a common ancestor, it won’t help very much.

So how does Y-DNA testing work? First, you take a DNA test from a company like FamilyTree DNA (FTDNA). I mention FTDNA in particular as they have the largest Y-DNA database. When doing any DNA test for genealogy, the results you get will depend on the number of people who have also tested and have their information in the company’s database. In other words, doing a DNA test for genealogy cannot tell you very much about yourself, but it can tell you about yourself in comparison to others.

FTDNA offers several levels of Y-DNA tests. They differentiate these tests by the number of ‘markers’ that are tested. Essentially, markers are locations on a person’s Y-DNA that are prone to mutation. By comparing these markers and seeing how many are different, you can figure out how closely someone is related to you. Y-DNA tests that FTDNA offers, or has offered, include 12, 25, 37, 67 and 111 marker tests. Each test with more markers allows more accuracy in predicting relationships between people. At the 12-marker level, for example, even an exact match on all 12 markers will only indicate a common ancestors thousands of years ago. This is beyond the ‘genealogical time frame’ – i.e. it is beyond the point that anyone would be able to trace back their family trees and is thus essentially useless for genealogy purposes. Of course, your father and your father’s father will all match you on all 12 markers, so while a 12 marker test cannot be used to show any kind of useful family connection, it can be use to disprove a family connection. For example, if you are a man and you find another man who you think is related to you on your paternal line, if your 12 marker test shows different results than the other man, then you are not likely related on your paternal line. Thus even a 12 marker test has some usefulness, but it is limited to disproving theories, not proving anything.

For genealogy, if you are planning to do a Y-DNA test, you really need to start with at least (at FTDNA) their 37 marker test. FTDNA estimates that when you find someone with the same surname as you and who has a full 37 marker match on the 37 marker test, that there is a 95% chance of a common male ancestor within 8 generations and a 50% chance of there being a common ancestor within 5 generations. Of course, these odds may not sound too good to you. Even if you have tracked your family back 8 generations, the other person who matches you on your test may not have done enough research to make a connection. With a common surname and an exact match on all 67 markers of a 67 marker test, FTDNA estimates a 90% chance of a common ancestor within 5 generation and a 50% chance of a common ancestor within 3 generations. That said, these percentages assume that all the markers match. For example, if only 66 out of 67 markers match on a 67 marker test, then the common ancestor is pushed back further in time.

Of course, each level of test with more markers is more expensive than one with less markers.  One good thing about FTDNA is that they bank your DNA samples so if you, for example, buy a 37 marker Y-DNA test and later decide to upgrade to a 67 marker test, you can just order the upgrade online and they will retrieve your existing DNA sample and run the new test. You can thus spend less at the beginning, and if you find that you get a lot of 37-marker matches and want to get the 67 marker test (or even the 111 marker test) to help you refine your results, you can always do that later.

Once you have the test done, you get a few things from the company.

First, you get a list of the marker values. If you got a 37 marker test, then you’ll receive a list of 37 marker values. These numbers are what get matched to others.

FTDNA will also estimate your haplogroup. Your haplogroup is a very broad designation of your ancestral origins. Essentially it means you match a common ancestor tens of thousands of years ago. This is not particularly useful from a genealogy point of view, but it can tell you something about where your very distant ancestors lived. You may have noticed I said FTDNA will estimate your haplogroup.The reason it is an estimate is that a Y-DNA test tests STR mutations and you need to test SNP mutations to really confirm one’s specific haplogroup. I’m not going to go into the differences between STR and SNP mutations in this article, but FTDNA can predict your haplogroup based on how other people in its database have matched, and if they can’t they will run SNP tests to confirm their result. If you want even more specificity in your haplogroup results (and sub-group results) you can also pay for what they call a Deep Clade test, which will confirm your haplogroup using SNP tests. None of this is particularly useful for practical genealogy.

In addition to your marker results and your haplogroup, FTDNA gives you what they call ‘ancestral origins’. This is a list of where other people who closely match you have indicated their family originated. This is largely dependent on the information people provide on their family, and how far back people have researched their families. This can give you some areas to research, but again it is based on what other people know about their own families, which is not always accurate.

Your Y-DNA Matches

Lastly, and most importantly, you receive a list of matches. FTDNA will compare your Y-DNA markers to all the results in their database and give you a list of matches. They start by showing you a list of all the 12 marker matches. If you have an Ashkenazi Jewish background, expect hundreds or thousands of matches at this level. As mentioned, at this level your matches have little meaning from a genealogical point of view since the match could be thousands of years in the past. FTDNA then proceeds to show 25 marker matches (I believe 25 marker tests were offered in the past and later replaced by the 37 marker test), 37 marker matches, 67 marker matches, etc. Obviously you will only see results up to the level you have had tested.

Keep in mind that if you receive a match at 25 markers and you don’t see the same person listed in your 37 marker results there are two possible reasons for this:

The first reason is that the person matched at 25 markers but mismatched on many of the 12 additional markers in the 37 marker test and therefore no longer shows up as a match.

The second reason that someone might not show up in the 37 marker results is that they never had more than 25 markers tested. They might actually match you completely at 37 or even 67 markers, but you won’t know unless they upgrade to more markers. In this case, if you find someone at a lower marker level that you think might be a match (for example because they share your surname, or they originate from the same ancestral town) then you can try asking them to upgrade their test.

Because FTDNA is completely focused on genealogy, and does not offer health information, the assumption when you sign up is that you want to be in touch with people to research your families. In fact, when you take your initial test (by scrubbing your cheek with three swabs and mailing them in) you will also sign a release form that allows them to share your e-mail address with other matches. Other companies like 23andMe which does health testing also, have double-blind communication systems that let one communicate with someone anonymously initially, share just genealogically relevant data and then share health information later if you choose. As long as you sign the release form when you send in your DNA sample, FTDNA eliminates this extra step and just provides you with e-mail addresses of your matches. If you don’t want matches to know your real e-mail address, you can always set up a dedicated e-mail address on gmail or similar service to communicate with matches on FTDNA.

In addition to the exact matches, the list includes matches that are one or more markers off from the total. For example, if there is a 12 marker match that matches 11 exactly, and the twelfth match is one value off, then it will show up as a 12 marker match with a genetic distance of 1. If another genome matches yours on 35 out of 37 markers, and the other two markers have values that differ from yours by one each, then it will show up as a 37 marker match with a genetic distance of 2. However, if the same genome was tested at 67 markers and matches all the other 30 markers, then it would instead show up as a 67 marker match with a genetic distance of two. As you move up in the number of markers you will continue to have fewer and fewer matches, as it becomes less and less likely you will receive a match. You may have hundreds of matches at the 12 marker level, dozens of matches at the 37 marker level and only a few matches at the 67 marker level, none of which may be exact matches.

All of this may seem abstract, so let’s take a look at what matches look like (click to enlarge):

Some Y-DNA matches

In the screenshot you see a selection in the middle of my results. You see all (four) of my exact matches at 37 markers (names and e-mail addresses are blurred). You can also see that there are nine 37 marker matches that are a genetic distance of one (although only the first two are shown in the screenshot). Other things to notice are that those matches that have tested at 67 markers, show that in parenthesis next to the match’s name, so the last exact 37 marker match and the 2nd 37 marker match with a genetic distance of one, both show they have been tested with 67 markers.

You can also see that there are one or two icons on the right side of each match line. The first one which all of the matches show is what FTDNA calls the FTDNATIP. This is FTDNA’s projection of how closely the match is related to you. For a 12 marker exact match, for example, it would show you that the person has a 33.57% chance of sharing a common ancestor within 4 generations, a 55.88% chance of sharing a common ancestor within 8 generations, and a 94.80% chance of a common ancestor within 28 generations. Like mentioned before, 12 marker matches are not easy to work with for genealogy since the matches can be so distant. By the 37 marker exact matches, the chance of a common ancestor within 4 generations jumps to 83.49% and 97.28% within 8 generations. I can’t tell you what the chances of a common ancestor are for exact 67 marker matches since I don’t have any, but I can tell you that the 67 marker match at a genetic distance of one has lower probabilities than an exact 37 marker match.

Oddly, FTDNA doesn’t check to see if a match shows up in higher marker tests when showing these calculations, so it will show a higher probability for the same match when showing it as an exact 37 marker match than it does if it later shows up as a 67 marker match at a genetic distance of one.

The second icon with an FT in the middle, which only shows up in two of the matches in the image, indicates the person has uploaded a GEDCOM of their paternal family tree. A GEDCOM is a standard file that most genealogy programs support that contains information on who is in your family tree and how they are related. FTDNA allows you you upload a different GEDCOM for your paternal family tree (for Y-DNA matches) and for your maternal family tree (for your mtDNA matches) so that other people can view the relevant family tree and try to find relatives or at least family names in common. If the person has uploaded the relevant GEDCOM file then the icon will show up on the right side of their match and allow you to view it.

An interesting point to make here is that out of the four exact 37 marker matches, only one of them has been tested at 67 markers. This means only one match has the possibility of showing up as an exact 67 marker match in my results. In fact, that match shows up as a 67 marker match with a genetic distance of one, which means of the extra 30 markers in the 67 marker test, one of the markers is off by one value. It is possible that the other three exact 37 marker matches could be exact 67 marker matches, but without them upgrading their tests to 67 markers, there is no way to know. However, keep in mind that if you only look at the 67 marker matches, then you might miss out on these three matches which may actually be closer relatives than the one of the four which shows up in the 67 marker results. 

How mtDNA is used for Genealogy

As discussed, mtDNA tracks one’s maternal line, so it shows you matches from mother to child. Both men and women can take this test, since all children receive their mother’s mtDNA. When you take an mtDNA test, you can use the higher-resolution tests to try to find common maternal ancestors, or you can use it to disprove a theory if you think someone shares a common maternal ancestor.

Instead of marker values like Y-DNA, mtDNA gives you the differences between your results and the CRS (Cambridge Standard Reference). The CRS is the mtDNA whose sequence all other mtDNA results are compared to, and since mtDNA mutates so slowly, the changes are not usually so large. For example, at the lowest resolution (the mtDNA test of the HVR1 region) I only differ from the CRS in two locations. In the high resolution results (the mtDNA Plus test of both HVR1 and HVR2 regions) I differ in seven locations. In the full sequence (the mtFullSequence test of the entire mtDNA genetic sequence) I differ in only 13 locations from the CRS. It is these differences which are compared to others in the database when looking for matches.

FTDNA will also assign you a maternal haplogroup and show you your ancestral origins for your mtDNA.

Your mtDNA Matches

Matches to your mtDNA work similarly to your Y-DNA matches, so I won’t go into every detail, but I will explain the differences.

First, there are three levels of mtDNA matches available through FTDNA. Most other companies that provide mtDNA testing offer at least the first two. At FTDNA these testing levels are called mtDNA, mtDNA Plus and mtFullSequence. The mtDNA test tests a region of mtDNA called HVR1. The mtDNA Plus test also tests the region called HVR1 but adds a region called HVR2. This added region, like additional markers on the Y-DNA test, increases the likelihood that matches are closer related. mtDNA comprises a much smaller amount of DNA than Y-DNA or certainly all of autosomal DNA, so FTDNA offers a third option, called mtFullSequence, which tests all of the mtDNA strand.

When viewing matches, they are shown in three categories which correspond to the three testing levels: Low Resolution (HVR1), High Resolution (HVR1 + HVR2) and Full Genomic Sequence. Like in Y-DNA matches, when a match has tested at a higher level it will show when viewing the match at what level the person has tested. For example, when viewing the Low Resolution matches, if a match has taken the mtDNA Plus test, then the match will show in parenthesis next to the name HVR2. If the match has tested with the myFullSequence test, then it will show FGS next to the name. If the match also has tested in Family Finder (FTDNA’s autosomal test which I will discuss in a future article) it will also indicate this next to the name.

If the person has uploaded a GEDCOM file of their maternal line, then a icon (with the letters FT) will  indicate this, and clicking on it will show you the person’s maternal family tree (thus the FT).

Like with Y-DNA matches you are show their actual e-mail addresses and you must contact your matches directly in order to find a connection. Finding mtDNA matches is harder than Y-DNA matches since the mutation rate is slower, the connections are generally farther back, and the matches have no correlation to one’s surname. If one family had five daughters three hundred years ago and you are descendant from one of the five daughters, think how many family names each of the five daughters descendents have gone through in the intervening years. It is very difficult to track these kinds of connections.

Conclusion

Genetic testing is an interesting supplement to traditional genealogy, and can connect you to many potential relatives when doing research on your family. It is not a replacement for doing real genealogical research, but can help you confirm or disprove theories of how people are related, and can connect you to many potential relatives that may know of branches of your family that you are unaware. The same tests can also provide health information, genetic traits, ancient origins, etc. but these are not useful for genealogy. While genetic testing can be expensive, the cost is continually going down as more and more people try it out. As more people test, the databases in which one is comparing their DNA to others is also getting larger and larger, making them more and more useful. Genetic genealogy is only ten years old, so as more and more time goes on, it will become more and more useful, more and more accurate, and more people will be able to find real matches to relatives using genetics as their roadmap.

Thinking about trying genetic genealogy?

In general don’t do news and announcements on this blog, but for those who have been considering trying out genetic genealogy, I wanted to point out that FamilyTree DNA is running a day and a half sale on many of their tests today through tomorrow. If you’re been on the borderline about taking one of their tests, this might be a good time to try one out. The sale is in honor of National DNA Day and the simultaneous achievement of FamilyTree DNA reaching 10,000 followers on their Facebook page. The sale is not on their website, but if you go to order on their website, use the coupon code DNADAY2011 to get the discounts. Full details in their announcement below.

Some examples of the deals are:

The Y-DNA37 test is $129 instead of the normal $169.
Family Finder is $199 instead of $289.
Family Finder + Y-DNA12 is $258 instead of $398.
Their super-bundle of Y-DNA67, Full mtDNA and FamilyFinder is $657 instead of $837.

So if you’re new to genetic genealogy, what do you order?

Let me give a very brief explanation of the different kinds of tests. In the future hopefully I’ll write a more detailed explanation (but not in time for this deal).

Y-DNA is the DNA passed down from father to son. It does not change very often so if you are male, your Y-DNA should be exactly the same as any brothers you have, exactly the same as your father and grandfather, etc. Since surnames generally follow this same pattern, Y-DNA tests that match others with the same surname are usually a good indication that there is a connection to you. Over generations, the Y-DNA does get mutations, and those mutations are what allow one to compare DNA with others and try to find matches. FamilyTree DNA offer Y-DNA12, Y-DNA25, Y-DNA37 and Y-DNA67 tests, and recently introduced a Y-DNA111 test. The different numbers correspond to the number of markers each test checks. The more markers checked, the more accurate the test, which in general means that when you find matches with more markers, the person is a closer relation to you. Don’t even bother with Y-DNA less than 37 markers if you plan on using it for genealogy research. The reason this is the case is that Y-DNA12, for example, could match people that that only share an ancestor over a thousand years ago. That’s not very useful. Personally I suggest the Y-DNA67 test for genealogy, although that test is not part of this deal. Instead, you can order the Y-DNA37 test and upgrade it later. One thing to point out here, only men can take the Y-DNA tests. Women do not inherit any Y-DNA.

myDNA is passed down from mother to child. Both boys and girls inherit mtDNA from their mother, but only girls will then pass it on to her children. As such, mtDNA test are similar to Y-DNA, but track the maternal line (mother to mother to mother…) instead of the paternal line. Since surnames don’t generally follow the mother, this is a much harder line to track. Also, mtDNA does not mutate as often as Y-DNA, which means the connections you find are much more likely to be further back in time. One thing mtDNA can do is help you confirm a theory of relation. For example, if you find someone in your research that you think is descendent from the sister of your great-great-grandmother, and you’re both descendant from the female lines, then you can take this test and if there’s a match it will be strong evidence that you were right. In general, mtDNA is not considered a very useful test for genealogy though. Both men and women can take mtDNA tests.

Family Finder is what they call an Autosomal DNA test. Basically, all humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, 22 autosomal chromosome pairs and the pair of sex chromosomes (two X-chromosomes for a girl and an X and a Y chromosome for a boy). That, by the way, is why women cannot take the Y-DNA test, since they inherited X-chromosomes from each parent and no Y-chromosome. The 22 autosomol chromosome pairs each get combined with part from your mother and part from your father. You thus have about half of your DNA from your mother and half from your father. If you have siblings they also have about half from each parent, but not the same half (unless you’re twins). In each generation you continue to mix autosomal DNA, so you would have about a quarter of the autosomol DNA of each of your grandparents. What Family Finder does is look for chunks of DNA that match with other people in their databases, and if you have a certain percentage of DNA which is the same, Family Finder makes a prediction based on how much autosomal DNA you share to determine how close a relative you could be. This is a relatively new test and is far from perfect, but it does open up the possibility of finding relatives not in your direct paternal or maternal line. It is useful for finding people only within the last 5 generations or so, since beyond that there is not enough shared DNA. Both men and women can take the Family Finder test.

So what should you order if you’re interested in trying it out?

For men, I would suggest the Y-DNA37 test. They don’t offer the Y-DNA67 test in this deal, but they do offer the 37-to-67 upgrade for $79. I’m not sure if you can order the upgrade at the same time as the 37 test, so you might need to do an upgrade later (without the discount). If you want to use this as a serious tool for genealogy, you will want at some point to upgrade to the Y-DNA67 test. I don’t think there’s a enough information out there yet to determine if the Y-DNA111 test is worth it yet, so I’d probably hold off on that unless you already did a Y-DNA67 test and have many close matches that you want to refine.

Note that if you’re a woman and you want to test your paternal line, you can have another male relative (your father, you brother, your father’s brother, your father’s brother’s son, etc.) take a Y-DNA test instead.

For both men and women, I recommend the Family Finder test. It’s still a work-in-progress but it allows you to find people closely related to you from all of your lines, not just one line up through your mother or father.

I don’t think the mtDNA is very relevant for genealogy, unless you want to use it to confirm a specific theory that you and another person are descended from the same woman.

That’s all. See the full deal in the announcement from FamilyTree DNA below:

—————————————-
DNA Day is April 15th! Starting at 12:00 PM on April 14th, join the celebration!

New customers:
Y-DNA12…… $59
Y-DNA37…… $129
mtDNA……… $59
Family Finder… $199
Family Finder + Y-DNA12… $258
Family Finder + mtDNA…… $258
Family Finder + mtFullSequence + Y-DNA67 … $657

Upgrades:
Y-DNA12 add-on … $59
Y-DNA12 to 37…… $69
Y-DNA37 to 67…… $79
Y-DNA12 to 67…… $148
mtDNA add-on …… $59
mtFull Sequence upgrade … $199
Family Finder add-on … $199

To take advantage of these promotional prices use the coupon code: DNADAY2011

The coupon code will expire on Friday at midnight (CT).

Please note, the Y-DNA67 to 111 upgrade will remain at the introductory rate of $101 (no coupon necessary) until the end of this promotion. The price will be $129 going forward.

Payment must be received at the time of the order. Valid only on products listed. No substitutions. This promotion was announced in advance, therefore no adjustments will be made on previous purchases. Offer valid from 12:00 PM CT on Thursday, April 14, until 11:59 PM CT on April 15, 2011.

This promotion is not valid in combination with any other promotions. Family Tree DNA reserves the right to cancel any order due to unauthorized or ineligible use of discounts and to modify or cancel these promotional discounts due to system error or unforeseen problems. Subject to change without notice.

Jewish Gravestone Symbols

This is a post about the symbols found on Jewish gravestones. There is very little here for explaining how to interpret the Hebrew text of a Jewish gravestone, although I will likely write about that at a later date.

I’ve tried a few times to finish a post in time for one of the GeneaBloggers ‘daily blogger prompts’ which in general I think is a great way to spur bloggers on and get people posting on varied topics. That said, however, I’ve never actually finished a post by the day in question and I never want to wait until the following week to post something I’ve spent so much time on. Yesterday was ‘Tombstone Tuesday’ (as well as ‘Talented Tuesday’ and ‘Tech Tuesday’) but I couldn’t finish this post by then, mainly because I had to scan all the photos.

Images on Jewish gravestones were not always the norm, and are not as common today as they were in the past, so really what I’m going to show is something you would find on graves that are from 19th and early 20th century. Some of these images still appear on modern graves, but usually in far less elaborate forms.

For examples, I’m using photos I took 18 years ago in Poland. Most of these photos are from the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, although I believe a few are from other locations in Poland. The 18 year time-frame is a bit ironic, being that 18 is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word Chai (חי), which means life (the two letters that make up the Hebrew word Chai (חי) are Chet (ח) and Yud (י), which are the 8th and 10th letter respectively in the Hebrew alphabet, and thus add up to 18). This is why the number 18 is generally considered lucky by Jews.

All of the photos are of the top of the gravestone only. I did not photograph the text on the main section of the gravestone which would identify who the grave belongs to, as that was not my intention at the time. These same graves are probably photographed and in on-line databases somewhere, but you would need to do a lot of searching to find them as I do not know the names of the people from whose gravestones these originated.

I’m going to keep this article a little bit more loose than my usual posting, as this topic is a bit more open to interpretation than most. I welcome peoples comments on the photos. I don’t know the meaning of all the symbols shown, and if you do please add your comments. Some symbols would be much easier to interpret if we had the full text of the gravestone to read, as some are linked to the name of the person who was deceased. For the purpose of this posting we can just guess.

You should be able to enlarge any specific image by clicking on it.

I’ll start with an image which is not a symbol at all, but an acronym. The letters Peh Nun (פנ), sometimes with an quote in between (פ”נ), show up frequently on Jewish gravestones. These letters represent either the phrase ‘Po Nikbar’ or ‘Po Nitman’ both which simply mean ‘Here Lies’. A variation that is sometimes seen is Peh Tet (פ”ט) which represents the phrase ‘Po Tamun’ which means ‘Here is Hidden’.

1) This image is simply a large graphic of the letters Peh Nun (פנ). Although the circles above each letter most likely have some symbolism, I’m not aware of what that is exactly. It could be the general ‘circle of life’ type of symbolism, but I don’t know for sure.

2) The following two photos again shows the Peh Nun lettering in the middle, but introduces two more symbols, that of the crown and two lions. Both the crown and lions are symbols linked to royalty, although in this case the link is probably more symbolic. They are meant to show honor for the deceased. The crown can also represent the head of a household.

Lions are sometimes also used when the person who died had a name linked to lions, such as Yehuda (Yehuda in Hebrew, Judah in English, the tribe of Israelites which were considered leaders, and the tribe from which King David descended), or the word Lion in various languages: Ari or Aryeh (Hebrew), Ariel (Hebrew for ‘Lion of God’), Leib (Yiddish), Leon (French) or Loeb (German).

3) In the following two photos, you can see the crown and the lion again. The center of the images, however, are two hands with thumbs touching and fingers paired and split. For those unfamiliar with Jewish tradition, this is how Cohanim (Hebrew plural of Cohen), those of the Jewish priesthood (descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses), hold their hands when bestowing a blessing during prayer.

As an aside, you might actually recognize this as the hand gesture used as a form of greeting by Vulcans in Star Trek. The reason this is the case is that Leonard Nimoy, who is Jewish, played the first Vulcan character Spock on the TV show and he created this greeting based on the hand gesture used by Cohanim.

This is a very common symbol on gravestones of Cohanim, and indeed you can still find some form of this on modern gravestones as well.

4) In this next photo there is the familiar crown, as well as the hands of the Cohanim, but also a stack of books. A common symbol on Jewish gravestones, books refer to scholarship. Sometimes the books have specific meaning, based on the number. If there are five books, it can mean the person was very knowledgeable about the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and if there are six books (as there are in this case) it can mean that they were also knowledgeable in the Oral Torah (represented by the Mishnah which has six volumes).

5) In this photo you see a bookcase, again representing scholarship, but a tree that is broken. The broken tree represents someone who has died young.

6) In the following photo you see the bookcase, as well as the book on a table. To the left is a fallen crown. This particular symbol of the fallen crown usually means the person who died was the head of a family.

7) Of the original twelve tribes of Israel, based on the twelve sons of Jacob, the tribe of Levi was the tribe that dealt primarily with religious functions. Both Cohanim and Levis had part in the functioning of the Temple in Jerusalem. While Cohanim were the priests, the Levis assisted the Cohanim and were known as musicians and singers in the Temple. The Levis would sing a different Psalm each day in the Temple.

Moses and Aaron were both from the tribe of Levi, and the Cohanim, descendant from Aaron, are a sub-group of the tribe of Levi. Like Cohanim, other members of the tribe of Levi also have a tradition of keeping track of their tribal affiliation. While the tribal associations of most Jews have been lost to time, the Cohanim and Levis have traditionally kept track of this affiliation. Thus, like Cohanim, Levis have also decorated their gravestones with symbols representing their Levi heritage. The most common symbol for Levis is a hand pouring water into a basin, as the Levis would wash the hands of the Cohanim before they performed their priestly duties (and still do today).

Note in the second picture above the snake eating its tail surrounding the Levi symbol. The snake eating its tail is not a specifically Jewish symbol, but represents the cycle of life. It can also refer to infinity, and thus perhaps the belief in life beyond death.

8) As the Levis were musicians it is also common to find musical instruments on the gravestones of Levis, although of course musical instruments could also signify that the person was actually a musician. Note also the crown and the two birds facing in different directions. In the center are the letters Peh Nun (פנ).

9) As mentioned, certain animals are used to represent the names of the people who were buried. A lion may refer to a man named Aryeh. A bird could refer to a woman named Tziporah or Faiga. In the following image there is a lion and a wolf. As we cannot see the name on the gravestone we can only guess, but the wolf may refer to someone named Benjamin. Benjamin was one of the 12 sons of Jacob and he is frequently associated with the wolf. Wolf (pronounced vulf) was also a common Yiddish name.

Note in this image also the crown as well as the pitcher in a basin, referring to a Levi.

10) Another common symbol on Jewish gravestones is the charity box. Sometimes this is represented by a hand putting money into the charity box. This symbol is meant to show that the person was charitable and helped people.

11) The following image is a barrage of symbols. In the center is a hand holding a pitcher, a symbol of a Levi. Above it is crown. Next to it is a bookcase, symbolizing scholarship. Above the bookcase is a charity box, showing he was charitable. All of that is flanked by two trees. Trees generally refer to life, although two trees in this context may refer to the two trees explicitly mentioned in Genesis that were in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Jewish tradition the Garden of Eden is essentially Heaven.

12) The Menora, or seven-branched candelabra, is an ancient Jewish symbol representing the menora that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem. A nine-candle version of the menora is used on Hanukah each year by Jews worldwide. Candles are also lit every Friday night by religious Jewish women, and thus candles and candelabras are associated with women. On Jewish gravestones candlesticks and candelabras are usually associated with women.

In the following photo there is a five-branch candelabra and two birds. Birds in many cultures are associated with the soul, or the departing of ones soul. Birds may also refer to the name of the woman, if her name was Tziporah (in Hebrew) or Feiga (in Yiddish).

If you look at enough of these graves you may notice that pairs of birds show up in many of them. I’m not sure of the specific symbolism, if any, of two birds, but it’s likely that there is something specific to there being two birds.

13) This next image integrates a candelabra representing a woman, a charity box on the left showing she was charitable, and a book with the letters Peh Tet (פ”ט) which as mentioned earlier is an less-common acronym meaning ‘Here is Hidden’.

14) Like the broken tree which indicated a man that had died young in an earlier image, a woman that died young often has broken candles on a candelabra.

15) This image is centered on the broken candle image like the above, but also has two hands. It’s not uncommon to see two hands in an image of candles, as women making the blessing on candles on Friday nights life their hands up when making the blessing.  Note however that one hand is closed. The closed hand looks the same as the hands shown giving charity in other images. Even without a charity box, perhaps it represents charity?

[Rabbi Jay Goldmitz, headmaster of the Ramaz Upper School in NY, writes that the clasped hand probably refers to a line from Chapter 31 of Proverbs that refers to a Woman of Valor (Eishet Chayil): “She sends out her hand to the poor….” and thus would indeed be a reference to her being charitable.]

Here are a few interesting gravestones:

16) The symbols here include two lions with their tongues out. Actually I didn’t point out that the tongues were out in the image two. If someone knows the significance of the tongues being out, please share in the comments. The snake eating his tale is in this image as well. Inside the snake is the word Mavet (מות) which means Death. Above that is an hourglass with wings, a symbol that life is fleeting.

 

17) When I first looked at this image on the original negative I couldn’t figure out what it was (it had been 18 years since I took the photo). After I scanned the image I realized it was eight sheep. It seems the eight sheep are coming out of the building on the right and drinking from a well. Does the well represent the person who died? Did he have eight children? I don’t know, but the imagery is fascinating.

18) This last image is one of the more bizarre. A lion with the tail of a fish wearing a crown. The legs may also be from a different animal. There is actually a mythical beast called a Sea Lion that fits this description. In general mythical beasts such as this can be interpreted as a reference to the Time to Come, after the coming of the Messiah. The crown would seem to lend some credence to this idea, as the Messiah is considered to be a King. The image could also be a reference to the Leviathan, a mythical creature mentioned in Job. In Jewish mythology the Leviathan will be served in a grand feast to the righteous in the Time to Come, which will happen after the coming of the Messiah.

You may have noticed the one symbol I didn’t include was the Star of David. While it is a symbol, it’s not particularly symbolic. Yes finding it on a grave would presumably mean that the person was Jewish, but it’s not nearly as interesting a symbol as the above mentioned symbols. Also, putting the Star of David on a grave is actually a more recent practice. I did have one image of a Star of David on a grave from Poland, but it was certainly more rare than these other images.

To end, I wanted to include one image of what the graveyard that most of these images came from looked like at the time.