The Level-Up Challenge – For DNA Evidence

Last week I wrote about taking Yvette Hoitink’s Level-Up Challenge for my genealogy research, which pushed me to clarify what I know about my ancestors and helped me focus my research moving forward. As I mentioned in that post, though, when I classified my ancestors at different levels based on how thoroughly I’ve researched them so far, I did not include how much evidence I have for my genetic relationship to each of them. I’m sure that DNA could be integrated into those levels, but I’ve chosen to define a separate set of levels to describe the strength of DNA evidence I have pertaining to each ancestor. 

Here’s the summary graphic for my ancestral levels for DNA evidence:

This follows the same basic idea as the ancestor levels from the original Level-Up Challenge (ancestors with more evidential support get assigned to higher levels), though there are certainly some differences. For one, while I included a spot for myself at the bottom of the chart (generation 1), I did not place myself in a level. I’m not going to try to analyze the DNA evidence that I am myself because…well…for one, I think I have other things to do with my time.

For this chart, I’ve defined from Level 0 through Level 5 for strength of DNA evidence for my genetic connection to each ancestor. See below for more detail.

Level 0:  I have no evidence that I carry DNA from this person (and/or the ancestor is entirely unknown to me).

Level 1:  There is a hint of evidence that I have DNA from this person, such as this person’s surname being found among the ancestors of my DNA matches. I would probably also check that any instances of this surname among matches would have occurred in a geographical region similar to that for my own ancestral line.

Level 2: I have found suggestive evidence that I have DNA from this person; for example, this person might be a shared ancestor between me and one or more DNA matches in Ancestry DNA’s ThruLines or MyHeritage’s Theory of Family Relativity. This alone would certainly not be proof of an ancestor being the source of my shared DNA with any match(es), but it could suggest a theory to test regarding my relationships to these matches and our shared ancestry.

Level 3: I have found more solid evidence that this person is my genetic ancestor. For ancestors at this level, I not only have at least some documentation for my descent from them, but I also have at least one DNA match whose descent is documented from this ancestor, AND I have confirmed that this match and I share an appropriate amount of DNA given our expected relationship and that there do not appear to be any other parts of our trees with overlap. (See earlier post for comments about tree completeness). Often, if an ancestor is at Level 3 in my tree, their spouse is, too, if I have not yet found evidence that the DNA I share with matches comes from just one of the members of this ancestral couple.

Level 4: I have put together substantial evidence that this person is my genetic ancestor. For ancestors at this level, I have identified multiple DNA matches (from various lines of descendancy where possible) who share appropriate levels of DNA with me and with each other, who all have documented ties to our common ancestor, and who don’t appear to have any additional sources of pedigree overlap. Also, for an ancestor to reach Level 4, I don’t just have multiple matches with a shared ancestral couple, but I have multiple matches descending from one or more documented siblings of an ancestor, such that I can narrow down that ancestor (and not their spouse/partner) as the likely source of the DNA I share with those matches. 
For example, my paternal great-grandfather (the first ancestor on the left in Generation 4 of my tree) is assigned a Level 4 because I have documented matches between my great-grandfather’s descendants and his brother’s descendants, suggesting that DNA I share with those matches came to me from this great-grandfather. Since my DNA ties to my great-grandfather have been researched and documented to make it to Level 4 on my tree, that also means that more recent generations have also made it to that level, so my grandfather and father are also shown at Level 4. 

Level 5: To reach Level 5, I will have included DNA evidence for my ties to a particular ancestor in a written proof argument. You might notice that none of my ancestors are labeled as Level 5; though I haven’t made it there with any ancestors yet, pushing my research to this level is a goal I’ll focus on as I move forward. 

Note that I make a distinction here regarding ancestors in this tree and their likelihood of being my genetic ancestor. This distinction is important in a couple of different ways. For one, as strong as documentary evidence (from “traditional” genealogy research) might be, without DNA evidence, it is nearly impossible to assert that someone is a genetic ancestor. We can make a sound claim about a person’s documented lineage without DNA, but we cannot assert that that is the same thing as one person being a genetic relative of another (see Genealogy Standards, Standard 56).1

Secondly, there are ancestors who should be genetic ancestors, but who we didn’t get any (detectable) DNA from. Since we only get half of each of our parents’ DNA, each of which is a mix of half of their parents’ DNA, we get about a quarter of our DNA from each grandparent, though it works out to be not exactly 25% from all four grandparents due to the way DNA mixes in our parents before it passes on to us. The proportion of our DNA from each ancestor divides in half, on average, as the generations go back in time, but the amount per ancestor across a given generation is not exactly equal from all ancestors. Combining these two factors, if we go back far enough, there are some ancestors whose DNA we don’t share at all; at the level of 5th great-grandparents, we only carry DNA from about 95% of those ancestors, and we have DNA from fewer than half of our 8th great-grandparents (on average).2 Even if I could be confident about my descent from all of my ancestors, there are some for whom I may never be able to prove a genetic connection with myself. For much more detail about these concepts, here are some interesting blog posts:

And one final note – all of the DNA evidence mentioned in this post has been autosomal DNA evidence; I have not included any mtDNA or YDNA evidence or analysis in this discussion of research levels. While autosomal DNA tests may be the most common ones done for genetic genealogy research at this point, mtDNA and/or YDNA test results can (and should!) be integrated with autosomal DNA evidence and documentary evidence where possible. Since using mtDNA and YDNA haplogroups in analyses is handled differently than using autosomal DNA match data, though, I decided to keep them separate in terms of the levels shown here. 

As in the original Level-Up Challenge, I enjoyed doing this exercise as a way to take stock of where my research stands, and to help me focus on what I want to work on next. Looking at the amount of DNA evidence I’ve assembled (even loosely) for different lines makes me feel fortunate – I feel like I have a lot of clues from genetic cousins to use in my research, and that in some cases, I’ve only scratched the surface of the available data. I’m excited to dig into some of these lines more, solidifying what I’ve got, meshing it in with documentary evidence, and (eventually) tying everything together to reach as strong of conclusions as I can about my ancestors.

I’m realizing that while the original ancestor levels proposed in Yvette Hoitink’s Level-Up Challenge are incredibly useful to mark our progress towards researching all of our ancestors carefully and thoroughly, there are many other ways we could define other ancestral levels to reflect our own research goals. Maybe we could make note of all ancestors for whom we have a sample of their writing, or whether we also have found their signature? Or perhaps we might note any ancestor who we have in any photograph, or maybe who we’ve found in a photograph that gives us additional clues about their lives at a particular time or place or with other family or associates? What other ancestral levels would be useful to guide your family research?


1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 2d Edition. (Washington: Ancestry.com, 2019), 32.

2. International Society of Genetic Genealogy, “Cousin Statistics,” ISOGG Wiki (https://isogg.org/wiki/Cousin_statistics : accessed 19 January 2022); see Theoretical Probabilities. 

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