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With the advent of direct-to-consumer genetic sequencing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry, amateur genealogists can use DNA matches to fill out ever more branches on their family trees. And as scientists start to sequence the genomes of historical individuals who lived hundreds of years ago, people can now even check whether they share stretches of DNA with a particular king or enslaved person, for example.

Population geneticists Shai Carmi and Harald Ringbauer, who work with ancient DNA in their research, caution not to get too excited about a genetic match with a specific person from history. At the same time, a lack of a historical match doesn’t throw your whole family tree out the window either. Carmi and Ringbauer describe the surprising math behind why you have way more genealogical ancestors than genetic ones – and why you may not share any DNA at all with some of your forebears.

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Maggie Villiger

Senior Science + Technology Editor

A genetic match to an ancient person doesn’t mean you’re more related genealogically. Mark Edward Atkinson/Tetra Images via Getty Images

DNA says you’re related to a Viking, a medieval German Jew or a 1700s enslaved African? What a genetic match really means

Shai Carmi, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Harald Ringbauer, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Genealogical and genetic ancestors aren’t the same thing. A DNA match − or a lack of one − may not tell you what you imagine it does about your family tree.

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