DNA Surname Projects

Surname projects are one factor to consider in Y-DNA testing. In addition to other benefits, discussed below, such a project may entitle participants to a discount on the price of their testing at Family Tree DNA.

What is a surname project?

Such a project involves a group of males bearing the same surname - perhaps with many different spelling variations - grouping together for Y-DNA testing to determine whether they are in fact genetically related, through the male line. (Some also deal with other types of DNA testing, but the main focus is on the y-DNA test).

The results of the testing are compared as a group. Usually, there is a group administrator or project manager, who receives the data from the individual participants, contacts the members with any pertinent news or updates, and generally co-ordinates things and oversees the project.

Such projects, by their very nature, involve males and Y-chromosome DNA testing, as the Y-chromosome is passed from father to son, in the same way as the surname, as outlined in my Y-chromosome DNA Testing: Genetic Genealogy and Male Ancestors webpage.

What if I just want to get tested, without being in a surname project?

It is possible to go for a DNA test without being involved in a project. It all depends on your reasons for taking the test.

In my case, when my uncle agreed to be tested, it was not possible to join a project, as we did not know the surname of my great-grandfather. (See Using DNA to Break Down Brick Walls for more information). Adoptees would face a similar situation.

The larger the company's database of DNA test results, the higher the likelihood that you will find a genetic match.

However, if there are no other participants in their database that match your results, the DNA results really won't do you much good, until someone who shares a common male ancestor happens to choose the same testing facility as you did. 

While in the past there were a number of companies who offered Y-DNA testing, it is generally agreed in the genealogy community that now (as of 2017), the only company that people use is Family Tree DNA.  

When I originally wrote this page back in 2011, ancestry was still offering this test, although it has since discontinued doing so.  I had my uncle tested with Ancestry, which then offered a 33-marker Y-DNA test. When I compared the results to the Family Tree DNA database, and found a fairly close match, I discovered a surname project with that family name, and a sub-group which was a match.

Family Tree DNA does a 37-marker test. After the administrator adjusted for differences in testing, there was a match on 28 out of the 29 markers for which there were results. (A couple of the markers yielded no results).

Surname Project - ExampleThis is an example of a spreadsheet for a surname project. The different colors represent different groups of people. Each group has a common ancestor, identified at the top of the colored section. The rows of numbers represent the number of repeats of the STR at that location. Greyed-out numbers represent differences between that person's test and the 'norm' for that subgroup.

However, there were a number of markers on my test that were not tested by the other company, and vice versa. It was suggested that I re-test with Family Tree DNA - an unpleasant prospect, given the money already spent at Ancestry!

I did eventually retest with Family Tree DNA, with the assistance of a member of the surname project and a sale on DNA testing. I enlisted a male first cousin, descended from another of my grandfather's sons.

The results, where they were on the same markers in my uncle's Ancestry test results, were identical. Further, my cousin's results showed that there was a 36 out of 37-marker match with the subgroup I thought he matched with. Eureka!

Pros and Cons of Surname Projects

Enrolling in a project can ensure that there will be at least the number of people in your group with whom you can compare your data.

If you have several different families with the same surname and you do not know if you have a common male ancestor, this is one way to settle the question.

However, if it turns out that you are related, it will not answer the question of how. That is up to you and your new-found relatives to figure out, in comparing family trees and doing further genealogy research to establish a paper trail!

One additional benefit of joining such a project is that many companies offer discounts on testing for the surname project participants.

Here is the perspective of one fellow, Terry Barton, who began managing his own project, then that of his mother's family, and then several other surnames in his family tree. Ultimately, he formed his own company, and manages surname projects for others on an ongoing basis.

As is evident from Terry's video, when matches are found, the benefits are tremendous: individuals who otherwise would not know each other discover they share a common ancestor, and they collaborate and share their genealogy research.

The result: several additional generations and/or collateral lines are added to their trees. For more information about the services he offers, go to www.worldfamilies.net .

Do I have to participate in the project from its commencement?

You do not have to participate in such a project at the time that it commences. You can join a surname project after the first group has been tested, and, after testing, obtain the benefit of the group's knowledge, and share your own.

In many cases in such projects, there are individuals who bear the family surname, but are not a direct match to anyone who has already been tested. It is possible that you could be the "missing match" for one of those individuals!

Under what circumstances would a surname project likely not be useful?

One circumstance under which a project would not work is if there were illegitimacies a few generations back. I know of one family in which, several generations ago, four sisters all had children out of wedlock, and all of their offspring went by the women's maiden name.

So, if all of the males bearing that surname were tested, including those descended from those four women, as part of a surname group, there would be the original male line from whom those women and their brothers were descended, plus the four male lines using the mother's maiden name, yielding five distinct groups among their descendants (assuming that a different man was involved with each of the four women, and that the five men were unrelated), all bearing the same surname.

The five groups most likely would have little if anything in common in their Y-chromosome DNA, as there were five different men involved. It might, however, link each group up with their biological forefather's surname project, if someone from that family has been tested, and the results are in the same database.

One has to be careful, however, in concluding that, because the Y-chromosome does not match, the individuals are not related. Other DNA testing could well provide evidence of a relationship to that surname on the maternal line, as in the example cited above.


In summary, surname projects can be of great assistance in speeding up the process of determining which lines among families bearing the same surname have a common male ancestor, on an unbroken male line, and which do not.

My recommendation would be to do an internet search using the term "surname project", in quotation marks, followed by your surname, to determine if there is already a project in the works for your family name.

If so, you might consider joining it, or at least contacting the project administrator for further details, given the substantial benefits which can be achieved as a result.

If not, perhaps you should consider starting one!

Go to "Y-chromosome DNA Testing"

Go to "Genetic Genealogy: DNA Testing applied to Family History"

Go from "Surname Projects: Genetic Genealogy and Shared Surnames" to "DNA Testing: Tracing Family Trees with Family Finder and Relative Finder Tests"

Go to familyhistoryalive Home Page

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