Episode 476 - Dr. Blaine Bettinger Talks DNA and Artificial Intelligence

podcast episode Oct 09, 2023

Host Scott Fisher opens the show with David Allen Lambert, Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. The guys begin by talking about the recent update on Ancestry’s ethnicity report. Then, a family tree on MyHeritage has provided a rescue line to Norway for a family in Ukraine. Catch the details. A pair of ticket stubs from the night President Lincoln was shot have been auctioned off. Wait til you hear what they went for! An adoptee from South Korea recently received an email that has changed her life. Find out what happened. Meanwhile, another adoptee from Vietnam had a Covid dream about a brother he knew nothing about… and guess what?! And finally, a mummified man in Pennsylvania is finally being buried after nearly 130 years and his name has now been found.

Next, in two parts, Dr. Blaine Bettinger, the Genetic Genealogist, talks with Fisher about unlinked family clusters among our DNA matches and then what is happening with genealogy and artificial intelligence.

David then returns for two more questions on Ask Us Anything.

That’s all this week on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show!


Segment 1 Episode 476

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: And welcome America to America's Family History Show, Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. It is Fisher here, your Radio Roots Sleuth on the program where we shake your family tree, and watch the nuts fall out. Well, Dr. Blaine Bettinger is joining us today for two full segments. Of course, he's very well known in the space. He's the genetic genealogist. And Dr. Bettinger is going to talk about unlinked family clusters. What are those? Well, if you do your DNA, you often find matches that match each other and match you, but you can't figure out where they come from. Or you find out that they descend from some common ancestor and you can't figure out where that ancestor fits into your tree. He's going to explain how this all works and how you might be able to solve that. Plus, he started a brand new Facebook page on genealogy and artificial intelligence. How does that all fit into where we're going? Dr. Bettinger will have some answers for us here, coming up, starting in about ten minutes. Right now, let's head out to Boston, Massachusetts were standing by is the Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. David Allen Lambert, how are you doing, my friend?

David: Hey, I'm doing great. Did you get a chance to see your new numbers with Ancestry and the DNA, the percentages?

Fisher: Yes, for the ethnicity report. It is the first time, David, the first time that the ethnicity report actually lines up with my paper trail, because my mother was 100%, Scandinavian, mostly Swedish, a little bit Norwegian, a tiny bit Finnish and a little bit Danish. And it all comes in on her side. It used to come in a little bit on my dad's side, but now it lines up with what we thought we knew about him, England and Northwestern Europe. And so, that's the first time that's ever happened. I don't know if it's going to stay like that forever, but still pretty darn accurate.

David: I love the results, because to me, it's a bit of magic, because I lost both my parents nearly a quarter of a century ago. And I didn't test some DNA.

Fisher: Of course.

David: I would have, if I had the chance. But I can clearly see that Irish and Scottish is my dad's side and English and a little bit of Irish and Norwegian is on my mom's side. I did lose a little bit of my Norwegian.

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: I'm down to 1% versus a 2%. I guess a little less Viking blood than I thought.

Fisher: There you go. Maybe you just get to wear one horn instead of two.

David: Exactly! You know, making family connections is wonderful. And MyHeritage shared a great story with us about someone who had been using their trees right when the war in Ukraine broke out. And this family from Kyiv, Ukraine had found a connection with a cousin in Norway. Well, when everything started with the war, that cousin invited the family members to come and stay with them in Norway, which I think is amazing.

Fisher: Yeah.

David: And the wife and the child are still in Norway with this cousin, and the husband hopes to join them. It just shows you the magic of genealogy.

Fisher: Yeah, it is incredible what these matches can do, not only in linking up cousins, but learning new stories and finding old photos and look at this. I mean, this could be a lifesaver for this family.

David: You know, sometimes it's good to be a hoarder. If your ancestors saved everything and you inherit it. Well, some people might think it's a lot of junk. Well, if your ancestor attended Ford's Theater on the night of the Lincoln assassination, and they save their two ticket stubs, you'd be a little bit richer tonight. Two of them just sold at auction, Fish for 262,500.

Fisher: [Laughs] Wow! And these were just a couple little ticket stubs and they were snipped, you know, by the usher on the way in. But an amazing thing to think that those tickets were present that night. It's even marked on the back of them that these were from that night, April 14 to 1865. What a great auction! And that was right there in your backyard in Boston.

David: I know. They were witnesses to history. And these ticket stubs are a testament to that. And that's wonderful. Well, a young lady who has a connection of being an adopted child out of South Korea recently got an email and it connects her back to her original family. She had long thought that they were dead. Not the case at all. So, she got to meet her mother and her twin sister.

Fisher: [Laughs] Wow! That had to just blow her mind, because she wasn't looking for any of this. It just happened.

David: Um hmm. And sometimes the best surprises are the ones that are thrust upon us.

Fisher: Yes.

David: As I know personally well myself, with siblings you find you didn't know you had.

Fisher: Yes.

David: Well, sometimes siblings come to you in a dream. Well, how about in a COVID fog dream. A gentleman who was near death when COVID first broke out had a dream in regard to a sibling, a sibling that he did not know that he had. He was born to an American serviceman in Vietnam. His mother had met him. He was military police. He was able to in 1987 immigrate to America, being a child of an American serviceman, and always wanted to track down what happened to his dad. Voila! He hires a genealogist, nothing. But DNA, he finds a half sibling. He is now reunited with his brother. And the brother when they were first face timing said, he was a spitting image of his own father. So they didn't even need to see the results.

Fisher: No, that's right. And he said, they gasped when they saw each other on video for the first time, because the resemblance to the Father.

David: I'm so delighted when family stories like this happen, especially for someone who is in war torn Vietnam.

Fisher: Yeah.

David: And then to connect with his American family now that he lives over here as well.

Fisher: And he had a dream about this guy, too. So, who knew?

David: You know, sometimes I have these wonderful dreams about genealogy. And now, I'm going to have a nightmare due to Stoneman Willie, the alcoholic who died of kidney failure in 1895. You’d think he'd be dead and buried? Oh, au contraire! He was mummified accidentally by the funeral home in 1895. And he has been on display ever since.

Fisher: Yeah. So he's kind of a local that everybody has been familiar with, because they've all gone to see him. And now they're going to bury him, because they figured out his true identity, David.

David: I know. And they're going to reveal this after he's buried later this month. So, stay tuned. We'll have to get a follow up on this one and figure out whose ancestor they have finally found.

Fisher: Yeah.

David: Well, that's what I have from Beantown for you tonight. And just remember, if you're not a member of American Ancestors, save $20 by using the coupon code, Extreme.

Fisher: All right, David, thank you so much. And at the back end of the show, we will talk to you again, as we get to Ask Us Anything. And coming up next, the famous Dr. Blaine Bettinger, talking about unlinked family clusters, and the future of genealogy and artificial intelligence, when we return in three minutes on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show.

Segment 2 Episode 476

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Dr. Blaine Bettinger

Fisher: All right, welcome back to America's Family History Show Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. Fisher here, your Radio Roots Sleuth, and it has been too long since we had Dr. Blaine Bettinger on. He is the genetic genealogist. And we've got some great things to talk about today. Blaine, welcome back to the show! It's great to have you.

Blaine: Thank you, Scott. It's great to be here.

Fisher: We've got some great topics here. And let's just start with the first one, unlinked family clusters. And I saw that you posted about this fairly recently, I don't think we've ever talked about this on the show. But there is a situation that comes up in pretty much everybody's family tree where we get this network of DNA matches, and we just can't figure out where they come from. I was just looking at two or three of them this very morning. So what are your thoughts on this, let's kind of map out first of all, what it is and how we deal with it. Because I know you've got some great insights to share.

Blaine: Sure, so these unlinked family clusters, I think are coming about as a result of the huge match lists that we're finding at all the testing companies as the databases get so large. And what these unlinked family clusters are as essentially a group as you know, a group of DNA matches that are all very clearly shared with each other. And they're forming this group or this cluster around each other and also around an ancestor. So for example, as I talked about in my blog post, I have what I call the Zufelt cluster, because all of the people in this cluster that I can track trees for or build trees for all go back to a single Zufelt ancestor. And so I have maybe 30 to 40 or more matches all sharing in common with each other and all descended from this common ancestor, the Zufelt couple.

Fisher: And how far back do they go?

Blaine: So this Zufelt cluster is about the late 1700s so this is where they all kind of tie in together as at that point.

Fisher: Okay. And you have no connection to this family as far as you know?

Blaine: And hence the unlinked part of unlinked family cluster, that's absolutely right.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Blaine: It's becoming very clear that I am a Zufelt descendant or relatives of some kind. But figuring out how this links into my family tree is the challenge. The matches aren't super close. So you know, if we're coming in a second cousin level, things like that, we should be able to figure out where it fits in.

Fisher: Exactly.

Blaine: When we're talking about more distant matches, it can be a real challenge. And it may be things like misattributed parentage events that result in the connection, which means we may have a great family tree, but there’ll never be a piece of paper that essentially says, hey, here's where the Zufelt tie in or whatever your cluster is.

Fisher: Sure. So as I think about this, the late 1700s puts it kind of at the far reaches of what we can do with DNA matching autosomally, right? And so you're right, it comes into the question of misattributed parentage, and also half relationships and the challenges that come with that from that far back. What do you do with this?

Blaine: Yeah, that's the challenge, right, is to try to figure out where I can tie it in. And so I provide some clues, some suggestions in the blog post. And number one, first and foremost is simply good old fashioned genealogical research. So you want to study your unlinked family to the nth degree with every bit of genealogical research that you can with the hope that at some point you'll find a connection, right?

Fisher: Sure.

Blaine: A Zufelt living next door or whatever the name you're working with, right?

Fisher: Yep.

Blaine: So that might be the connection, but you're going to have to track down lines, right, forward in time. You're essentially trying to build the tree downward from the ancestral couple in the hopes that ultimately you'll link it to your own tree somehow.

Fisher: Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

Blaine: Another suggestion is don't just focus on one company, right? So you found some Zufelt at Family Tree DNA, well, what about Zufelt at My Heritage, at 23andMe, at Ancestry, and so on. And so you want to bring all those in because there might be one person in a cluster that is only a company one, and that's the key you need to figure it out. So, try to find more members of this cluster at different places, different testing companies. Another one is essentially look for the commonality. And what I mean by that is, for example, in my tree, the Zufelts are all from extreme north eastern upstate New York. And that's where my maternal grandfather's family is all from. So that suggests to me that I should be looking on that line. And there's other things, including some chromosome mapping that essentially bears that out. But it says to me, hey, this is where this family might link in and that's probably the line I should be focusing on.

Fisher: Sure. You know, as frustrating as this kind of thing is, it's also kind of intriguing, because when you finally get the big break, it's just such a sense of celebration. Have you cracked some of these before?

Blaine: I have, yes. I have worked with some of these, where once you do enough genealogical research, especially tracking that ancestral couple down through the generations that you ultimately find what that connection is. It's a whole lot easier when it's something like, you know, an ancestral woman whose maiden name was lost, for example, and you're ultimately able to kind of find some documentation that that helps figure that out. In the cases though of where it's more likely to be a misattributed parentage event, it's possible that we may have these unlinked family clusters just sort of floating around in our trees and we may never really find the exact connection of where they fit in.

Fisher: Well, let me ask you this then what about those unlink family clusters where you can't find a common ancestor among the people?

Blaine: Oh, those happen as well, right?

Fisher: Yeah.

Blaine: Exactly right. And so it's still really an unlinked family cluster.

Fisher: Right.

Blaine: But you just can't figure out what the connection is. Maybe it's too far back in time. Maybe their trees have issues. And so it's sort of a wait and see, approach for that. For me, it's, keep adding in new matches as they come into that cluster and maybe with a couple of new ones you'll be able to kind of break through. And that's just step one, right, figuring out the common ancestral family. And sometimes even that's impossible.

Fisher: Well, I've found some people that match to all these folks that point to a certain branch of the family, and they match each other back about three or four generations. I've had this happen recently with a family named Escott and I cannot figure out for the life of me where this family ties into us, and all the other people that I have their shared DNA research that they've given to me that I can, you know, keep track of things with. I would assume that you have an awful lot of cousins as well that you use to try to find matches to them that you don't necessarily have personally, right?

Blaine: That's exactly right. Yeah, having more family members in the database is certainly going to help you track these down a little bit more too.

Fisher: Yeah, and it's a huge help to because I've seen over many years where I can get matches to a second cousin, or even a third cousin that I don't get, that still helps me to crack open something that relates to my line and my siblings and that type of thing. But boy, it's when you get the unlinked family clusters and you can't figure out who they even all come from together. That's where it gets really frustrating. What else do you think about these? Where else can we go? And how will it ultimately get cracked open because we're getting more and more advancements in genetic genealogy that can help us.

Blaine: Yeah, I think a couple of things are going to be helpful. So for example, the recent side view developments at Ancestry that help us identify matches that are maternal versus paternal that can really help people narrow it down to at least one side or the other. But I think probably for most unlinked family clusters other than our own work, the genealogy the other things we talked about, the biggest thing that's going to come to help us out is essentially just new matches more people testing, the database is getting larger. I think that's going to be how we make these breakthroughs.

Fisher: So what's your estimate right now as to how many people have tested? I mean, we have a lot of overlap between the different companies. Do we have a number in mind that you think roughly has tested over the last 15 years or so?

Blaine: Yeah, when we're talking about just autosomal at the big four testing companies, it's probably somewhere around 40 to 45 million people.

Fisher: Okay, that's a number I keep hearing over and over again. The question is, we've kind of peaked as far as the wave has gone. What kind of numbers are we seeing now? I mean, obviously, we're still seeing numbers that would have blown our minds back in 2014 or so right?

Blaine: Yeah, that's right. And it's funny, because you definitely get spoiled. I mean, when we were getting the wave, as you talk about in 2018, 2019 that timeframe, I mean, we just got match, after match, after match and they were all great. And it was fantastic. But as you know, that has slowed, and, for example, I go through an exercise where every couple of weeks I will look at all of my fourth cousins or closer at the various testing companies, and I'm trying to figure out what grandparent line they're on. And so and I'll say, you know, every couple of weeks, I always have new estimated fourth cousins or closer in my match list to work with.

Fisher: Yes.

Blaine: So they're constantly coming in. It's not a flood, it's more of a stream or a trickle, but they're coming in. And that's the good thing. We don't want it to stop. That's the danger.

Fisher: No, that's the thing. I mean, it's really hard to keep track of all the different branches where all these matches come from the try to say, Aha, there it is. How do you do it?

Blaine: Oh, my goodness, I'd love to say that I'm as organized as I tell people to be, you know, but I too find it, you know, I make the same discovery over and over again, because I didn't take good notes the first time around.

Fisher: Right. Right. Have you improved your techniques at all to help you with this?

Blaine: Yeah, so I've done a couple of things. I have been keeping better notes at the testing company, you know, all the testing companies have a note taking field associated with every DNA match. And so I highly recommend people utilize that. And the other thing is, is if you're working on a project, right, document, so if I'm working on the Zufelt project, I have a word document open where I'm taking notes and keeping track of what I'm doing so that I can try to the best of my ability now reproduce it down the road.

Fisher: Yeah, yeah, I do exactly the same thing. And I like to note, particularly on Ancestry’s little notes section, who all the matches are, and at what level, that kind of tells me what branch of the family somebody might be coming from.

Blaine: Yeah, I think that's a great idea. I think that's a great idea. And you know, what you could do is have your own system so that if something is a little bit more hypothetical versus determined or concluded, you know, make a note about that difference so that you understand the degree of conclusion you've reached about a particular match.

Fisher: Right, how strongly you feel about it.

Blaine: Exactly, exactly.

Fisher: All right. Well, let's take a break here. We're with Dr. Blaine Bettinger. We want to talk about genealogy and AI coming up, and I know that you've been getting deep in the weeds. You're kind of a pioneer in this as much as anything else, Blaine, and we look forward to hearing what you have to say about that, coming up next when we return in five minutes on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show.

Segment 3 Episode 476

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Dr. Blaine Bettinger

Fisher: All right, back at it on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. You know, last segment we were just talking to our guest here Dr. Blaine Bettinger, about unlinked family clusters. And I’ve got to tell you Blaine, it was somewhat comforting to hear that you, who deal with this stuff every day, have some of the same problems that the rest of us have.

Blaine: Oh yeah. I wish, I had the magic solution, but I struggle through it just like everybody else.

Fisher: Yep. Well, let’s talk about this new Facebook group that you’ve put together over the last what, year or so?

Blaine: Uh, yes.

Fisher: Genealogy and Artificial Intelligence.

Blaine: That’s right. I started it back in February. When ChatGPT kind of exploded and it became very clear that this was something that could potentially be utilized for genealogical research. I created a Facebook group as essentially a way for people to focus on this topic, find resources, maybe discuss, ask questions, essentially just creating a safe friendly positive space for us to talk about the various tools as they launched.

Fisher: Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve tooled around with Chat a little bit myself to see what it could do. My dad was a musician of some note. So, I asked it what it knew about him, and it was not entirely accurate.

Blaine: Yeah.

Fisher: It wasn’t really a whole lot different than a lot of other things when you do a Google search and you come up with all these different websites. So, I scolded it a little bit and corrected it. [Laughs]

Blaine: [Laughs]

Fisher: And it seems to be humble about such things. It doesn’t like to be wrong.

Blaine: Yep, very true.

Fisher: So, what have you learned about it? Are we seeing at this point, it’s still very early, as my son likes to say, we’re in the model-T era of AI right now. What are we seeing so far that has been of tremendous use, or some use, or minimal use to you?

Blaine: I think we’re right in the middle. We’re some use. As long as we understand what these tools can and can’t do. So, for example, we’re talking pretty much right now about what are called, large language models, like ChatGPT, Microsoft, Bing, Google, Bard, those are all various tools that are trained on enormous, we’re talking billions of documents. Essentially, they’re trained to give us an answer that it thinks we want to hear.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Blaine: And one important limitation to understand about that is that these tools are not good for either reasoning or for fact based information.

Fisher: Yes.

Blaine: What I mean by that is, asking it, “tell me everything you know about so and so” is going to be problematic because unless it was somehow really well trained with enough information about that source, then maybe it could come up with something. But, it has a tendency to make stuff up. Again, because it thinks it’s giving us the answer we want to hear.

Fisher: Yes.

Blaine: So, it’s better to use it for tasks that are sort of content based. And what I mean by that is asking it to draft an email for you. I use it to come up with creative punchy titles for talks, for example.

Fisher: Right.

Blaine: For example, you can say, give me a list of ten titles for a talk about X, Y, Z, and it will come up with fun, interesting titles. So, for that type of content creation, and genealogists, a lot of us are content creators.

Fisher: Yes.

Blaine: Whether its reports, emails, presentations, outlines, whatever it is. So, we can harness these tools to utilize it for that, as long as we understand the fact that we need to be careful where there are sort of facts involved.

Fisher: Sure, that’s the thing. I think we would all like to see it be more fact based and accurate. So, I guess my question is, what do you think about the idea that ultimately it could tie in to say, Newspapers.com database, and figure out all the articles about an individual and write a biography of that person? Do you see something like that happening down the line?

Blaine: Absolutely. And I don’t even think that’s all that much of a stretch to be honest. I think that’s a fairly straightforward thing. For example, Google Bard, last week, or the week before announced that it was incorporating with, if you authorized it, your email and Google Drive for example. So, you could use Bard to search through your emails. I don’t know about you, but I’m never thoroughly happy with email search, essentially most document searching.

Fisher: Yeah.

Blaine: So, having an AI tool that maybe does a little bit better job of it is a good thing. And I did authorize that incorporation. And I've used it successfully to ask a question. So for example, I had a trip a little while ago, and I simply asked Google Bard, I said, hey, when is my trip? And so it gave me a summary of my trip. And it brought up a list of emails associated with that trip.

Fisher: Wow!

Blaine: And you know, that's a time saver.

Fisher: Sure. So if you're going to go on a family history journey to Europe, for instance, maybe you can also ask it to provide information about some of the locations you want to visit something like that.

Blaine: Exactly. Right, exactly.

Fisher: Wow! What other sources do you think are going to come into play here with AI? I mean, again, we're still very early in the game. And fact based is really where we would like to get that just makes things easier and easier. What else do you see ahead?

Blaine: So another one of them and one that's really developing so quickly, right now is handwriting recognition and transcriptions.

Fisher: Yes.

Blaine: So, feeding it all of these, and Family Search is doing this, Ancestry is doing this, lots of development in this area, feeding it handwritten documents, that it can then understand what's being written and put it into a digital format. So not only is it creating the non-cursive translation, but it's making it digital and searchable as well. And so we all spent so much time and I have this discussion with people often about should we learn cursive in school?

Fisher: Right.

Blaine: Is it necessary? And boy, I'll tell you, every year that passes, cursive becomes less and less necessary, because we're going to have these tools that are translating cursive for us.

Fisher: Yeah. I always thought that, okay, if we stop teaching cursive, who's going to be able to read the documents? And it's like, oh, well, we have this now. And it's not only reading them, it's going through and indexing the names that are in there, the dates, the places, highlighting those for us, making it all searchable. The argument is kind of fading away, I guess, is what you're saying and I totally agree.

Blaine: Yeah. You know, it may have a place but think about the millions of documents that have been tied up because of handwriting. You have to look at it on a one by one, by one basis. And now having those digitized and searchable, I mean, that is downright revolutionary considering the amount of data that's been tied up in these documents.

Fisher: Well, I think back to the early RootsTechs, where this was the discussion, this was the dream, right, that this could be accomplished someday, and that someday has now arrived and it's doing millions of documents all the time.

Blaine: That's right. It's just processing and you know, it's not perfect.

Fisher: No.

Blaine: We aren't perfect when we transcribe a handwritten document.

Fisher: Give me 80 percent right and I'm just really quite comfortable with that, especially with the sheer volume. And you know, we see that too with human indexers. For instance, on Family Search, there are a lot of volunteers that go in and do the best they can. And a lot of these things names and letters and dates, they get wrong. But if you really know how to work the system a little bit, you can still find these names, that it's still available. And you can still crack through maybe searching just by a first name. And by a date and a place, you can crack it open and go, Oh, wait a minute, that's supposed to be this last name, not what they came up with there. And it still works. And if they hadn't done that indexing in the first place, I wouldn't have found the document. So I'm appreciative of it, even if it's flawed. Do you agree?

Blaine: Absolutely. It's very reminiscent for me of OCR, right?

Fisher: Yes!

Blaine:  So OCR was essentially taking non-handwritten documents like newspapers and converting it into digital. And we know that that's an imperfect process. But we've all developed techniques for working with poorly OCR records. And it's the same thing with handwritten documents.

Fisher: Well, I'm always amazed with OCR, when I look for a particular name, very specific in a place in time, and it can't bring that name up in certain documents. And the only reason I know it didn't bring it up is because I did a search by residents, by their address, and suddenly it brings up something and what comes to mind immediately is something I found this year, it was an ad that my great grandfather took out in New York City because he lost his fireman's badge. And he gave the number of the badge. And he had his address in there, where to return it and he was offering a reward. And there's his full name right there. Andrew J. Fisher. I went back and tried to search for the same thing, using the name and it wouldn't bring it up. Only through the address did I ever find it, you know?

Blaine: Yeah.

Fisher: So, these are some of the workarounds that we get sometimes to milk things that we don't normally get. He's Dr. Blaine Bettinger. Blaine, I'm so appreciative of your time, and I wish we had more. But we got to get you back again soon and get some updates on these things. Great insight, as always!

Blaine: All right. Thank you so much, Scott, great to talk to you.

Fisher: It's always a joy to talk to you, sir. Thanks so much. And coming up next, David Allen Lambert from NEHGS returns as we do another round of Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show.

Segment 4 Episode 476

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: All right, let's get the band back together for another round of Ask Us Anything. David Allen Lambert joins me from Boston. And, David, our first question today comes from Roland in Arlington, Texas. And he says, “Hello guys. I was cleaning a barn recently and found a metal round disk with a name, date and age on it.” And he's actually sent us an image of this. He says, “My friend told me to ask you, what is this thing? Roland.” Any idea David?

David: Yeah, I saw the image and it has little pinholes on it. Those are nail holes. I hope also they don't find in that barn, the casket that that coffin plate was on. That's what that is. It's a coffin plate. They're usually made out of nickel silver. Sometimes they're even made a little higher grade silver. They can be very ornate or they can just be round like this one is.

Fisher: Yeah.

David: They are a great memento that was given to the family after someone died. They would take off the coffin plate before the burial. And sometimes people would frame them. Sometimes they'll end up in museums, like the New York Historical Society on their e-museum online.

Fisher: So wait a minute, wait, I want to understand. If they're putting the name and the date and the age on there and they're attaching it to the coffin, isn't the idea that if you happen to dig up this coffin, it identifies who it was? I mean, the question is, why would they take it off, then? That's interesting, unless there was more than one, the one on the coffin and one for the souvenir.

David: Well, you know, it's funny, I've often seen in recent funerals, that the name of the person is put on the vault cover where the coffin goes in. There may have been a second one. There may have been one inside. They’re usually on the top or on the side. And ideally, you would have a gravestone. They become very valuable when something is obviously unearthed. So these are interesting. They turn up in family homes. My uncle had two of them. And I said, “Can I take a look at these?” One of them was for his sister from 1930. And the other one was from my great grandmother, who died in 1922. And I said, “What are you going to do with them?” He says, “Oh, I thought I'd sell them at a yard sale. Who would want these?” Unlike your nephew who's a genealogist.

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: So I have two of them in my family possession. And I've come across some at yard sales and flea markets. I had a couple that were lying around, so my kids would be frightened by them, because they're not relatives.

Fisher: Right.

David: I gave them to NEHGS. And we do have a batch of them at NEHGS as well.

Fisher: Wow, that's amazing! So the question is, I guess, where did this one in the barn come from and whose was it?

David: You have to research the history of that home and see if there's a connection with the surname with the person on the coffin plate. And of course, there's so many great websites. You can go out to Ancestry, plug that name and date in, then you may be able to find the place. Go to FindAGrave and find out where the coffin is.

Fisher: Yeah, right.

David: And again, hopefully not the barn.

Fisher: And then there's also Newspapers.com. You could find the obituary right there. Of course, full disclosure, they’re one of our sponsors.

David: I would give it to the local historical society that connects with the town that you find the person’s from or go one step further, track down a living descendant. Nothing says Halloween like receiving the coffin plate of your ancestor.

Fisher: [Laughs] You know, I have a lot of stuff for my family. I don't have any coffin plates. Never really crossed my mind to look for those. But, what a great find! And I guess I should be cleaning out a few more barns now and again, David.

David: [Laughs] I hope there's nothing else they find in the barn, like the person connected to the coffin plates.

Fisher: Well, you know, and farms in the like, they used to bury people right in their own property, right?

David: Um hmm, that's why I think him researching the property might show who the identity actually is.

Fisher: All right. Well Roland, thanks for the question. That's a good one and an interesting one. And thanks for the picture, too. That helped out a lot. So, good luck in your research on that. And coming up, we have another question. This one concerning DNA when we return in three minutes on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show.

Segment 5 Episode 476

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: All right, we are back on the job! It's Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. David over there, Fisher over here. And our next question comes from Lexington, Kentucky. Mary Elizabeth writes, “Fisher and David, we got a surprise DNA result recently and learned that my grandfather was not my late dad's bio father.” Hmm!

David: Ooh.

Fisher: “Well, my uncle, my dad's brother doesn't know and we're trying to decide whether to tell him or not. Of course, maybe grandpa was his bio dad. Uncle Drake is 84. Tell us what to do.” Oh boy David, I'm feeling the weight of responsibility here! [Laughs] Where do you want to begin?

David: Well, I would say the first thing to do is, start asking at family reunions a few more questions to see how this balances out.

Fisher: Right. Well, you know, the problem is going to be, you're not going to know if your uncle's father was your grandfather, unless he is tested personally, right? I mean, you got to do that comparison. I suppose though, as I say that, David, it crosses my mind that if you have cousins, children of your uncle, then you could ask them to do the DNA tests and see if they can't determine then who grandpa was on their side. You might find it's the same man who is your bio grandfather. In which case now, you have that continuing problem, if not, and you find the man you knew as grandpa was actually his father, then you really don't have that problem.

David: Well, I mean, like I say, these family stories are flushed out more and more with DNA. I mean, I think that people and a lot of families say, “Do you know who that person's real dad is?” You know, as whispered under the Thanksgiving table years ago. I mean, this isn't uncommon. And I think that that's one of the things that you have to understand that this does happen and has happened for millennia.

Fisher: Yeah, it's really true.

David: Different generations of this.

Fisher: A few years ago, I was in Indiana, visiting some of my wife's relatives and telling them all about the history of that side of the family, and was encouraging them to do DNA tests, you know, to do some matchups. And as I was leaving, one of them pulled me aside and said, “Ah, don't encourage everybody.” and they kind of pointed over at somebody was having a conversation on the other side of the room and said, “He doesn't know it.” but he wasn't actually related to this group. But everybody else knew that. And I thought, boy, that's, that's a tough position to be in, right Dave? I mean, everybody knows, but you,

David: I have a similar story in my family, my mother's mother, the child of an older sister or my great grandmother. The problem is, they have the same mitochondrial DNA. And the difference is, my great grandmother was 45 when my grandmother was born and this sister was only 21. Did she have a child out of wedlock? My grandmother's birth wasn’t recorded until 1953. But you have to puzzle in a really high detailed analysis of the DNA to see if there's a skip of a generation or somebody that my grandmother shares that none of her siblings descendants share that would be a father.

Fisher: Why, it is a big puzzle, isn't it? Wow! So, well, in your note, you asked us, Mary Elizabeth, tell us what to do. I don't know that we've done that and I don't know that we can do that. You're going to have to just do this analysis yourself and figure out the appropriate thing and maybe discuss it with your uncle's children. And hopefully, you'll find the right answer and you'll feel comfortable with that. Good luck on that, Mary Elizabeth. Well, that's our show for this week. David. Thank you so much for coming on. We'll catch you again next time around.

David: I look forward to it. Until then, happy searching for those coffin plates.

Fisher: Yes, indeed. And thanks once again to Dr. Blaine Bettinger for coming on and talking about unlinked family clusters, and genealogy and artificial intelligence. If you missed any of the show or just want to hear the whole thing all over again, catch the podcasts. They're out every Monday morning. You can find it on AppleMedia, iHeart Radio, TuneIn Radio, Spotify and ExtremeGenes.com. And of course, on ExtremeGenes.com, just go to the podcast archive, and you can find all of the 470 some odd episodes that came before this one. So, enjoy and good luck in all your research! We'll talk to you again next week. Thanks for joining us. And remember, as far as everyone knows, we're a nice normal family!

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