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The Magic of Cousins

by | Aug 11, 2020 | Search

It’s difficult to adequately describe what a huge thing it was to get the results of the first DNA test I did. I was excited and interested to see my ethnicity estimates although not overly surprised. The non identifying information that ‘came with me’ when I was adopted had my birth parents’ ethnicities recorded, and my DNA results corroborated that. It was clicking on my DNA relatives that really took my breath away. It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen people biologically related to me. And there, on the screen, were over 1400 of them! (I suspect that going from zero to 1400 would take anyone’s breath away!) The sense of connection was amazing and surprising to me.

This is the first part of the magic of cousins. It continues to astonish me just how many people all over the world I am related to, even if it is distantly. The idea of us being all one global family comes into striking focus as you look at a map of your relatives. This is my map, just in North America, and it is only a small fraction of the number of relatives I actually have.

Cousin Map of North America

These are only the relatives who have shared their location on only one of the major DNA databases. Each company has their own, constantly growing database. When you take all of that into account, and then think of the idea of a stranger, things change. As I walk down the street, or through a crowded shopping centre, I look at all of the people and wonder, “how many cousins have I unknowingly walked by today?”

It’s amazing and truly breathtaking to think about, but for an adoptee in the middle of a search for biological family, the magic just keeps getting better.


The Thing About Cousins

When you think about cousins, you usually envision first cousins; the children of your aunts and uncles. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. In your DNA match list you will see up to 4th, 5th, and even distant cousins. If you are searching for close biological family, your first reaction to seeing all of these cousins might be, “Great! Now I have to extend my search to aunts and uncles too!” But while being technically correct, it’s missing the point. You are not connected to your cousins through your aunts and uncles, you are connected to them through your grandparents. Your grandparents are the Most Recent Common Ancestors (MRCA) that you share with your first cousins.

So let that sink in; every single cousin on your list will connect directly to a grandparent, great grandparent, great great grandparent and so on. If you are starting with an empty biological tree, that is an incredibly powerful realization to have. That is the magic of cousins.

So how does it work exactly? The rule of thumb I have learned is to count the Gs. Grandparents have one G and they are the MRCA for you and your first cousins; one G= 1st cousin. Your Great Grandparents are the MRCA for you and your 2nd cousins; 2Gs = 2nd cousin. And it works the same as you go further.

This is the magic, and for those who are searching, the gift of cousins. Cousins don’t just tell us who our aunts and uncles etc.. are; they point directly to grandparents.

It is obviously so much easier if a first cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparent, sibling, or even a parent shows up in your list of DNA matches, but that is not the experience for a vast majority of people involved in adoptive searches. It’s not, however, the end of the road. You don’t have to sit and wait until one of these close relatives shows up. What if that takes years? Or never happens?

Many people have found their biological parents or siblings through third or even fourth cousins. The further removed you are (a fourth cousin is connected to you through your Great Great Great Grandparent), the more work you are going to have to undertake to connect the dots and find the connections.

How much of an effort? Let’s run some numbers. You have:

    • 4 grandparents: 1st cousin
    • 8 great grandparents: 2nd cousin
    • 16 great great grandparents: 3rd cousin
    • 32 great great great grandparents: 4th cousin

That is a lot of people to sort through. So the closer you are, the less work is involved in finding your MRCA. If there are no close relatives on your list of matches the rule of thumb is to try to work with your second or third cousins for two reasons:

    1. it is less work to go through fewer sets of grandparents,
    2. the further back you have to go, the less likely it is that these cousins will have the ancestor you need in their tree.

We will discuss the actual technique of grouping and working through all of your cousin matches in a future article. What we want you to take away from this is that there really is magic in cousins; in feeling a greater sense of connection, and in giving us a concrete way to find our biological relatives.

Feature Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Written by Derek Grimm

Derek was adopted at birth in Calgary, Canada. He began his 35 year journey in his late teens little realising how long it would take before finally piercing the veil and making contact with both sides of his birth family. The experience he has gained through the years of his search, the successes, and the lessons he learned from the mistakes he made form the backbone of the Search Find Become course.

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