“What’s in a name? Very much if the wit of man could find it out”. An interesting use of Y-DNA testing relates to the fact the Y chromosome is inherited in an identical way to surnames, through the unbroken male line. Surnames only started to appear around a thousand years ago as populations grew and people started to move around more. They developed at different times in different places but most have now been established for hundreds of years as hereditary family identifiers. This means that over the centuries many surnames have become correlated with particular Y-STR DNA types or haplotypes.
Names came into existence in an endless variety of ways: they are derived from occupations, towns, counties, physical attributes, nicknames, objects etc, etc, and there are thousands of them in any given location, just have a flick through the phone book. Also there are many different spellings of the same name because standardized spelling is a relatively modern invention. Originally people just spelled things how they sounded, so a particular spelling is only a useful distinguishing characteristic in more recent generations. Some surnames are more common than others, for example, Smith is by far the most common in the English-speaking world, there are millions of individual’s called Smith. Part of tracing your family tree involves looking for names – this is one way we recognise our ancestors when we find them. As you might expect it is not an exact science. Common surnames are likely to have multiple founding fathers and have several different Y-STR haplotypes associated with them. Also through history people have occasionally changed their names or have assumed the name of a different family for a variety of reasons, perhaps they were adopted, perhaps they were conceived during an act if infidelity or maybe they wanted to conceal their true identity to escape persecution or evade the law! But, that said, there has been enough stability in pedigrees through history for Y-STR haplotypes to provide useful information for lots of people, depending on what test(s) you purchase.
There are two main companies who offer Y-STR tests and surname services; Family Tree DNA and Ancestry.com. Both have numerous surname projects that aim to discover the genetic heritage of surnames, the number of separate haplotypes associated with a surname, which variant spellings are part of the same line, what are the geographic origins and so on. Family Tree DNA has the biggest database and therefor the more detailed surname information and you have a greater likelihood of being able to connect with matching individuals depending on the power of the tests you choose. Some people test with both companies to give themselves the greatest chance and the widest search. In addition Family Tree DNA sponsor a free database called Ysearch (www.ysearch.org) which enables anyone who has been tested to upload their results, regardless of which company did the testing, and search the data in various ways to conduct surname research for themselves.