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First they compare the DNA sequences of two individuals or species, counting the neutral differences that don’t alter one’s chances of survival and reproduction.
Then, knowing the rate of these changes, they can calculate the time needed to accumulate that many differences.
DNA holds the story of our ancestry – how we’re related to the familiar faces at family reunions as well as more ancient affairs: how we’re related to our closest nonhuman relatives, chimpanzees; how mated with Neanderthals; and how people migrated out of Africa, adapting to new environments and lifestyles along the way.
And our DNA also holds clues about the timing of these key events in human evolution.
Based on the size of these chunks and frequency of crossovers, geneticists can estimate how long ago that individual was your ancestor.