I have written repeatedly about ethnicity results as part of the autosomal test offerings of the major DNA testing companies, but I still receive lots of questions about which ethnicity test is best, which is the most accurate, etc. Take a look at “Ethnicity Percentages – Second Generation Report Card” for a detailed analysis and comparison.
First, let’s clarify which testing companies we are talking about. They are:
Let’s make this answer unmistakable.
- Some of the companies are somewhat better than others relative to ethnicity – but not a lot.
- These tests are reasonably reliable when it comes to a continent level test – meaning African, European, Asian and sometimes, Native American.
- These tests are great at detecting ancestry over 25% – but if you know who your grandparents are – you already have that information.
- The usefulness of these tests for accurately providing ethnicity information diminishes as the percentage of that minority admixture declines. Said another way – as your percentage of a particular ethnicity decreases, so does the testing companies’ ability to find it.
- Intra-continental results, meaning within Europe, for example, are speculative, at best. Do not expect them to align with your known genealogy. They likely won’t – and if they do at one vendor – they won’t at others. Which one is “right”? Who knows – maybe all of them when you consider population movement, migration and assimilation.
- As the vendors add to and improve their data bases, reference populations and analysis tools, your results change. I discussed how vendors determine your ethnicity percentages in the article, “Determining Ethnicity Percentages.”
- Sometimes unexpected results, especially continent level results, are a factor of ancient population mixing and migrations, not recent admixture – and it’s impossible to tell the difference. For example, the Celts, from the Germanic area of Europe also settled in the British Isles. Attila the Hun and his army, from Asia, invaded and settled in what is today, Germany, as well as other parts of Eastern Europe.
- Ethnicity tests are unreliable in consistently detecting minority admixture. Minority in this context means a small amount, generally less than 5%. It does not refer to any specific ethnicity. Having said that, there are very few reference data base entries for Native American populations. Most are from from Canada and South America.
In the context of ethnicity, what does unreliable mean?
Unreliable means that the results are not consistent and often not reproducible across platforms, especially in terms of minority admixture. For example, a German/Hungarian family member shows Native American admixture at low percentages, around 3%, at some, but not all, vendors. His European family history does not reflect Native heritage and in fact, precludes it. However, his results likely reflect Native American from a common underlying ancestral population, the Yamnaya, between the Asian people who settled Hungary and parts of Germany and also contributed to the Native American population.
Unreliable can also mean that different vendors, measuring different parts of your DNA, can assign results to different regions. For example, if you carry Celtic ancestry, would you be surprised to see Germanic results and think they are “wrong?” Speaking of Celts, they didn’t just stay put in one region within Europe either. And who were the Celts and where did they ‘come from’ before they were Celts. All of this current and ancient admixture is carried in your DNA. Teasing it out and the meaning it carries is the challenge.
Unreliable may also mean that the tests often do not reflect what is “known” in terms of family history. I put the word “known” in quotes here, because oral history does not constitute “known” and it’s certainly not proof. For the most part, documented genealogy does constitute “known” but you can never “know” about an undocumented adoption, also referred to as a “nonparental event” or NPE. Yes, that’s when one or both parents are not who you think they are based on traditional information. With the advent of DNA testing, NPEs can, in some instances, be discovered.
So, the end result is that you receive very interesting information about your genetic history that often does not correlate with what you expected – and you are left scratching your head.
However, in some cases, if you’re looking for something specific – like a small amount of Native American or African ancestry, you, indeed, can confirm it through your DNA – and can confirm your family history. One thing is for sure, if you don’t test, you will never know.
Let’s take a look at how ethnicity estimates work relative to minority admixture.
In terms of minority admixture, I’m referring to admixture that is several generations back in your tree. It’s often revealed in oral history, but unproven, and people turn to genetic genealogy to prove those stories.
In my case, I have several documented Native American lines and a few that are not documented. All of these results are too far back in time, the 1600s and 1700s, to realistically be “found” in autosomal admixture tests consistently. I also have a small amount of African admixture. I know which line this comes from, but I don’t know which ancestor, exactly. I have worked through these small percentages systematically and documented the process in the series titled, “The Autosomal Me.” This is not an easy or quick process – and if quick and easy is the type of answer you’re seeking – then working further, beyond what the testing companies give you, with small amounts of admixture, is probably not for you.
Let’s look at what you can expect in terms of inheritance admixture. You receive 50% of your DNA from each parent, and so forth, until eventually you receive very little DNA (or none) from your ancestors from many generations back in your tree.
Let’s put this in perspective. The first US census was taken in 1790, so your ancestors born in 1770 should be included in the 1790 census, probably as a child, and in following censuses as an adult. You carry less than 1% of this ancestor’s DNA.
The first detailed census listing all family members was taken in 1850, so most of your ancestors that contributed more than 1% of your DNA would be found on that or subsequent detailed census forms.
These are often not the “mysterious” ancestors that we seek. These ancestors, whose DNA we receive in amounts over 1%, are the ones we can more easily track through traditional means.
The reason the column of DNA percentages is labeled “approximate” is because, other than your parents, you don’t receive exactly half of your ancestor’s DNA. DNA is not divided exactly in half and passed on to subsequence generations, except for what you receive from your parents. Therefore, you can have more or less of any one ancestor’s individual DNA that would be predicted by the chart, above. Eventually, as you continue to move further out in your tree, you may carry none of a specific ancestor’s DNA or it is in such small pieces that it is not detected by autosomal DNA testing.
At least two of the three major vendors have made changes of some sort this year in their calculations or underlying data bases. Generally, they don’t tell us, and we discover the change by noticing a difference when we look at our results.
Historically, Ancestry has been the worst, with widely diverging estimates, especially within continents. However, their current version is picking up both my Native and African. However, with their history of inconsistency and wildly inaccurate results, it’s hard to have much confidence, even when the current results seem more reasonable and in line with other vendors. I’ve adopted a reserved “wait and see” position with Ancestry relative to ethnicity.
Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder product is in the middle with consistent results, but they don’t report less than 1% admixture which is often where those distant ancestors’ minority ethnicity would be found, if at all. However, Family Tree DNA does provide Y and mitochondrial mapping comparisons, and ethnicity comparisons to your matches that are not provided by other vendors.
In this view, you can see the matching ethnicity percentages for those whom you match autosomally.
23andMe is currently best in terms of minority ethnicity detection, in part, because they report amounts less than 1%, have a speculative view, which is preferred by most genetic genealogists and because they paint your ethnicity on your chromosomes, shown below. You can see that both chromosome 1 and 2 show Native segments.
So, looking at minority admixture only – let’s take a look at today’s vendor results as compared to the same vendors in May 2014.
The Rest of the Story
Keep in mind, we’re only discussing ethnicity here – and there is a lot more to autosomal DNA testing than ethnicity – for example – matching to cousins, tools, such as a chromosome browser (or lack thereof), trees, ease of use and ability to contact your matches. Please see “Autosomal DNA 2015 – Which Test is the Best?” Unless ethnicity is absolutely the ONLY reason you are DNA testing, then you need to consider the rest of the story.
And speaking of the rest of the story, National Geographic has been pretty much omitted from this discussion because they have just announced a new upgrade, “Geno 2.0: Next Generation,” to their offering, which promises to be a better biogeographical tool. I hope so – as National Geographic is in a unique position to evaluate populations with their focus on sample collection from what is left of unique and sometimes isolated populations. We don’t have much information on the new product yet, and of course, no results because the new test won’t be released until in September, 2015. So the jury is out on this one. Stay tuned.
GedMatch – Not A Vendor, But a Great Toolbox
Finally, most people who are interested in ethnicity test at one (or all) of the companies, utilize the rest of the tools offered by that company, then download their results to www.gedmatch.com, a donation based site, and make use of the numerous contributed admixture tools there.
GedMatch offers lots of options and several tools that provide a wide range of focus. For example, some tools are specifically written for European, African, Asian or even comparison against ancient DNA results.
So what is the net-net of this discussion?
- There is a lot more to autosomal DNA testing than just ethnicity – so take everything into consideration.
- Ethnicity determination is still an infant and emerging field – with all vendors making relatively regular updates and changes. You cannot take minority results to the bank without additional and confirming research, often outside of genetic genealogy. However, mitochondrial or Y DNA testing, available only through Family Tree DNA, can positively confirm Native or minority ancestry in the lines available for testing. You can create a DNA Pedigree Chart to help identify or eliminate Native lines.
- If the ancestors you seek are more than a few generations removed, you may not carry enough of their ethnic DNA to be identified.
- Your “100% Cherokee” ancestor was likely already admixed – and so their descendants may carry even less Native DNA than anticipated.
- You cannot prove a negative using autosomal DNA (but you can with both Y and mitochondrial DNA). In other words, a negative autosomal ethnicity result alone, meaning no Native heritage, does NOT mean your ancestors were not Native. It MIGHT mean they weren’t Native. It also might mean that they were either very admixed or the Native ancestry is too far back in your tree to be found with today’s technology. Again, mitochondrial and Y DNA testing provide confirmed ancestry identification for the lines they represent. Y is the male paternal (surname) line and mitochondrial is the matrilineal line of both males and females – the mother’s, mother’s, mother’s line, on up the tree until you run out of mothers.
- It is very unlikely that you will be able to find your tribe, although it is occasionally possible. If a company says they can do this, take that claim with a very big grain of salt. Your internal neon warning sign should be flashing about now.
- If you’re considering purchasing an ethnicity test from a company other than the four I mentioned – well, just don’t. Many use very obsolete technology and oversell what they can reliably provide. They don’t have any better reference populations available to them than the major companies and Nat Geo, and let’s just say there are ways to “suggest” people are Native when they aren’t. Here are two examples of accidental ways people think they are Native or related – so just imagine what kind of damage could be done by a company that was intentionally providing “marginal” or misleading information to people who don’t have the experience to know that because they “match” someone who has a Native ancestor doesn’t mean they share that same Native ancestor – or any connection to that tribe. So, stay with the known companies if you’re going to engage in ethnicity testing. We may not like everything about the products offered by these companies, but we know and understand them.
By all means, test.
Test with all three companies, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and Ancestry – then download your results from either Family Tree DNA or Ancestry (who test more markers than 23andMe) to GedMatch and utilize their ethnicity tools. When I’m looking for minority admixture, I tend to look for consistent trends – not just at results from any one vendor or source.
If you have already tested at Ancestry, or you tested at 23andMe on the V3 chip, prior to December 2013, you can download your raw data file to Family Tree DNA and pay just $39. Family Tree DNA will process your raw data within a couple days and you will then see your myOrigins ethnicity results as interpreted by their software. Of course, that’s in addition to having access to Family Tree DNA’s other autosomal features, functions and tools. The transfer price of $39 is significantly less expensive than retesting.
Just understand that what you receive from these companies in terms of ethnicity is reflective of both contemporary and ancient admixture – from all of your ancestral lines. This field is in its infancy – your results will change from time to time as we learn – and the only part of ethnicity that is cast in concrete is probably your majority ancestry which you can likely discern by looking in the mirror. The rest – well – it’s a mystery and an adventure. Welcome aboard to the miraculous mysterious journey of you, as viewed through the DNA of your ancestors!