I can’t even begin to tell you how many questions I receive that go something like this:
“I received my ethnicity results from XYZ. I’m confused. The results don’t seem to align with my research and I don’t know what to make of them?”
In the above question, the vendors who are currently offering these types of results among their autosomal tests are Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and Ancestry along with National Geographic who is a nonprofit. Of those four, by far, Ancestry is the worst at results matching reality and who I receive the most complaints and comments about. I wrote an article about Ancestry’s results and Judy Russell recently wrote an article about their new updated results as did Debbie Kennett. My Ancestry results have not been updated yet, so I can’t comment personally.
Let’s take a look at the results from the four players and my own analysis.
Some years back, I did a pedigree analysis of my genealogy in an attempt to make sense of autosomal results from other companies.
This paper, Revealing American Indian and Minority Heritage Using Y-line, Mitochondrial, Autosomal and X Chromosomal Testing Data Combined with Pedigree Analysis was published in the Fall 2010 issue of JoGG, Vol. 6 issue 1.
The pedigree analysis portion of this document begins about page 8. My ancestral breakdown is as follows:
|European by DNA||6.8362|
This leaves about 25% unknown. However, this looks nothing like the 80% British Isles and the 12% Scandinavian at Ancestry.
Here are my current ethnicity results from the three major testing companies plus Genographic.
80% British Isles
Family Tree DNA
75% Western Europe
25% Europe – Romanian, Russian, Tuscan, Finnish
23andMe (Standard Estimate)
0.5% East Asian and Native American
Northern European – 43%
Mediterranean – 36%
Southwest Asian – 18%
Why Don’t The Results Match?
Why don’t the results match either my work or each other?
1. The first answer I always think of when asked this question is that perhaps some of the genealogy is incorrect. That is certainly a possibility via either poor genealogy research or undocumented adoptions. However, as time has marched forward, I’ve proven that I’m descended from most of these lines through either Y-line, mitochondrial DNA or autosomal matches. This confirms my genealogy research. For example, Acadians were originally French and I definitely descend from Acadian lines.
2. The second answer is time. The vendors may well be using different measures of time, meaning more recent versus deep ancestry. Geno 2.0 looks back the furthest. Their information says that “your percentages reflect both recent influences and ancient genetic patterns in your DNA due to migrations as groups from different regions mixed over thousands of years. Your ancestors also mixed with ancient, now extinct hominid cousins like Neanderthals in Europe and the Middle East of the Denisovans in Asia.”
It’s difficult to determine which of the matching populations are more recent and which are less recent. By way of example, many Germans and others in eastern Europe are descendants of Genghis Khan’s Mongols who invaded portions of Europe in the 13th century. So, do we recognize and count their DNA when found as “German,” “Polish,” “Russian,” or “Asian?” The map below shows the invasions of Genghis Khan. Based on this, Germans who descend from Genghis’s Mongols could match Koreans on those segments of DNA. Both of those people would probably find that confusing.
3. The third answer is the reference populations. Here is what National Geographic has to say: “Modern day indigenous populations around the world carry particular blends of these regions. We compared your DNA results to the reference populations we currently have in our database and estimated which of these were most similar to you in terms of the genetic markers you carry. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you belong to these groups or are directly from these regions, but that these groups were a similar genetic match and can be used as a guide to help determine why you have a certain result. Remember, this is a mixture of both recent (past six generations) and ancient patterns established over thousands of years, so you may see surprising regional percentages.”
Each of the vendors has compiled their own list of reference populations from published material, and in the case of National Geographic, as yet unpublished material as well.
If you read the fine print, some of these results that at first glance appear to not match actually do, or could. For example, Southwest Asia (Geno 2.0) could be Russia (Family Tree DNA) or at least pointing to the same genetic base.
This video map of Europe through the ages from 1000AD to present will show the ever changing country boundaries and will quickly explain why coming up with labels for ethnicity is so difficult. I mean, what exactly does “France” or “Germany” mean, and when?
4. The fourth answer is focus. Each of these organizations comes to us as a consumer with a particular focus. Of them, one and only one must make their way on their own merits alone. That one is Family Tree DNA. Unlike the Genographic Project, Family Tree DNA doesn’t have a large nonprofit behind them. Unlike 23andMe, they are not subsidized by the medical community and venture capital. And unlike Ancestry.com, Family Tree DNA is not interested in selling you a subscription. In fact, the DNA market could dry up and go away for any of those three, meaning 23andMe, National Geographic and Ancestry, and their business would simply continue with their other products. To them, DNA testing is only a blip on a spreadsheet. Not true for Family Tree DNA. Their business IS genetic genealogy and DNA testing. So of all these vendors, they can least afford to have upset clients and are therefore the most likely to be the most vigilant about the accuracy of their testing, the quality of the tools and results provided to customers.
So what is my personal opinion on all of this?
I think these ethnicity results are very interesting. I think in some way all of them are probably correct, excluding Ancestry. I have absolutely no confidence in Ancestry’s results based on their track record and history, lack of tools, lack of transparency and frustratingly poor quality.
I think that as more academic papers are published and we learn more about these reference populations and where their genes are found in various populations, all of these organizations will have an opportunity to “tighten up” their results. If you’ll notice, both Ancestry and Family Tree DNA still include the words “beta.” The vendors know that these results are not the end all and be all in the ethnicity world.
Am I upset with these vendors? Aside from Ancestry who has to know they have a significant problem and has yet to admit to or fix it, no, I’m not. Frustrated, as a consumer, yes, because like all genealogists, I want it NOW please and thank you!!!
Without these kinds of baby steps, we will never as a community crawl, walk, or run. I dream of the day when we will be able to be tested, obtain our results, and along with that, maybe a list of ancestors we descend from and where their ancestors originated as well. So, in essence, current genealogy (today Y-line and mtdna), older genealogy (autosomal lines) and population genetics (ethnicity of each line).
So what should we as consumers do today? Personally, I think we should file this information away in the “that’s interesting” folder and use it when and where it benefits us. I think we should look at it as a display of possibilities. We should not over-interpret these results.
There is perhaps one area of exception, and that is when dealing with majority ethnic groups. By this, I mean African, Asian, Native American and European. For those groups, this type of ethnicity breakdown, the presence or absence of a particular group is more correct than incorrect, generally. Very small amounts of any admixture are difficult to discern for any vendor. For an example of that, look at my Native percentages and some of those are proven lines. For the individual who wants more information, and more detail into the possibilities, I wrote about how to use the raw autosomal data outside of the vendors tools, at GedMatch, to sort out minority admixture in The Autosomal Me series.
Perhaps the Genographic Project page sums it up best with their statement that, “If you have a very mixed background, the pattern can get complicated quickly!” Not only is that true, it can be complicated by any and probably all of the factors above. When you think about it, it’s rather amazing that we can tell as much as we can.
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