Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum

Ethnicity results from DNA testing.  Fascinating.  Intriguing.  Frustrating.  Exciting.  Fun. Challenging.  Mysterious.  Enlightening.  And sometimes wrong.  These descriptions all fit.  Welcome to your personal conundrum!  The riddle of you!  If you’d like to understand why your ethnicity results might not have been what you expected, read on!

Today, about 50% of the people taking autosomal DNA tests purchase them for the ethnicity results. Ironically, that’s the least reliable aspect of DNA testing – but apparently somebody’s ad campaigns have been very effective.  After all, humans are curious creatures and inquiring minds want to know.  Who am I anyway?

I think a lot of people who aren’t necessarily interested in genealogy per se are interested in discovering their ethnic mix – and maybe for some it will be a doorway to more traditional genealogy because it will fan the flame of curiosity.

Given the increase in testing for ethnicity alone, I’m seeing a huge increase in people who are both confused by and disappointed in their results. And of course, there are a few who are thrilled, trading their lederhosen for a kilt because of their new discovery.  To put it gently, they might be a little premature in their celebration.

A lot of whether you’re happy or unhappy has to do with why you tested, your experience level and your expectations.

So, for all of you who could write an e-mail similar to this one that I received – this article is for you:

“I received my ethnicity results and I’m surprised and confused. I’m half German yet my ethnicity shows I’m from the British Isles and Scandinavia.  Then I tested my parents and their results don’t even resemble mine, nor are they accurate.  I should be roughly half of what they are, and based on the ethnicity report, it looks like I’m totally unrelated.  I realize my ethnicity is not just a matter of dividing my parents results by half, but we’re not even in the same countries.  How can I be from where they aren’t? How can I have significantly more, almost double, the Scandinavian DNA that they do combined?  And yes, I match them autosomally as a child so there is no question of paternity.”

Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT, trade in your lederhosen for a kilt just yet.

lederhosen kilt

Lederhosen – By The original uploader was Aquajazz at German Wikipedia – Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.0 de, Kilt – By Jongleur100 – Own work, Public Domain,

This technology is not really ripe yet for that level of confidence except perhaps at the continent level and for people with Jewish heritage.

  1. In determining majority ethnicity at the continent level, these tests are quite accurate, but then you can determine the same thing by looking in the mirror.  I’m primarily of European heritage.  I can see that easily and don’t need a DNA test for that information.
  2. When comparing between continental ethnicity, meaning sorting African from European from Asian from Native American, these tests are relatively accurate, meaning there is sometimes a little bit of overlap, but not much.  I’m between 4 and 5% Native American and African – which I can’t see in the mirror – but some of these tests can.
  3. When dealing with intra-continent ethnicity – meaning Europe in particular, comparing one country or region to another, these tests are not reliable and in some cases, appear to be outright wrong. The exception here is Ashkenazi Jewish results which are generally quite accurate, especially at higher levels.

There are times when you seem to have too much of a particular ethnicity, and times when you seem to have too little.

Aside from the obvious adoption, misattributed parent or the oral history simply being wrong, the next question is why.

Ok, Why?

So glad you asked!

Part of why has to do with actual population mixing. Think about the history of Europe.  In fact, let’s just look at Germany.  Wiki provides a nice summary timeline.  Take a look, because you’ll see that the overarching theme is warfare and instability.  The borders changed, the rulers changed, invasions happened, and most importantly, the population changed.

Let’s just look at one event. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) devastated the population, wiped out large portions of the countryside entirely, to the point that after its conclusion, parts of Germany were entirely depopulated for years.  The rulers invited people from other parts of Europe to come, settle and farm.  And they did just that.  Hear those words, other parts of Europe.

My ancestors found in the later 1600s along the Rhine near Speyer and Mannheim were some of those settlers, from Switzerland. Where were they from before Switzerland, before records?  We don’t know and we wouldn’t even know that much were it not for the early church records.

So, who are the Germans?

Who or where is the reference population that you would use to represent Germans?

If you match against a “German” population today, what does that mean, exactly? Who are you really matching?

Now think about who settled the British Isles.

Where did those people come from and who were they?

Well, the Anglo-Saxon people were comprised of Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons.  Is it any wonder that if your heritage is German you’re going to be matching some people from the British Isles and vice versa?

Anglo-Saxons weren’t the only people who settled in the British Isles. There were Vikings from Scandinavia and the Normans from France who were themselves “Norsemen” aka from the same stock as the Vikings.

See the swirl and the admixture? Is there any wonder that European intracontinental admixture is so confusing and perplexing today?

Reference Populations

The second challenge is obtaining valid and adequate reference populations.

Each company that offers ethnicity tests assembles a group of reference populations against which they compare your results to put you into a bucket or buckets.

Except, it’s not quite that easy.

When comparing highly disparate populations, meaning those whose common ancestor was tens of thousands of years ago, you can find significant differences in their DNA. Think the four major continental areas here – Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas.

Major, unquestionable differences are much easier to discern and interpret.

However, within population groups, think Europe here, it is much more difficult.

To begin with, we don’t have much (if any) ancient DNA to compare to. So we don’t know what the Germanic, French, Norwegian, Scottish or Italian populations looked like in, let’s say, the year 1000.

We don’t know what they looked like in the year 500, or 2000BC either and based on what we do know about warfare and the movement of people within Europe, those populations in the same location could genetically look entirely different at different points in history. Think before and after The 30 Years War.

population admixture

By User:MapMaster – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

As an example, consider the population of Hungary and the Slavic portion of Germany before and after the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century and Hun invasions that occurred between the 1st and 5th centuries.  The invaders DNA didn’t go away, it became part of the local population and we find it in descendants today.  But how do we know it’s Hunnic and not “German,” whatever German used to be, or Hungarian, or Norse?

That’s what we do know.

Now, think about how much we don’t know. There is no reason to believe the admixture and intermixing of populations on any other continent that was inhabited was any different.  People will be people.  They have wars, they migrate, they fight with each other and they produce offspring.

We are one big mixing bowl.


A third challenge faced in determining ethnicity is how to calculate and interpret matching.

Population based matching is what is known as “best fit.”  This means that with few exceptions, such as some D9S919 values (Native American), the Duffy Null Allele (African) and Neanderthal not being found in African populations, all of the DNA sequences used for ethnicity matching are found in almost all populations worldwide, just at differing frequencies.

So assigning a specific “ethnicity” to you is a matter of finding the best fit – in other words which population you match at the highest frequency for the combined segments being measured.

Let’s say that the company you’re using has 50 people from each “grouping” that they are using for buckets.

A bucket is something you’ll be assigned to. Buckets sometimes resemble modern-day countries, but most often the testing companies try to be less boundary aligned and more population group aligned – like British Isles, or Eastern European, for example.

Ethnic regions

How does one decide which “country” goes where? That’s up to the company involved.  As a consumer, you need to read what the company publishes about their reference populations and their bucket assignment methodology.

ethnic country

For example, one company groups the Czech Republic and Poland in with Western Europe and another groups them primarily with Eastern Europe but partly in Western Europe and a third puts Poland in Eastern Europe and doesn’t say where they group The Czech Republic. None of these are inherently right are wrong – just understand that they are different and you’re not necessarily comparing apples to apples.

Two Strands of DNA

In the past, we’ve discussed the fact that you have two strands of DNA and they don’t come with a Mom side, a Dad side, no zipper and no instructions that tell you which is Mom’s and which is Dad’s.  Not fair – but it’s what we have to work with.

When you match someone because your DNA is zigzagging back and forth between Mom’s and Dad’s DNA sides, that’s called identical by chance.

It’s certainly possible that the same thing can happen in population genetics – where two strands when combined “look like” and match to a population reference sample, by chance.

pop ref 3

In the example above, you can see that you received all As from Mom and all Cs from Dad, and the reference population matches the As and Cs by zigzagging back and forth between your parents.  In this case, your DNA would match that particular reference population, but your parents would not.  The matching is technically accurate, it’s just that the results aren’t relevant because you match by chance and not because you have an ancestor from that reference population.

Finding The Right Bucket

Our DNA, as humans, is more than 99.% the same.  The differences are where mutations have occurred that allow population groups and individuals to look different from one another and other minor differences.  Understanding the degree of similarity makes the concept of “race” a bit outdated.

For genetic genealogy, it’s those differences we seek, both on a population level for ethnicity testing and on a personal level for identifying our ancestors based on who else our autosomal DNA matches who also has those same ancestors.

Let’s look at those differences that have occurred within population groups.

Let’s say that one particular sequence of your DNA is found in the following “bucket” groups in the following percentages:

  • Germany – 50%
  • British Isles – 25%
  • Scandinavian – 10%

What do you do with that? It’s the same DNA segment found in all of the populations.  As a company, do you assume German because it’s where the largest reference population is found?

And who are the Germans anyway?

Does all German DNA look alike? We already know the answer to that.

Are multiple ancestors contributing German ancestry from long ago, or are they German today or just a generation or two back in time?

And do you put this person in just the German bucket, or in the other buckets too, just at lower frequencies.  After all, buckets are cumulative in terms of figuring out your ethnicity.

If there isn’t a reference population, then the software of course can’t match to that population and moves to find the “next best fit.”  Keep in mind too that some of these reference populations are very small and may not represent the range of genetic diversity found within the entire region they represent.

If your ancestors are Hungarian today, they may find themselves in a bucket entirely unrelated to Hungary if a Hungarian reference population isn’t available AND/OR if a reference population is available but it’s not relevant to your ancestry from your part of Hungary.

If you’d like a contemporary example to equate to this, just think of a major American city today and the ethnic neighborhoods. In Detroit, if someone went to the ethnic Polish neighborhood and took 50 samples, would that be reflective of all of Detroit?  How about the Italian neighborhood?  The German neighborhood?  You get the drift.  None of those are reflective of Detroit, or of Michigan or even of the US.  And if you don’t KNOW that you have a biased sample, the only “matches” you’ll receive are Polish matches and you’ll have no way to understand the results in context.

Furthermore, that ethnic neighborhood 50 or 100 years earlier or later in time might not be comprised of that ethnic group at all.

Based on this example, you might be trading in your lederhosen for a pierogi or a Paczki, which are both wonderful, but entirely irrelevant to you.


Real Life Examples

Probably the best example I can think of to illustrate this phenomenon is that at least a portion of the Germanic population and the Native American population both originated in a common population in central northern Asia.  That Asiatic population migrated both to Europe to the west and eventually, to the Americas via an eastern route through Beringia.  Today, as a result of that common population foundation, some Germanic people show trace amounts of “Native American” DNA.  Is it actually from a Native American?  Clearly not, based on the fact that these people nor their ancestors have ever set foot in the Americas nor are they coastal.  However, the common genetic “signature” remains today and is occasionally detected in Germanic and eastern European people.

If you’re saying, “no, not possible,” remember for a minute that everyone in Europe carries some Neanderthal DNA from a population believed to be “extinct” now for between 25,000 and 40,000 years, depending on whose estimates you use and how you measure “extinct.”  Neanderthal aren’t extinct, they have evolved into us.  They assimilated, whether by choice or force is unknown, but the fact remains that they did because they are a forever part of Europeans, most Asians and yes, Native Americans today.

Back to You

So how can you judge the relevance or accuracy of this information aside from looking in the mirror?

Because I have been a genealogist for decades now, I have an extensive pedigree chart that I can use to judge the ethnicity predictions relatively accurately. I created an “expected” set of percentages here and then compared them to my real results from the testing companies.  This paper details the process I used.  You can easily do the same thing.

Part of how happy or unhappy you will be is based on your goals and expectations for ethnicity testing. If you want a definitive black and white, 100% accurate answer, you’re probably going to be unhappy, or you’ll be happy only because you don’t know enough about the topic to know you should be unhappy.  If you test with only one company, accept their results as gospel and go merrily on your way, you’ll never know that had you tested elsewhere, you’d probably have received a somewhat different answer.

If you’re scratching your head, wondering which one is right, join the party.  Perhaps, except for obvious outliers, they are all right.

If you know your pedigree pretty well and you’re testing for general interest, then you’ll be fine because you have a measuring stick against which to evaluate the results.

I found it fun to test with all 4 vendors, meaning Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and Ancestry along with the Genographic project and compare their results.

In my case, I was specifically interesting in ascertaining minority admixture and determining which line or lines it descended from. This means both Native American and African.

You can do this too and then download your results to and utilize their admixture utilities.

GedMatch admix menu

At GedMatch, there are several versions of various contributed admixture/ethnicity tools for you to use. The authors of these tools have in essence done the same thing the testing companies have done – compiled reference populations of their choosing and compare your results in a specific manner as determined by the software written by that author.  They all vary.  They are free.  Your mileage can and will vary too!

By comparing the results, you can clearly see the effects of including or omitting specific populations. You’ll come away wondering how they could all be measuring the same you, but it’s an incredibly eye-opening experience.

The Exceptions and Minority Ancestry

You know, there is always an exception to every rule and this is no exception to the exception rule. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

By and large, the majority continental ancestry will be the most accurate, but it’s the minority ancestry many testers are seeking.  That which we cannot see in the mirror and may be obscured in written records as well, if any records existed at all.

Let me say very clearly that when you are looking for minority ancestry, the lack of that ancestry appearing in these tests does NOT prove that it doesn’t exist. You can’t prove a negative.  It may mean that it’s just too far back in time to show, or that the DNA in that bucket has “washed out” of your line, or that we just don’t recognize enough of that kind of DNA today because we need a larger reference population.  These tests will improve with time and all 3 major vendors update the results of those who tested with them when they have new releases of their ethnicity software.

Think about it – who is 100% Native American today that we can use as a reference population?  Are Native people from North and South American the same genetically?  And let’s not forget the tribes in the US do not view DNA testing favorably.  To say we have challenges understanding the genetic makeup and migrations of the Native population is an understatement – yet those are the answers so many people seek.

Aside from obtaining more reference samples, what are the challenges?

There are two factors at play.

Recombination – the “Washing Out” Factor

First, your DNA is divided in half with every generation, meaning that you will, on the average, inherit roughly half of the DNA of your ancestors.  Now in reality, half is an average and it doesn’t always work that way.  You may inherit an entire segment of an ancestor’s DNA, or none at all, instead of half.

I’ve graphed the “washing out factor” below and you can see that within a few generations, if you have only one Native or African ancestor, their DNA is found in such small percentages, assuming a 50% inheritance or recombination rate, that it won’t be found above 1% which is the threshold used by most testing companies.

Wash out factor 2

Therefore, the ethnicity of any ancestor born 7 generations ago, or before about 1780 may not be detectable.  This is why the testing companies say these tests are effective to about the rough threshold of 5 or 6 generations.  In reality, there is no line in the sand.  If you have received more than 50% of that ancestor’s DNA, or a particularly large segment, it may be detectable at further distances.  If you received less, it may be undetectable at closer distances.  It’s the roll of the DNA dice in every generation between them and you.  This is also why it’s important to test parents and other family members – they may well have received DNA that you didn’t that helps to illuminate your ancestry.

Recombination – Population Admixture – the “Keeping In” Factor

The second factor at play here is population admixture which works exactly the opposite of the “washing out” factor. It’s the “keeping in” factor.  While recombination, the “washing out” factor, removes DNA in every generation, the population admixture “keeping in” factor makes sure that ancestral DNA stays in the mix. So yes, those two natural factors are kind of working at cross purposes and you can rest assured that both are at play in your DNA at some level.  Kind of a mean trick of nature isn’t it!

The population admixture factor, known as IBP, or identical by population, happens when identical DNA is found in an entire or a large population segment – which is exactly what ethnicity software is looking for – but the problem is that when you’re measuring the expected amount of DNA in your pedigree chart, you have no idea how to allow for endogamy and population based admixture from the past.

Endogamy IBP

This example shows that both Mom and Dad have the exact same DNA, because at these locations, that’s what this endogamous population carries.  Therefore the child carries this DNA too, because there isn’t any other DNA to inherit.  The ethnicity software looks for this matching string and equates it to this particular population.

Like Neanderthal DNA, population based admixture doesn’t really divide or wash out, because it’s found in the majority of that particular population and as long as that population is marrying within itself, those segments are preserved forever and just get passed around and around – because it’s the same DNA segment and most of the population carries it.

This is why Ashkenazi Jewish people have so many autosomal matches – they all descend from a common founding population and did not marry outside of the Jewish community.  This is also why a few contemporary living people with Native American heritage match the ancient Anzick Child at levels we would expect to see in genealogically related people within a few generations.

Small amounts of admixture, especially unexpected admixture, should be taken with a grain of salt. It could be noise or in the case of someone with both Native American and Germanic or Eastern European heritage, “Native American” could actually be Germanic in terms of who you inherited that segment from.

Have unexpected small percentages of Middle Eastern ethnic results?  Remember, the Mesolithic and Neolithic farmer expansion arrived in Europe from the Middle East some 7,000 – 12,000 years ago.  If Europeans and Asians can carry Neanderthal DNA from 25,000-45,000 years ago, there is no reason why you couldn’t match a Middle Eastern population in small amounts from 3,000, 7,000 or 12,000 years ago for the same historic reasons.

The Middle East is the supreme continental mixing bowl as well, the only location worldwide where historically we see Asian, European and African DNA intermixed in the same location.

Best stated, we just don’t know why you might carry small amounts of unexplained regional ethnic DNA.  There are several possibilities that include an inadequate population reference base, an inadequate understanding of population migration, quirks in matching software, identical segments by chance, noise, or real ancient or more modern DNA from a population group of your ancestors.

Using Minority Admixture to Your Advantage

Having said that, in my case and in the cases of others who have been willing to do the work, you can sometimes track specific admixture to specific ancestors using a combination of ethnicity testing and triangulation.

You cannot do this at Ancestry because they don’t give you ANY segment information.

Family Tree DNA and 23andMe both provide you with segment information, but not for ethnicity ranges without utilizing additional tools.

The easiest approach, by far, is to download your autosomal results to GedMatch and utilize their tools to determine the segment ranges of your minority admixture segments, then utilize that information to see which of your matches on that segment also have the same minority admixture on that same chromosome segment.

I wrote a several-part series detailing how I did this, called The Autosomal Me.

Let me sum the process up thus. I expected my largest Native segments to be on my father’s side.  They weren’t.  In fact, they were from my mother’s Acadian lines, probably because endogamy maintained (“kept in”) those Native segments in that population group for generations.  Thank you endogamy, aka, IBP, identical by population.

I made this discovery by discerning that my specifically identified Native segments matched my mother’s segments, also identified as Native, in exactly the same location, so I had obviously received those Native segments from her. Continuing to compare those segments and looking at GedMatch to see which of our cousins also had a match (to us) in that region pointed me to which ancestral line the Native segment had descended from.  Mitochondrial and Y DNA testing of those Acadian lines confirmed the Native ancestors.

That’s A Lot of Work!!!

Yes, it was, but well, well worth it.

This would be a good time to mention that I couldn’t have proven those connections without the cooperation of several cousins who agreed to test along with cousins I found because they tested, combined with the Mothers of Acadia and the AmerIndian Ancestry out of Acadia projects hosted by Family Tree DNA and the tools at GedMatch.  I am forever grateful to all those people because without the sharing and cooperation that occurs, we couldn’t do genetic genealogy at all.

If you want to be amused and perhaps trade your lederhosen for a kilt, then you can just take ethnicity results at face value.  If you’re reading this article, I’m guessing you’re already questioning “face value” or have noticed “discrepancies.”

Ethnicity results do make good cocktail party conversation, especially if you’re wearing either lederhosen or a kilt.  I’m thinking you could even wear lederhosen under your kilt……

If you want to be a bit more of an educated consumer, you can compare your known genealogy to ethnicity results to judge for yourself how close to reality they might be. However, you can never really know the effects of early population movements – except you can pretty well say that if you have 25% Scandinavian – you had better have a Scandinavian grandparent.  3% Scandinavian is another matter entirely.

If you’re saying to yourself, “this is part interpretive art and part science,” you’d be right.

If you want to take a really deep dive, and you carry significantly mixed ethnicity, such that it’s quite distinct from your other ancestry – meaning the four continents once again, you can work a little harder to track your ethnic segments back in time. So, if you have a European grandparent, an Asian grandparent, an African grandparent and a Native American grandparent – not only do you have an amazing and rich genealogy – you are the most lucky genetic genealogist I know, because you’ll pretty well know if your ethnicity results are accurate and your matches will easily fall into the correct family lines!

For some of us, utilizing the results of ethnicity testing for minority admixture combined with other tools is the only prayer we will ever have of finding our non-European ancestors.  If you fall into this group, that is an extremely powerful and compelling statement and represents the holy grail of both genealogy and genetic genealogy.

Let’s Talk About Scandinavia

We’ve talked about minority admixture and cases when we have too little DNA or unexpected small segments of DNA, but sometimes we have what appears to be too much.  Often, that happens in Scandinavia, although far more often with one company than the other two.  However, in my case, we have the perfect example of an unsolvable mystery introduced by ethnicity testing and of course, it involves Scandinavia.

23andMe, Ancestry and Family Tree DNA show me at 8%, 10% and 12% Scandinavian, respectively, which is simply mystifying. That’s a lot to be “just noise.”  That amount is in the great-grandparent or third generation range at 12.5%, but I don’t have anyone that qualifies, anyplace in my pedigree chart, as far back as I can go.  I have all of my ancestors identified and three-quarters (yellow) confirmed via DNA through the 6th generation, shown below.

The unconfirmed groups (uncolored) are genealogically confirmed via church and other records, just not genetically confirmed.  They are Dutch and German, respectively, and people in those countries have not embraced genetic genealogy to the degree Americans have.

Genetically confirmed means that through triangulation, I know that I match other descendants of these ancestors on common segments.  In other words, on the yellow ancestors, here is no possibility of misattributed parentage or an adoption in that line between me and that ancestor.

Six gen both

Barbara Mehlheimer, my mitochondrial line, does have Scandinavian mitochondrial DNA matches, but even if she were 100% Scandinavian, which she isn’t because I have her birth record in Germany, that would only account for approximately 3.12% of my DNA, not 8-12%.

In order for me to carry 8-12% Scandinavian legitimately from an ancestral line, four of these ancestors would need to be 100% Scandinavian to contribute 12.5% to me today assuming a 50% recombination rate, and my mother’s percentage of Scandinavian should be about twice mine, or 24%.

My mother is only in one of the testing company data bases, because she passed away before autosomal DNA testing was widely available.  I was fortunate that her DNA had been archived at Family Tree DNA and was available for a Family Finder upgrade.

Mom’s Scandinavian results are 7%, or 8% if you add in Finland and Northern Siberia.  Clearly not twice mine, in fact, it’s less. If I received half of hers, that would be roughly 4%, leaving 8% of mine unaccounted for.  If I didn’t receive all of my “Scandinavian” from her, then the balance would have had to come from my father whose Estes side of the tree is Appalachian/Colonial American.  Even less likely that he would have carried 16% Scandinavian, assuming again, that I inherited half.  Even if I inherited all 8% of Mom’s, that still leaves me 4% short and means my father would have had approximately 8%, which is still between the great and great-great-grandfather level.  By that time, his ancestors had been in America for generations and none were Scandinavian.  Clearly, something else is going on.  Is there a Scandinavian line in the woodpile someplace?  If so, which lines are the likely candidates?

In mother’s Ferverda/Camstra/deJong/Houtsma line, which is not DNA confirmed, we have several additional generations of records procured by a professional genealogist in the Netherlands from Leeuwarden, so we know where these ancestors originated and lived for generations, and it wasn’t Scandinavia.

The Kirsch/Lemmert line also reaches back in church records several generations in Mutterstadt and Fussgoenheim, Germany.  The Drechsel line reaches back several generations in Wirbenz, Germany and the Mehlheimer line reaches back one more generation in Speichersdorf before ending in an unmarried mother giving birth and not listing the father.  Aha, you say…there he is…that rogue Scandinavian.  And yes, it could be, but in that generation, he would account for only 1.56% of my DNA, not 8-12%.

So, what can we conclude about this conundrum.

  • The Scandinavian results are NOT a function of specific Scandinavian genealogical ancestors – meaning ones in the tree who would individually contribute that level of Scandinavian heritage.  There is no Scandinavian great-grandpa or Scandinavian heritage at all, in any line, tracking back more than 6 generations.  The first “available” spot with an unknown ancestor for a Scandinavian is in the 7th generation where they would contribute 1.56% of my DNA and 3.12% of mothers.
  • The Scandinavian results could be a function of a huge amount of population intermixing in several lines, but 8-12% is an awfully high number to attribute to unknown population admixture from many generations ago.
  • The Scandinavian results could be a function of a problematic reference population being utilized by multiple companies.
  • The Scandinavian results could be identical by chance matching, possibly in addition to population admixture in ancient lines.
  • The Scandinavian results could be a function of something we don’t yet understand.
  • The Scandinavian results could be a combination of several of the above.

It’s a mystery.  It may be unraveled as the tools improve and as an industry, additional population reference samples become available or better understood.  Or, it may never be unraveled.  But one thing is for sure, it is very, very interesting!  However, I’m not trading lederhosen for anything based on this.

The Companies

I wrote a comparison of the testing companies when they introduced their second generation tools.  Not a lot has changed.  Hopefully we will see a third software generation soon.

I do recommend selecting between the main three testing companies plus National Geographic’s Genographic 2.0 products if you’re going to test for ethnicity.  Stay safe.  There are less than ethical people and companies out there looking to take advantage of people’s curiosity to learn about their heritage.

Today, 23andMe is double the price of either Family Tree DNA or Ancestry and they are having other issues as well.  However, they do sometimes pick up the smallest amounts of minority admixture.

Ancestry continues to have “a Scandinavian problem” where many/most of their clients have a significant amount (some as high as the 30% range) of Scandinavian ancestry assigned to them that is not reflected by other testing companies or tools, or the tester’s known heritage – and is apparently incorrect.

However, Ancestry did pick up my minority Ancestry of both Native and African. How much credibility should I give that in light of the known Scandinavian issue?  In other words, if they can’t get 30% right, how could they ever get 4 or 5% right?

Remember what I said about companies doing pretty well on a comparative continental basis but sorting through ethnicity within a continent being much more difficult. This is the perfect example.  Ancestry also is not alone in reporting small amounts of my minority admixture.  The other companies do as well, although their amounts and descriptions don’t match each other exactly.

However, I can download any or all three of these raw data files to GedMatch and utilize their various ethnicity, triangulation and chromosome by chromosome comparison utilities. Both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry test more SNP locations than does 23andMe, and cost half as much, if you’re planning to test in order to upload your raw data file to GedMatch.

If you are considering ordering from either 23andMe or Ancestry, be sure you understand their privacy policy before ordering.

In Summary

I hate to steal Judy Russell’s line, but she’s right – it’s not soup yet if ethnicity testing is the only tool you’re going to use and if you’re expecting answers, not estimates.  View today’s ethnicity results from any of the major testing companies as interesting, because that’s what they are, unless you have a very specific research agenda, know what you are doing and plan to take a deeper dive.

I’m not discouraging anyone from ethnicity testing. I think it’s fun and for me, it was extremely informative.  But at the same time, it’s important to set expectations accurately to avoid disappointment, anxiety, misinformation or over-reliance on the results.

You can’t just discount these results because you don’t like them, and neither can you simply accept them.

If you think your grandfather was 100% Native America and you have no Native American heritage on the ethnicity test, the problem is likely not the test or the reference populations.  You should have 25% and carry zero.  The problem is likely that the oral history is incorrect.  There is virtually no one, and certainly not in the Eastern tribes, who was not admixed by two generations ago.  It’s also possible that he is not your grandfather.  View ethnicity results as a call to action to set forth and verify or refute their accuracy, especially if they vary dramatically from what you expected.  If it’s the truth you seek, this is your personal doorway to Delphi.

Just don’t trade in your lederhosen, or anything else just yet based on ethnicity results alone, because this technology it still in it’s infancy, especially within Europe.  I mean, after all, it’s embarrassing to have to go and try to retrieve your lederhosen from the pawn shop.  They’re going to laugh at you.

I find it ironic that Y DNA and mtDNA, much less popular, can be very, very specific and yield definitive answers about individual ancestors, reaching far beyond the 5th or 6th generation – yet the broad brush ethnicity painting which is much less reliable is much more popular.  This is due, in part, I’m sure, to the fact that everyone can take the ethnicity tests, which represent all lines.  You aren’t limited to testing one or two of your own lines and you don’t need to understand anything about genetic genealogy or how it works.  All you have to do is spit or swab and wait for results.

You can take a look at how Y and mtDNA testing versus autosomal tests work here.  Maybe Y or mitochondrial should be next on your list, as they reach much further back in time on specific lines, and you can use these results to create a DNA pedigree chart that tells you very specifically about the ancestry of those particular lines.

Ethnicity testing is like any other tool – it’s just one of many available to you.  You’ll need to gather different kinds of DNA and other evidence from various sources and assemble the pieces of your ancestral story like a big puzzle.  Ethnicity testing isn’t the end, it’s the beginning.  There is so much more!

My real hope is that ethnicity testing will kindle the fires and that some of the folks that enter the genetic genealogy space via ethnicity testing will be become both curious and encouraged and will continue to pursue other aspects of genealogy and genetic genealogy.  Maybe they will ask the question of “who” in their tree wore kilts or lederhosen and catch the genealogy bug.  Maybe they will find out more about grandpa’s Native American heritage, or lack thereof.  Maybe they will meet a match that has more information than they do and who will help them.  After all, ALL of genetic genealogy is founded upon sharing – matches, trees and information.  The more the merrier!

So, if you tested for ethnicity and would like to learn more, come on in, the water’s fine and we welcome both lederhosen and kilts, whatever you’re wearing today!  Jump right in!!!

136 thoughts on “Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum

  1. Is it possible/reasonable that three siblings taking the FTDNA FF test, show two siblings to be 100% Euro Ancient origins, while the third shows 93% Euro and 7% Ashkenazi Jew?

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  5. “I find it ironic that Y DNA and mtDNA, much less popular, can be very, very specific and yield definitive answers about individual ancestors, reaching far beyond the 5th or 6th generation – yet the broad brush ethnicity painting which is much less reliable is much more popular.”

    Agree. I find that stuff very interesting. So many genealogist just dismiss it as useless nonsense though, ‘even worse’ than autosomal ancestral composition results though.

    I feel that Geno gives the most interesting and nicest presentation of haplogroup information (although if you want to trace to the deepest levels you need to do expansion tests like full mtDNA or BigY at FTDNA later).

  6. Thank you for a very informative and detailed post. I can’t honestly say I understood it completely, but it was very helpful in my father-in-laws test.

    My father-in-law just received his DNA test percentage results. His father (who passed when he was 1 and was an unknown) is from a very closely established and documented Jewish line out of Baden Germany for as many generations back as can be found, and on all sides of his ancestral family. My father-in-laws mother is of Irish/British Isles descent. His results showed over 60 percent Ireland/UK, but zero European Jewish. The Jewish line can be seen publicly here –

    Given the lineage of his father and that mans ancestors, shouldn’t his test have revealed at least some small percentage of European Jewish? Not only is his father documented as such, but that man’s parents and grandparents for generations are as well. I tried to find the answer in your post here and thought I had, but I might be interpreting your writing incorrectly.

    Right now the suspicion is that the man believed to be his father probably wasn’t. All interested parties other than my father-in-law (age 79) are deceased, so no oral answers to be had there.

    Would love to have your knowledgeable opinion about this, or any insight from other readers!

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  9. This was a very interesting and helpful article. Thank you!

    I would like to know your opinion of which test, if any, would best preserve DNA for the future and eventual advances in ethnicity testing.

    I am decidedly half Chinese and half Ash Jew. My parents are living but not for long. I want to collect their DNA to test – now or in the future – for a more specific geographic origin. For instance, a region of China, even (someday) a village in China – and a region in Europe. We already only have the vaguest ideas regarding this information and what little we have will soon pass into history.

    Which test(s) would you recommend we collect for this purpose?

    thank you again

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  11. I took a 23andme test. Im half Italian and roughly 40% British Isles and the remaining 8-10% is Polish. My Polish ancestry is documented and we know the family was Catholic but didnt preach.

    I didnt end up getting ANY Eastern European whatsoever but instead got a really small Jewish result under 5% which was 4,3 at a 50% confidence level and dropped even lower to 0.2% at 90% confidence. A geneticist told me it was just noise and to trust the Conservative mode. These numbers were really wiers because if I actually was Jewish that would make my mother a quarter Jewish which makes no sense at all.

    However I ran my results through a GEDmatch calculator and then saw 7-8% Eastern European with some Baltic thrown in there on one of the calculators.

    Very strange indeed.


  12. You also have to take into account that any female ancestor, (and yourself, if you are female), has had a pick ‘n’ mix of genetic identity via the x chromosome.

    A man inherits all of his x chromosome dna from his mother because there is only one, yet a woman has two x chromosomes – not all of that can be included so a natural selection happens.

    A geneticist described it to me as women being mosaics – the two x’s are too much information, so as a female foetus develops, a constant ‘choice’ is happening, and a large amount of dna is discarded arbitrarily, from both lines.

    I, as a female, have inherited none of one of my mother’s African line dna, as it was a tiny percentage, and I discarded it as I developed; in favour of something from my father’s line (via his mother), if that makes sense. This constant to and fro, means that lots of your genetic heritage may be entirely undiscoverable – that doesn’t mean it isn’t in your ancestry. Your genetic heritage may very well look nothing like your actual physical ancestry, the more so as you move farther back into history…

  13. I find that peoples ethnic identity is as much or more cultural as it us chromosonal. And there’s often a significant influence of personal choice at work.
    In my own case, my birth father wss, to the bedt of my knowledge, French on both sides. My mother was Scots-English on her father’s side, and French on her mother’s.
    I have very little contact with me father’s family, mostly as a result of the divorce.
    Often people of French-Canadian background will say “if you’re French, you almost certainly have Native blood, too,” do to thevadmixing of populations during and thecsettling of Canada and since.
    My mother’s mother’s family is a reasonably close-knit group. These are the people I identify as my “cousins”. (I am the only child if an only child — an anomaly on that side of the family, where my grandmother’s siblings​ had between five and seven children each.) However, culturally I identify more with my grandfather’s Scottish side, without having done any chromosonal testing. I am told i am very much like my grandfather (mom’s father) in appearance and temperament. This makes me happy, and i have very littlecdedire to prove the connection chromosonally. No doubt there would be some “surprises” if I did have the testing done. But I am complacent with the my identity as i have outlined, above.

  14. Hello,
    I took an ancestry DNA test with 23 and Me and got a significant Native American percentage, much greater than anticipated. I have dark hair and a bit dark complexion, but otherwise look European on the mirror. My brother looks completely European. Could it be possible that their Native American “bucket” that they use as a benchmark actually comprises DNA of people who are only part Native American, but who have a good chunk of European ancestry as well?

      • Thanks for your response. My brother hasn’t gotten an ancestry DNA test at this point. Mine is showing about 45 percent. I knew the DNA test was going to show some Native American ancestry as we are born and raised in South America and down there most people have some level of Native American ancestry, even in areas where there was massive Iberian immigration. However, again, we look mostly European and so do our extended family members.

  15. Bear in mind,about 20% of children have a different biological father ,than the one they think is their biological father. In my opinion DNA is fun but I think its more of a marketing tool,than anything else. I will say that having researched my family all the way back across the ocean my autosomal DNA was about what I expected,except for the 5% Finland and 4% Northern Russian.

    • I’m not sure where the 20% figure comes from, but that is much higher than anything I’ve ever seen in any study. It’s also much higher than I’ve seen in my many years working with Y DNA. Can you give me the source for the 20%. I’d love to read it.

      • You won’t be able to read my source,because its an opinion and probably too large a number. I was a navy recruiter for several years and fairly often after a person had come in to enlist I would get a call or visit from their mother in a panic ,worried because their son or daughters biological father,was not the man she was married to,for some reason they were afraid we would find out.

  16. Excellent explanation of genes & genealogy; I just stumbled upon it..thanks…

    however..I am still stumped by two main themes in the majority of these test results..which are typically low confidence “Germanic” high-percentages from 1st generation going back 200-300 years, and high confidence “esoteric” low-percentages from 300-400 years ago….in my case, there is a low certainty that I am 25% French/German, but a high certainty that I have 1% Native American..(specifically, in my recent 23andMe example, Irish/British dominates with 35%, French/German 25%, and the balance is “broadly Northwest Europe” with 1% Native American..).

    I am lucky in that I have a detailed oral & written family history on my fathers side going back to 15th century Germany..on my mothers side, English/Scottish going back to 1600s……yes, my German ancestors could have migrated into modern day Germany from anywhere BUT, how does that explain the Irish/British confidence levels ? They migrated in from the continent in multiple waves..

    Everything that I have read and studied suggests that to be of Northwest European ancestry is to be Germanic….celts (a mix of halstadt origins and maybe basque-type native coastal dwellers) gauls, franks, angles, saxons, normans (Norse & Vikings from German peninsula..etc..). Portions of all of these peoples also remained in Germany..I.e they didn’t ALL migrate away…

    So, any idea why Irish/British would ‘trump’ French/German percentages ? I would think it would be the other way around OR, they would broadly ascribe all four to one genetic pool that is either labeled Germanic or simply Northern European…..thanks!

    • Unfortunately, today, the DNA can’t be reliably deciphered between those locations. The current line of thinking is that it’s too similar. The DNA if found in the British Isles. The people from Germany are very reticent to test and DNA testing in France is illegal, so there are few references from those locations.

      • hmm, interesting; that explains it….so in theory, someone could test 100% “British” which could still mean they are 100% German…….danke!

      • For example, I’m 25% German and I have none show up. I know other people who are higher and they have the same issue. In some cases, they do show at least some “western European,” but you get the idea.

      • hehe, yes now I do, thanks….fyi, I have been having a robust debate with a cousin who maintains Brits are genetically different from Germans, and celts are different from everyone where I maintain if you are primarily “northwest european, then you are primarily germanic……neither of us are necessarily right or wrong….you get the idea….sorry to be so redundant!….cheers!

      • 23andme definition of “Northwestern Europeans”: “represented by people from as far west as Ireland, as far north as Norway, as far east as Finland, and as far south as France. These countries rim the North and Baltic Seas, and have been connected throughout much of history by those waters”.

      • If you look at the scientific data that’s behind it, as shown by PCA plots, you can see why, the people they compare you with are all overlapped, German and French totally and touching the British cluster. I found that when my mother tested, I went from 25 to 33% French/German and my British/Irish dropped down to 15% at the same time. So phasing helped. I also still have far too much “recent” British compared to my known reality in my 23andMe report. However it’s still better than AncestryDNA that gives me 55% British and Irish – there, reading the fine print, they included the North-West of France and Belgium under that label… On paper I am almost 99% French, with one Scottish couple 8 generations back, and on Amerindian, 12 generations back – that 23andMe picked up as 0.2% at the conservative level.

  17. This article is SO interesting! I have no knowledge of my ancestry before my grandparents, although I’ve been told that my great grandmother was Native American. My nephew had a DNA test performed, his results were mostly Scandinavian, but absolutely no Native American. My understanding of your article is that there are some of Germanic descent that show as Native American, but I cannot find anything about NOT showing as Native American, when you are somewhat certain you are. I am having my DNA test done in the near future. I take it that I should use a different company than he did, or use the same to compare the result?

    Thank you for (kind of) explaining these tests in a way I can understand.

  18. Thank you for clarifying things! I had 2 questions that you’d probably know the answer to. First off, you mentioned a lot about Ashkenazi Jews, but are Sephardi Jews the same in DNA accuracy? I got 7% Sephardi Jewish in my result (on Family Tree DNA). I’m assuming it comes from my Italian great grandpa, because I had more Jewish than SE European heritage. Second, if an ancestry is so distant, is it possible that it would never show up on a test? I learned I had a Swedish ancestor from the 18th century when doing genealogy, which would make me .01% Swedish. That barely counts so I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t show up (I don’t look Swedish at all; the closest would be my blonde haired brother but he has dark eyes and a larger nose). I’m super intrigued by genetics and want to be as well versed as possible! 🙂

    • Yes, it’s certainly possible for distant ancestors to now show up at all in your ethnicity or even your DNA. It all depends on how the DNA got passed down. Family Tree DNA works a lot with Jewish heritage, so if any of the companies is accurate on Jewish, it would be them. I can’t say specifically about Sephardic.

      • That makes a lot of sense. I did the calculation and it would be 1/1024 Swedish, which is a thousandth of a percent. I know Family Tree DNA is very specific with Jewish heritage. Sephardi Jews aren’t as common in the US – most of my Jewish friends are Ashkenazi. I don’t personally know a single Jewish person that’s mostly southern European. I’m a huge history nerd as well so I know a lot about European history. It’s interesting but disturbing that I probably had family in the Inquisition, as that’s where most Sephardi Jews descend from.

  19. Thanks for a very comprehensive explanation – amusingly written! Im interested in doing an ethnicity Family Finder test with Family Tree to confirm that my grandmother’s mother was not the one mentoined on her Shanghai birth certificate in 1898 but was in fact Chinese but you make no mention of tracking Asian ancestry. Do you have any suggstions? Thanks

  20. Hello there.
    I’m half East Asian and half Caucasian-American. My 23andMe results show “East Asian and Native American” at 51%.
    But first cousins on the Caucasian side show absolutely 0% “East Asian and Native American.” We do show approximately 0.3% shared sub-Saharan African. But where did my extra one percent Asia/NA come from? How is this possible?

  21. This is interesting and helps explain the different results I received. I tested first with National Geo, then transferred results to Family Tree DNA, and then I did a test on Ancestry (mostly to find hints for my family tree). Needless to say, all tests came back different. The biggest mystery to me is why I came up Jewish on two of the three tests (NG 0%, FTDN 2%, Ancest. 3%)? The first “hole” I have in my family tree is a great, great, great grandparent. And even then I can almost guarantee they were from England. There are zero Jewish ancestors all the way back to my great, great grandparents and most lines I have traced all the way to the 1600s. So why the match? Interestingly Ancestry had my Scandinavian by far the lowest of the three at 9%, the others came in at 18% and 17%. My mother came in at 36%. We have no known Scandinavian ancestors, although the origin of one of my great grandparents is a mystery but certainly from Europe. As far as matching my known ancestry I found National Geo to be the closest. Nearly two thirds of my great great grandparents came from Germany or France and all in areas along the border of the two countries. FTDNA has me at 0% Western and Central Europe, Ancestry at 23%. NG and FTDNA also have a 5% surprise factor, the first being Finland/Siberia (my sister had similar results from 23 and Me) and FTDNA has 4% Middle East. Last but not least my family has an oral history of Native American heritage but alas no luck finding that one.

    • I am very curious to know if the test results mean I have a “secret” ancestor who was Jewish. According to your article, “This technology is not really ripe yet for that level of confidence except perhaps at the continent level and for people with Jewish heritage.”

  22. If my father is half Chinese (born in UK) and my grandfather full Chinese (he left China and moved to uk in 1920’s) could I expect Chinese or Asian DNA to show up in my ancestry DNA results? Or, could my profile be totally of irish ethnicity as both Chinese ancestors married Irish females.

  23. Very informative. I was just annoyed that I got 48% Europe West and not individual places like Irish German, French… And no one is claiming the 38% British. I think I’ll wait and retest when the test is better.

  24. Thank you so much for this informative, easy to understand article. We received my dad’s AncestryDNA results and were blown away by the 30% Scandinavian that showed up. There is nothing in any of his lines for hundreds of years that would indicate that high of a percentage. His paternal great-grandparents were both born in England and all their ancestors, at least back to the mid-1600s; and yet he only has a trace amount of GB DNA showing in results. It’s been mind-boggling. I e been researching for 15 years and didn’t expect that high of a result for Scandanavia since there literally is no one for at least a decade of generations from there….

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  26. You have posted some terrific information..thanks..

    I am still struggling with how & why the three main testing companies (23andMe in particular) segregate Ireland/British Isles-Northern Europe versus France/Germany-Western Europe versus Scandinavia when essentially these groups are VERY similar genetically (celts, Gauls, normans, anglos, saxons, Vikings etc etc etc..)

    My take away is that either 1) to use your analogy “it’s the difference between being from Indiana and Illinois and/or 2) these tests are only as good as their data sets…the majority of people testing are Americans, and probally the majority of Americans testing are of Norrthwest European descent so, their data sets are weighted (or skewed) to where they can collect the most references..

    My point is that it is silly/misleading to for them to be so definitive about British Isles but vague about German….

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