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!!!



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262 thoughts on “Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum

  1. “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’ve said before that while I don’t expect ethnicity updates to happen every six months, it’s hard to believe that it has been well over two years now and none of the companies, with the possible exception of Geno 2.0 Next Generation have done anything with their ethnicity part. I won’t count Family Tree DNA’s myOrigins in May 2014 because in my opinion, the way FTDNA handled myOrigins was terrible. They did not have to eliminate so many reference populations, especially the non-European ones.

    I know 23andme has several references from 1000 Genomes’ “Phase 1 Samples.”
    I’ve seen that 1000 Genomes some time ago added a quite a few new references to their “Final Phase Discovery Samples” like “Mende,” “Gambian,” “Esan,” “Kinh in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam,” “Bengali in Bangladesh,” and a few other South Asian references, as well as additional samples to some of the references they had from the “Phase 1 Samples” like “Japanese” and “Toscali in Italia.”

    I wonder why the companies just can’t add these new references and samples from 1000 Genomes like they did with the “Phase 1 Samples?” Or maybe they could, but don’t want to yet and just want to wait, if they’re even thinking about it at all, until they get enough new references and samples from as many sources as possible?

    I wonder sometimes if the companies have really been even thinking about improving their ethnicity programs at all.

  2. Wonderful article. I tested with Ancestry, transferred raw data to FamilyTree, then Gedmatch (which I’m still trying to learn), and was incredibly surprised when I saw that I was 14% Irish. I come from a long line of Spaniards, and I was thinking that perhaps it’s picking up Ibero-Celtic ancestry, but at 14%?! There is no family narrative of Irish ancestry, so I’m stumped. So nope, I’m not trading my castanets for bagpipes anytime soon!

  3. Fabulous post again, Roberta. It does explain a lot to me (and those commercials are so annoying, by the way). Ancestry does show me with a lot of British Isles DNA and yet my ancestors for the past several hundred years are from the Netherlands, “Germany,” and France (as you know). And I do show up with a tiny trace of Asian DNA, especially on my 23andme results. But now I see why that could be possible.

  4. Mom tested with 23andMe and I was surprised and puzzled by her large percentage of Scandinavian results. Her grandma was adopted, and yet I was seriously considering taking up yodeling. Ha.

  5. Actually, Roberta, with both identifiable German (whatever that means) and identifiable Scots (whatever that means), I wear lederhosen under my kilt . . . it makes things much warmer during the winter months.

  6. Very good article! I’ve never been one to take these ESTIMATES to be anything but estimates. But when looking at my AncestryDNA, FTDNA and the various Eurogenes calculators at GEDMatch I’ve noticed a pattern which suggests the estimates may be accurate. I’ve used the Eurogenes36 & 15 in addition to FTDNA and AncestryDNA. Although the names of the regions are a bit different, they would seem to overlap and coincide with each other. The central and northern European and British Isles regions are always in my top two. Coming in a strong third place is Iberian which was quite surprising since my known papertrail ancestry is British Isles and Germany. So I think it is safe to guess that bubbling under my papertrail ancestors, just out of the reach of research was someone from what is now Spain or Portugal.

    Genetic genealogy, I’m lovin’ it!

  7. It has proved that I am half Irish but what I wonder about is the large percentage of Finnish ancestry. Don’t know yet where it comes from.

  8. The mysterious Scandinavian connection has us scratching our heads. My mom came back 45% Scandinavian at Family Tree DNA and I am none, zip, zero nada. Our tree goes back to colonial days and there are no Scandinavians to be found. My dad and I are in the ballpark of what we would expect. Mom would be if “Scandinavia” was actually “British Isles”.

    100 European
    45 Scandinavia
    39 Western and Central Europe
    12 Southern European
    4 British Isles

    100 European
    83 British Isles
    17 Western and Central Europe

    100 European
    63 British Isles
    37 Western and Central Europe

    • Well I have been surprised with 19% Scandinavian, 6% British Isles, 3% Mediterranean, and 70% African. I have some possible Scottish ancestors,
      and belive the Scot part may have to do with Scandinavia, since the Vikings had many incursions in the British Isles. My Origins had me initially classified as 30% Russian, which was revised after a couple of months. I can’t verify from
      my search any Euro origins, but since some of my ancestors were mulatto I have to accept I have some Euro origins.

    • The Vikings often visited the British Isles and left babies behind.Just because your ancesters lived in Britain don’t mean they don’t have other genes. My family on my fathers were French Protestants,they fled france in 1685,lived in London for 70 years,then moved to what is now the Mannheim area of Germany,they finally reached PA. in 1720,Several generations after they left France ,they were still French by blood but spoke English and German,neither wrote or spoke French.

  9. Roberta a great detailed explain. Fine job (again). For me, paper trail genealogist with genetic DNA hobby, the first clue about diversity comes when myself with an unusual surname found mostly in Slovakia has 20 VALKO testees and only one previously unknown yDNA 37 marker match and 7 different Haplogroups in a small surname group.

  10. I am sharing this one around as much as I can, because it is a short course on DNA testing that is understandable by everybody. Thanks again Roberta.

  11. My FTDNA results show 34% Scandinavian and I have no ancestors from there in at last eight generations or so. However, I have lots of ancestors from England and I have read that there is a lot of Scandinavian [Viking] DNA and Norman [“Norseman”] DNA among the English, so it is likely that is the source of my otherwise perplexing admixture. The Viking DNA would be concentrated in the east and north of England, so if your ancestors were from that area (the “Danelaw”) you are more likely to match Scandinavian reference groups.

  12. Thanks again for an information packed article. I recently taught a class at my library on VERY Basic DNA and used the lederhosen/kilt analogy as an example of how the country estimates were not always accurate. The class participants were all disappointed because the commercial was so “cute”. It IS cute – but so misleading.

    On another note, I am always amazed at how fast you turn out your detailed articles. I can barely keep up with reading them in the time you take you write them. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

  13. Hi Roberta,

    At FamilyTreeDNA, Dutch DNA often shows up as Scandinavian. My uncle tested there. He’s 100% Dutch, in fact, all of the 2000+ ancestors of his I’ve found so far come from the same town (Winterswijk) and the surrounding countryside. None of them lived more than 10 miles away. He matches all the right people so there are no recent NPEs. So he should be 100% Dutch, or “Western and Central Europe” in FTDNA terms. Instead, he’s predicted to be:
    64% Scandinavian
    16% British Isles
    16% Western and Central Europe
    4% Asia Minor.
    So those Scandinavian ancestors may well be your Dutch ancestors.

  14. About Scandinavia, I have all my 9th generation slots filled and my 256 six times great grand parents are grouped like this:

    232 Quebec French Canadians (91%)
    14 Acadians (5%)
    6 French people fresh from France (2%)
    2 Flanders Dutches (1%)
    2 Scots (1%)

    I score 3% Scandinavia at FTDNA and 7% Finland and Siberia (although I would guess some of the later is in fact Amerindian).

    Since the four main French port to New French were Paris, Larochelle, St-Malo and Rouen, the last two being in Normandy and close to Normandy, I would guess the Scandinavian signal is old Viking Normans noise from Normandy.

    Acadia was more connected to Larochelle if my memories serve me right.

    Talking of old colonial background noise, whatever happen to the New Sweden settlers? Or even to the New Netherland’s ones as Yvette Hoitnink hint there might a Scandinavian signal from Dutch DNA. Maybe that unexplainable Scandinavian component from so many Americans comes from there?

      • And her chances are just over 50%. Some demographic research have shown that.
        Vézina, H., Jomphe, M., Lavoie, É.-M., Moreau, C., Labuda, D. “L’apport des données génétiques à la mesure généalogique des origines amérindiennes des Canadiens français »
        Cahiers québécois de démographie, vol. 41, n° 1, 2012, p. 87-105.
        Available on line:

        Note : they did not use autosomal DNA.

      • Don’t worry, I’m already on Gedmatch and I have papertrail leading to Amerindians, two eight times great-grand-mothers and another one that comes quite a few times and is about equivalent to eight times great-grand-mother.

        The question is how much is left of them and how much is really background noise from Indo-European. They should have contributed to my DNA for about 0.1% each… I have a few promising segments, some even bigger than the ones Roberta was analyzing in her Autosomal Me series.

        The next step would be to figure out from which of my autosomal lines these segment comes from, but before that, I have to validate my tree much further. I only have my mt-line verified so far. -_-

  15. Sorry for my last post full of mistakes and half edited sentences. I really need a decent night of sleep these days….

    Anyway, since you mentioned your Autosomal Me series, let me share a trick I came up with while following the tutorial.

    At the 7th step, when you compare your DNA with your mom’s using the “Paint differences between 2 kits, 1 chromosome” tool, having no close relative to compare by DNA to, I tried to compare my DNA directly with the Anzick boy (just because I can).

    The results were puzzling. My suspected Native American DNA segment where indeed highlighted in a vast sea of black, but so were some segment colored as North East European or South Asian. A tiny 1.5 cM Ameridian blob turned into a 9cM of continuous island, although most of it is North East European.

    I would need to know from which ancestor these specific segments are, which I can’t do so far, but since you have a much better understanding of your ancestor DNA contribution, you maybe be able to do something with these kinds of results. If you haven’t already find this trick on your own, that is, which wouldn’t surprise me.

    Harappa works best.

  16. Marianne
    I like the point about the Dutch being a place to find the Scandinavian. My mtdna ends about 1800 with a Dutch grandparent whom I assume married a Dutch femaie. My other female mtdna ancestors are not Dutch or Scandinavian.

    • And he may only be the tip of the iceberg. Male lines with their distinctive Dutch surname are easier to spot than females who could have sneaked in Scandinavian DNA on other lines that don’t go far enough back to get to the Dutch names.

      Basically, any line which you can’t trace back to Europe, but die in South East New York state, New Jersey, Delaware, North East Maryland or South East Pennsylvania could hide Dutch and/or Swedish DNA which could be partly labeled as Scandinavian DNA by the DNA test companies. Maybe even lines which lead to Western Connecticut and Massachusetts.

      And since they were early settlers from the 17th century, even a few thousands could have grown into millions today.

  17. Thanks for another very informative article! A couple of comments/questions:

    “except you can pretty well say that if you have 25% Scandinavian – you had better have a Scandinavian grandparent.”

    My known ancestry is almost entirely from the British Isles (I have one known 6th grandmother who was German, and everyone else is English, Scottish or Irish). My FTDNA results came out as: 100% European: 68% British Isles; 27% Scandinavia and 5% Eastern Europe. I’ve assumed that the Scandinavia in my case is Viking influence in the British Isles.

    “The exception here is Ashkenazi Jewish results which are generally quite accurate, especially at higher levels.”

    My husband’s father is unknown, though he was said to be Greek. His mother was 1/2 African American, 1/4 Italian, 1/4 French Canadian. His results came out as:

    European: 56%
    Southern Europe: 43%
    Western and Central Europe: 9%
    Eastern Europe: 2%
    Finland and Northern Siberia: 2%
    African: 17%
    West Africa: 14%
    East Central Africa: 3%
    Middle Eastern: 13%
    Asia Minor: 12%
    North Africa: 1%
    Jewish Diaspora: 13%
    Ashkenazi Diaspora: 13%

    I’m assuming that the Middle Eastern could be linked to the Southern European (Greek and/or Italian). But I’m curious about the Ashkenazi Jewish. At 13%, is there likely to be a Jewish Ancestor a couple of generations back?

    • Leanne – I don’t know if this helps, but I’m 1/2 Italian (southern Italian and Sicilian) and I’m 9% Jewish Diaspora and 22% Middle Eastern. I have no known Jewish ancestry on that side, although I haven’t ruled it out.

      I would love Roberta to weigh in on this. I recall reading that Ashkenazi Jews have more in common genetically with Mediterranean peoples than other European populations. I also wonder if Semitic markers are present in Italy because of various invasions and encounters over millenia of war and trade in the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, I’m wondering if DNA companies are struggling to distinguish between Italians and Ashkenazi.

      • The Moores invaded Italy and they were North African and Mediterranean. All of the Mediterranean basin was connected by water that was easily traversable. In 1492 (I think, or maybe 1495) the Jews in Italy were given about a month to convert or leave. Most left, but not all. Those who converted would still be found in the Italian genetic population. Bottom line – we just don’t know. We can tell a lot about Y and mitochondrial DNA because those mutations are trackable and datable over time.

        • Whenever a little person like myself asks the companies of when they have plans on *FINALLY* adding ANYTHING to their ethnicity databases after more than two years, I can’t get a straight answer.

          I’d like to know if Roberta or any of the other big insiders can ask Family Tree DNA, 23andme, or when will they finally at AT LEAST the new samples from 1000 Genomes, and maybe the companies will give them a decent answer.

          • The companies do talk to us about some things from time to time. At least some companies talk to some people some of the time:) Whether the companies listen is another question entirely:) In any case, we are under nondisclosure which means we can’t talk about it until the company is ready to announce or tells us that we can talk about it. I’m sorry, but that’s also the company’s way of obtaining feedback from the community before they introduce something – in the design process so to speak.

  18. Thanks for the article. One minor nit – where you say “wiki has a timeline,” I think you mean “Wikipedia has a timeline.” Wiki is the tool, and it pre-dates Wikipedia. What you say would be analogous to saying “3-ring binder has a timeline” where you meant to say “my extensive genealogy file stored in my 3-ring binder has a timeline”. Enjoyed and learned from the discussion!

  19. To the man in plaid: Keep your lederhosen on ( please!), do your homework, and DON’T trade your oumlaut for an omelette, or your shorts for a skirt until you get your facts together!

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  21. Regarding Anthony’s comment on the 1000 Genomes Project reference samples, the Project was really designed for medical research and not for the purpose it’s been used by the three DNA testing companies. To their credit, 23andMe lists those reference samples and others they’ve used from other sources. I think it problematic to rely solely on these projects, including the HGDP which is ancient at this point, for reference samples. 1000 Genomes lists the following as their European samples:

    British in England and Scotland (GBR)
    Finnish in Finland (FIN)
    Iberian populations in Spain (IBS)
    Toscani in Italia (TSI)
    Utah residents with Northern and Western European ancestry (CEU)

    One can readily see that any admixture test based on just these samples would leave most of us with European heritage seeking more specificity at a complete loss.

    No German, no French, no Eastern Europe at all. And who are these residents of Utah?

    As for the English ancestry showing up as Scandinavian, as mentioned by several commenters, and your own results, as well as the Dutch connection, I think it likely due to the history of not just Viking and Norman admixture but also the fact that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes came from what is today Denmark and the Frisian coast of Germany and Holland. Today those remaining in these areas would probably share very similar DNA to those that migrated across the North Sea and English Channel.

    • “One can readily see that any admixture test based on just these samples would leave most of us with European heritage seeking more specificity at a complete loss.” And if it’s not adequate enough for those with mostly-to-entirely European ancestry, it’s really meager for those with non-European ancestry, like those with African or Asian ancestry. But if not the new thousand genomes, where else could one find some of the reference samples?

      The new African samples (Gambian, Mende, and Esan) apparently are not available anywhere else.

      • In October 2013, Roberta wrote about how each company chooses its reference samples,
        Personally, I prefer a mix of the scientific databases that have been edited to remove those samples that have little or no relevancy to genetic genealogy or which create confusion, such as those from Utah or Puerto Rico in the 1000K, or the Orcadian in the HGDP, and add samples from those DNA testers that have verified pedigrees from just one country going back three or four generations. This is similar to what 23andMe does, which I think is the better approach.

  22. This is more of a question than a comment. I hope it is okay to post it on this forum. This concerns two other individuals and me and our connections on Gedmatch. I have a match with a man who has another man on his match list who is not on my match list. However, this third man (LHW) and I share the same surname, and my paper trail research shows that he is my 4th cousin 1X removed. He has not done Y-DNA testing — only autosomal. I do have a Y-DNA match with a fourth man who my research shows to be from the same line of descent as LHW. When I do a one-on-one comparison between LHW and myself on a lower Gedmatch threshold, it seems to show that we share over 26 cM with the largest segment being 5.3 cM and two other segments, 4.0 cM and 4.7 cM. My question is, taking into account all the evidence, could this be considered a significant autosomal match between LHW and myself?
    Jim Wilson

  23. Thank you for a common sense perspective of this topic. So far I’ve taken my 100% Polish ancestry to the late 18th century. So where did the Northeastern European come from? Probably from the 17th century Swedish invasion and occupation of Poland. When I search for my maternal grandfather’s surname, many of the results are Greek. From the late Middle Ages, There were Greek merchants in Poland. IMO too many people get too hung up on ethnic “purity”.

  24. “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.”

    I actually experienced the opposite – one of my great grandfathers was Norwegian but Ancestry’s test said only 2%. It’s FTDNA who inflated it ridiculously to 34%. I know it’s possible I just didn’t inherit much from that ancestor, 2% could be a good representation. Just saying, definitely didn’t inflate my Scandinavian results. My results are the perfect example of how British/German/Scandinavian DNA is almost impossible to tell apart:

    Great Britain: 55%
    Europe West: 5%
    Scandinavian: 2%

    British Isles: 0%
    West/Central Europe: 26%
    Scandinavian: 34%

    British & Irish: 17.2%
    French & German: 17.9%
    Scandinavian: 4.8%
    Broadly NW European: 23.4%

    The only thing consistent is that they all add up to about 60-63% (leaving the rest for the Italian ancestry).

  25. So my dad’s ‘my origins’ is 62% western and central Europe (He has tons of German names in his family tree), 22% British Isles, 9 Finnish and Siberia (initially a surprise), 4% Eastern Europe, and 4% Central Asia (complete surprise). My Mom is 76% British Isles, 7% Central and Western Europe (she has a lot of German surnames as well), 7% Scandinavia, 7% Southern Europe(surprise), and 4% Asia Minor (much bigger surprise). When I did mine I came out 81% British Isles, 9% Scandinavia, 6% Southern Europe, and 5% Asia Minor. I match all of her groupings except for Western and Central Europe. And other than the British bit, I match nothing of my father. Our relationhip matches are clearly parent/child both in my origins and the y-chromosome, but I’m way confused about why my British is so high and how my Asia Minor shows up higher than my mother’s. Help!

    Sent from my Etch A Sketch


  26. Go back and read the original post by Roberta. She warns the reader quite emphatically:
    “Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT, trade in your lederhosen for a kilt just yet.” This is followed by photos of a man wearing lederhosen and one wearing a kilt. Then, below the picture of the men in kilts and lederhosen are these words:

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

    And a bit further down:
    “There are times when you seem to have too much or a particular ethnicity, and times when you seem to have too little.”

    In other words, it’s science, but not very precise science at this point. If you’re looking to find out if you have any this or that in your ethnicity, it probably won’t answer that question. A brown dog standing in a field of brown cows might share the color, but it still isn’t a cow. As I understand it, the ethnic origin question is similar: If some small part of your DNA is sort of similar to that small part in some or most of a small sample of the people in a particular area today, then maybe you are related to them. Or maybe not.

  27. FTDNA says that my ethnicity is 98% European 2% Middle Eastern (hogwash, I have my genealogy back to the 15th century and not one shred of Middle eastern ancestry), it is all British Isles save for my great grandmother whose parents migrated from Prussia.

    23andme has me as 100% European, then breaks down European,into various components including surprisingly .03% Ashkenazi, and this is an incredible claim, unless one of my Prussian ancestors was Asheknazi..

  28. Ancestry had my ethnicity as 22-25% European Jewish. Not Eastern European or European, but European Jewish. My mother was English and just a little Irish. I have documented my father’s side as 100% French Canadian all the way back to France, so I’m guessing the European Jewish comes from my father as he’s probably descendants of Sephardic Jews and he looked quite Spanish and yes, Jewish. His family is Catholic going way back. Perhaps his family were survivors of the Spanish Inquisition, “Conversos”, i.e. Jewish people who converted to Catholicism. You referenced that Ashkenazi is a “known” quantity (I’m paraphrasing). So how could they possibly tell European “Jewish”? Could they have detected Ashkenazi instead? Is it possible to parse out Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity from Sephardic Jewish ethnicity?

    • This is worth investigating further. There is some overlap with Sephardic and Ashkenazi, but the one thing that these sites can do well is predict Ashkenazi. There is no general-availability test for Sephardic (lots of people want it).

      It really, really looks like you have one grandparent who would be identifiable as Ashkenazi, and not some faint distant ancestry. The most extreme case where someone found this out and solved it via DNA is here:

      Upload your results to GEDMatch and see who matches you (that’s the easiest way to confirm the AJ).

  29. This article really explains it well. The funny thing is having my maternal side ancestors all be Norwegian, and showing up as 30% Scandinavian (on Ancestry). I’ve read other instances where people with actual Scandinavian ancestry are underestimated, including Norwegians with everyone in Norway in the past 200+ years. But using Ancestry’s range feature on myself, I see that they provide a range of 8-51%, so even though that’s terribly imprecise, I guess it’s more or less true.

    As for Roberta’s Scandinavian estimate, Norwegians did emigrate to the Netherlands in large numbers circa 1700. They basically assimilated without a trace, from what I’ve read. However, that’s unlikely to be enough to explain 12%, nor would it explain her mother’s low numbers in comparison to Roberta’s. What does the range feature on Ancestry say?

    I have some distant South African and Dutch matches. In my case, I’ve wondered whether they are from my French Huguenots, Englishmen, or these speculative assimilated Norwegians. But these seem to be links to Afrikaaner families, and the Huguenot influence is well-known in that case, so perhaps that’s most likely.

  30. I am curious if people who show unexpected Scandinavian in their estimates are matching to people who are Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or Finnish on GEDMatch? Look for Telia in their email address, an email address ending with .no, .dk., .se, or .nu, or super-obvious Scandinavian names. Of course, someone might have any or all of these and not be Scandinavian, and some use pseudonyms and Gmail, but if you see a bunch of these on the page, it tends to support a true Scandinavian link in the past 200-300 years. I feel reasonably sure (I can’t prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, of course), that when I look at a match’s list of matches, that if there are no obvious Scandinavian matches, they are probably matching me some other way.

      • Roberta, another thing about ethnicity at companies. What do you think about the Tribecode’s test (Not DNA Tribes, but Centrillion Biosciences Tribecode)? I still haven’t seen much info and reviews on it even though it’s been out for well over a year now.

        • I have not had this test done personally, which is why I have not reviewed it. I have seen results for other people and I would say I’m lukewarm at this point. I should order one.

          • Alright. But while I’m thinking about it, I’ve also not seen any reviews on Geno 2.0 Next Generation results anywhere. I’ve seen a couple of reviews talking about how it will use so many more SNP’s and have better Y DNA testing, etc. but I haven’t actually see anyone who’s done it talk about the results and how the ethnicity part compares to the other companies.

  31. Very Informative / helpful.Helped. me put all if my research + testing in perspective. I am on the right track!
    You were easily understandable.Thanks for your site.

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  33. Hi Roberta, Your article certainly gives me some hope. My dad’s sister tested with AncestryDNA and showed 33% Scandinavian DNA. That’s impossible. That would at least require her to have a Scandinavian grandparent and we know that isn’t so. In fact, there aren’t even any family legends of any Scandinavian ancestry.

    My mom tested with Ancestry at 18% Scandinavian. This came as a total surprise. Once again, no family legends or oral histories. Even more surprising it showed 0% Native American. Now I know that much of the American population erroneously believe they are part NA. But in our case we know who she was and even though she died in 1903, my mom once talked to a relative back in the 1970’s who had known her and she she was NA. We further know that she went to live in Oklahoma with Native Americans in a traditional NA dwelling a few years before she died, and the aforementioned relative had once gone with her grandmother to visit her there. Now I know that none of this is proof, but I think is fairly significant evidence.

    I personally was expecting some NA on my dad’s side as well based on some stories my grandfather had told me, and the fact that he looks like a Ute or some closely related tribe.

    Is it possible that Ancestry has it wrong and at least part of that Scandinavian DNA is actually Native American? Is this something DNA companies will discover in the future and everyone will give their heads a collective slap and say “Ohhhh, that explains a lot!” I know there was an indigenous Scandinavian population and wonder if it may be confused with NA. Don’t know, but the results don’t add up at all with what we know and/or the ancestral lines that I have traced.


    • Very interesting. I’m scratching my head on some of my results too…I’m supposed to have a tiny amount of NA on my mom’s side (but mostly Eastern European & some Brit) which did show up correctly, but on my dad’s side it should be fairly even with Welsh/Brit and Native American….and it showed 0 NA! I did have 5% Scandinavian so….maybe you’re right about that connection to Natives; although I would have thought that # would be higher if that’s the case for me. I’ve always been told BOTH of my dad’s parents were mixed w/ some Welsh & British lines, but also a lot of NA and even from the same tribe.
      I’ve gone through a naming ceremony on the reservation, sat through countless hours growing up listening to my relatives tell stories, and my father has done extensive genealogy research on those lines and if this test is accurate then….somebody in my fam is VERY wrong!! haha
      That test I did was from Ancestry and I’ve just ordered 23andme, and my mom’s side has actually been chosen for a DNA study (on the Eastern Euro part) so I should have those results soon too, and will compare everything.
      Good luck to you!!

  34. Hello!
    Very interesting article though I have to re-read it in more details. I just got my results back from Genographic and I have 26% Scandinavia, which seems surprising at first ( I am French, northeastern region). Do you think 2.0 next generation could also have a Scandinavian problem? None of my grand-parents or great grand-parents are Scandinavian…

      • I also unexpectedly tested at 16% Scandinavian, which was a neat surprise. My father’s family goes far back in the north of England, so it could come from there or a Polish line I know less about.

        Is it possible the Scandinavian test groups were more admired than thought?

  35. I have the opposite problem. My mother’s parents were both Norwegian – her father from a family that lived in a s/w remote farming area, on a farm that has been there since at least the 12th century. They “didn’t go more than a couple hills away for a wife/husband”. Her mother’s family emigrated earlier, but stayed and married strictly within the Norwegian community – no Swedes even. So that side is pretty much Norwegian. My father’s ancestry is allegedly Scottish, English and Dutch (on the male line, it looks like it goes directly from colonial America to Holland). FTDNA says I’m 99% Scandinavian, which seems outrageously high!! Ancestry says 57%, and 23andme 34%, which seems too low. All of them agree that there is about 1% that isn’t European. Even with persistent Viking raids on England, Scotland and the Netherlands/Frisia, that was way back in history. I’m at a loss to explain 99%. Is there any way that this could be even close to correct?

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  37. When the Geno test first started I got the y-chrome and the mitochondria test. My y-chrome test came back haplo group M343 and after i registered with FTDNA I got relatives from around the world contacting me. I know there have been advances in the last ten years, but it seemed my y-chrome results are not considered. Recently I got the test and it came back 88 percent African, divided among four countries in Africa. Eight percent of the ancestry results were European. So my question is do ignore the y-chrome European findings. This report has to be based on my mother’s mitochondrial DNA. To add suspicion to the mix when I log in to geno I only get a summary of my mitochondria haplo group L2A and nothing on my privioys y-chrome M343 results. What has changed/.

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  42. Absolutely fascinating, fantastic, well thought-out and well-written article. Thank you so much!!! You’ve done all the leg work that i was interested in being aware of but am not yet ready to deliver into to discover for myself.

    This reminds me of statistics and how most people will just blindingly accept that “43pc of households believe xyz” without understanding the principles behind such extrapolations , never mind that the actual figure could be 13pc or 73pc (assume a +/-30% level of confidence) or could be based on a very small sample size or could be inherently askew due to the way in which the sample population was selected or there could have been inherent bias in the delivery of questions and/or collection of results, and so on, in a very similar vein to the issues you’ve discovered and elaborated upon in your wonderfully detailed analysis.

    For me, this is the overarching principle here is one which should be applied to every aspect of life. In our rushed modern informationally overloaded society, there is a worrying tendency to accept at face value without questioning, further thought or any introspection whatsoever. Thank you for reminding us all that life is rarely, if ever, quite so simple, and that the thirst for further knowledge is what has allowed humanity our development thus far.

    I’m bookmarking this page for the time when i am ready to take this next step in understanding but am already much enriched by the foundation you’ve so equisitely laid. Thanks again!!!

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  44. Roberta- thank you for this insight. I’m a bit late to this party, but I do have a question.

    Can the admixture permeate so much that someone who is about 65% English/Scottish and 35% Northern German on paper for more than 6 generations back still get accurately reflective FTDNA results that look like this?

    35% British Isles
    30% Scandinavian
    21% Southern European
    7% Eastern European
    7% West/Central European

    Do I assume that the 30% Scandinavian is slightly inflated and is just Viking DNA from the Scottish peaking through? I don’t even know what to do with the 21% Southern European. I ran the sequence through GEDMatch and still come up with about 15% Mediterranean. But the Scandinavian seems to get dispersed into Baltic and North Sea.

    Where do I go from here? Do I pick at the ancestors I have less confidence in? Most of these either go back to their expected country of origin in the 1700s or dead-end in Colonial Virginia/North Carolina, with English or German surnames.

    I would so love a nudge in SOME direction to research this further. 🙂

      • Thank you! That was a helpful article–I think I will try that ethnic breakdown on paper. And I’m going to read through the Autosomal Me paper you wrote–thank you for sharing that!

        I’m still wondering about your statement: “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.”

        I don’t have a Scandinavian grandparent on paper, but I do have 30% Scandinavian on the DNA. 🙂 Should I consider a NPE a couple generations back? What do I do with this?

  45. I am thoroughly confused. I am interested in my ethnicity, however I mainly started this search for clues to my paternal family. My mother does not know who my father is and apparently has truly blocked it out for whatever reason. They are from a small southwestern town near Roanoke, VA (near Bedford and Franklin counties) and so I decided to do the autosomnal DNA testing to see if I could find a link. I tested myself and my mother. My results were 46% African American, 41% (a whopping 41% I might add) Middle Eastern, 10% European and 3% Asian. Hers were 83% African American, 17% European (2% British Isles – 5% Eastern Europe). in the small town I’m certain there was some endogamous activity at some point in history…but with 41%, doesnt that seem PRETTY close to the 1940’s (mom was born in 1947). Will I ever be able to sort this out? WHY is my middle eastern (mix of non new DNA) so high?? any insight will help greatly. My test was through FTDNA (in 2015) I just sent in my Ancestry DNA hoping to tap into a larger database, but if is the same family pool (and a close one I fear — like 3rd or 4th cousin) how will I ever be able to decipher from mom’s?

    • As Roberta’s original article stated, ethnicity testing is still in its infancy. Take the percentages with large doses of salt. Her article explains why, so i won’t repeat any of that here.

      To separate out your mother’s DNA from your father’s DNA, you’ll need to use the chromosome browser function at FTDNA. Unless your mother and father shared DNA, i.e., were related by blood, then what you didn’t get from her, you got from your father. So when you look at matches, starting for convenience with the closest, you should be able to separate out the paternal relatives from the maternal. It is very easy to mark up to five of your closest matches (including your mother) and view the results chromosome by chromosome in the chromosome browser. FTDNA even uses distinct colors for each person When you find someone whose color bands don’t line up with your mother’s, then bingo, that person is related to you on your father’s side.

      For example, I have found three matches with whom I share a good sized chunk of chromosome #1, ranging from 22 centiMorgans (cM) to 41 cM. So when I see a new match with DNA in that part of chromosome #1, I know they are related to me on my Davis line. By the way, these three people are a 3rd cousin, once removed; a 5th cousin; and a double 5th cousin. Tracing back is not horribly difficult as long as the matching person has done the work on his/her own family tree.

      I’ve been working with another woman in exactly your same situation. She has done a lot of research but still has not identified her father for sure. She has several matches who don’t match her mother, but they are something like 3rd cousins. Like her, your most recent common ancestor (MRCA).may be several generations back and may not share a familiar surname. Alas, finding your actual father means tracing all the lines forward from your MRCA, which is tedious at best, and impossible at worst.

      Good luck.

      • Thank you for taking the time to reply. I have done the FTDNA filter that separates my mother from any that are not related to both of us. Most of them were remote cousins so I did not contact them. I did have one cousin that I did contact, but he did not know his dads family only his dad (later in his adult life). No real link to Virginia, but did link to relatives in Georgia…still researching though. I have also ordered the DNA ancestry test and will compare my GEDmedcom tests from Ancestry, FTDNA using the that capability! There is some hints that my father may have been a distant family relative….I will keep in touch! May of my mothers siblings are older and not willing to test their DNA. No grandparents or other older generations to test either…..Good luck to your friend. She is lucky to have you!

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