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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264 thoughts on “Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum

  1. I’ve also done as many DNA tests as possible and had more detailed results from the My Heritage test. I’m also looking forward to the results from GPS Origines (HomeDNA)
    You might want to try these and see if they corroborate, refute or enhance your 4 previous tests. Really looking forward to your write up of the addendum if you include them. Thanks for sorting out the generational percentages as well as dates(century) – that will help a great deal when I set up the multi colored fan geneolgy tree.

  2. Hi,
    Great article! Was sent here by the FtDNA support group to explain an anomaly and learned a lot, but I’m still a bit confused. I’m Swedish. 30 of 32 ancestors five generations back are born in Sweden or Norway and for most of these their parents as well (so births around early 1800s), but in many lines we can trace back to 1600s in Sweden. My wife is American with British/Irish/German/Italian ancestry (gr child of Italian). We tested my son and he matches with 2nd cousins 3rd removed etc in Sweden. However my son tests at 0% Scandinavian and 0% southern Europe. FtDNA reran the analysis and got same results. They express full confidence in the results. My parents have had >80 and >90% Scandinavian at the Genographic test, above references for area.
    I understand the admixture/recombination/interpretation issues. But zero sounds… well.. too much? Not even a trace amount. What kind of genealogy can you build on that?
    I thought the ‘Scandinavia Problem’ was one of assigning too much?

  3. I have the too much Scandinavian problem too. Did the MyHeritage test and it came out as 13.8% Scandinavian. Uploaded it to FtDNA and it has me at 28% Scandinavian.Here’s the thing – I actually do live in Sweden, but I was born in Australia and moved here as an adult. Oral history and records has no traceable Scandinavian ancestry at all, certainly not close enough to get 28%.There’s an unknown great-grandfather on my paternal line and an unknown great-great-grandfather on the maternal tree – but even 13.8% sounds too much there. Is there yet another skeleton in the closet? (and there’s been many found already!)

  4. Well I bought my son a DNA test for Christmas. I was always told I was 1/2 German because my dad and grandparents came over from Germany, they even spoke German. The test had 0% German anything.

    • Let me guess, it said Scandinavian? These tests seem to have a real challenge sorting…or even finding…German. It is usually just clumped into Western Europe…France, Belgium, Netherlands etc. IF it said Scandinavian, do many of your German ancestors come from the North of German? IF so, they are likely matching quite a few Scandinavian dna characteristics due to common remote ancestry. We also have to remember that many countries, Germany especially, has seen huge changes in populations due to war. The 30 years war destroyed much of Northern Germany and people from elsewhere settled there. Known ancestry trumps these estimates, this is still an inexact science.

  5. I’m new to DNA results and trying to sift through the shocking results I just received a week ago from Ancestry. My parents, and two generations back are from Western Ukraine, I have documents proving this for my parents and names of the other two generations. I completely believed I would test mostly Eastern European but I got only 47% and the balance was 53% Southern European and Italian Greek. Am I correct in assuming that this way too significant and beyond any margin of error in testing or ethnicity references. If so how can I find out more about this mystery with both parents dead and me being a female and only child. I’m sending off a 23and me test this afternoon.

  6. hi. interesting article, and I am confused. It’s a lot more complicated than I thought. the only constant is the change, that is myheritage vs gedmatch. neither of them shows any english in my results. zero. nada from myheritage. gedmatch seems to show 90 odd percent African. anyway my question is whether it is possible to have zero percent english when I am english and my parents and grandparents were too. as I say I am confused. I have accused my mum of some clandestine relationship, or maybe I was swapped at birth etc. very tongue in cheek and she relished the scandal but had to deny it. not sure how to run all the different bits in gedmatch so need to further understand that.

      • yes I do agree. but continent wise I would expect Europe. no idea where the African connection came from. and it is over 95%. thanks for your reply 🙂

  7. Reference populations will eventually be collected from tombs and disturbed grave sites were the dates relatively speaking are known for many ethnicities. We will need this for medical studies and determining loss of selective genes over time. Not a great example but, the reduction of genes making up the Y chromosome would be an example. What the Science needs are statistical Meaningful numbers of people dated to a century

  8. Very well said. It’s life and why I have been so interested in genealogy for 20 years. Thanks so much !

  9. I am new to DNA testing and somewhat confused with one area on my Ancestry results. Both of my parents have 12% Nigeria, but I have 36%. Is that possible? All of the other areas seem to be a few numbers off, but this one area is extremely high. How is this possible?

  10. Thanks for the article. I seem to have a more extreme Scandinavian problem than you describe. I tested myself, my mother, and my father’s sister (Dad is deceased) at FTDNA and transferred results to MyHeritage. At FTDNA I came back as 20% Scandinavian and 11% Iberian. At MyHeritage, 9% Scandinavian. At both companies, my mother and my aunt have 0% Scandinavian and 0% Iberian (and yes, we do have the shared cM you would expect for our relationships). To get numbers these high just from non-Scandinavian/Iberian markers mixing to “look like” Scandinavian or Iberian seems unlikely but there seems to be no other explanation, unless Dad got a VERY different mix of DNA than his sister. I’m not bothering to share here the additional oddities that came in at 3% and lower.
    Fortunately I was not testing “just for” the ethnicity results like so many others seem to be.

  11. Hello Roberta–I’ve read your article about the confusion surrounding European origin ethnic results. My sister-in-law asked me to look at her FTDNA results; I’ve researched her family’s genealogy pretty thoroughly, back at least four generations. So what came back from FTDNA was 21% British Isles (her father), 34% eastern Europe, centered on Poland (her mother)—and 46% west/central Europe focused on an area surrounding Switzerland, eastern France, and southwest Germany! No trace of anybody even close to that in her pedigree. The explanations you offer about migration, etc., just don’t seem to explain such a huge anomaly. Or do they? Any time in your busy schedule you take to help me out here would be most appreciated. (PS–I’m 100% Ashkenazi Jewish. So no mysteries there, right?)

  12. Excellent article. Finding of Germany and Border Scot, this is inclusive of England. Had comparison of Scandinavian on same raw data by three companies; one was zero, twenty-six, and thirty-seven percent. Ethnicity test has quite a diversity. As a tool of genealogical research, I consider the autosomal test the best to grow a family from a gedcom seedling of information obtained from close relatives. Feel that, does about the best of displaying, the connection, will publish results from others to use, plus uses the resources of a highly reputable religious base site It seem very tentatively that autosomal seems to reach back further in the generations. This may be because of it being freed up from the genealogical aspects, and need a test accuracy for it’s extended health analysis. This data needs transferring to genealogically oriented sites like and, and especially put into along with a gedcom file. Noted; does not take in DNA, but does integrated with other online genealogical sites.

    As a beginner to genealogy, would get all information from family, there may be already a gedcom file with you included. Have and autosomal seem to like 23andMe, transfer to, and place both into gedmatch which is free then you are really on your way to grow your tree, and get a lot higher level of accuracy on your family then the ethnicity testing.

  13. I just got my DNA results back from MyHeritage and it is showing I am 80.2% Scandinavian! I have no scandinavian in my family that I am aware of even after doing genealogy research on both sides of my family. I’m also showing 10.6% Italian, 4.9% Greek & 4.3% Ashkenazi Jew (this one was a shocker but really cool after finding out this is a very unique & distinct gene pool). This 80% Scandinavian is extremely high. My father’s side is from Germany & France going back to the 1600’s but before that who knows. My mother’s side goes back to Luxembourg quite a ways back. Many people commenting here have Scandinavian results much lower than mine. Could this mean that possibly further back in my family history there could be Scandinavian ancestry or is this a HUGE error in my results?

  14. #Suzie Snow
    I don’t know what to think,I have family ,friends ect; that have taken these tests.I’ve told some people things about their heritages based on their last names and its very similar to these test.
    I research things like this myself because I was curious about my own name.I might think othereise if they used blood for DNA instead of daliva.

    Most of the things they tell people is based on hundreds maybe close to a 1000 ,so I don’t know.Some things people already about themselves and I think people should test my theory,maybe use some of your mother and fathers side maiden too,that way you can see if ,its really because of your saliva DNA and nor just the name.

    I do want to get mine,only ,so I can say I did because I want to meet people with the same name that might be related,distant ,cousins .’
    Im Scottish on my mother and fathers side and some swedish,french Nornan/English ,German.I have all the British Isles I know that.I just don’t know which one of these to get.’Just saying’
    bye,bye Suzie Snow

  15. I recently joined 23andme and like most people was looking for ancestry origin information. My grandfather/great-grandfather is definitely from Spain and yet all I see is “Iberian Peninsula 1.6%” at a 50% confidence level. When I increased to a 90% confidence level this drops off and I’m left with “67% broadly Western European” and “23% broadly European”. Well, that is pretty broad, ha ha. If I have to go all the way down to a 50% confidence level to pick up a scant reference to an area near Spain and even then it’s only 1.6% does that imply anything to you or exclude much possibility of my grandfather or great-grandfather being from Spain? I was enjoying the $99 lure of letting science do the hard work of tracing an accurate and detailed account of my ancestral path while it lasted :-). Thank you for your very valuable insight and generosity in sharing your thoughts. It is greatly appreciated.

    Warmest regards,

  16. This is a very good article and helped explain my results of 33% Scandinavian when I have 10,000 researched Ancestors in my tree and I just found one Scandinavian Ancestor 11 Generations ago! I have 250 English Ancestors and 0% English DNA.
    Thank you ,
    PS I repeated the test and it came out the same again.

  17. Thank you so much for explaining the Scandinavian problem. I had my ethnicity tested through Ancestry. Based on family history I expected to have a high percentage of German ethnicity however I only had 5% from Western Europe, which includes Germany. My Scandinavian results were shockingly high with 48%. I also have 16% Irish/Scottish/Welsh and 15% Great Britain.
    My sister has 37% Scandinavian, 27% Irish/Scottish/Welsh, and 17% Great Britain, and 10% Western Europe.
    My mother has 38% Great Britain, 21% Western Europe, 17% Irish/Scottish/Welsh and 15% Scandinavian.
    My father and my paternal grandfather both have passed away. However my father’s mother and sister tested.
    My paternal grandmother has 57% Great Britain, 18% Irish/Scottish/Welsh, 11% Scandinavian, and 5% Western Europe.
    My father’s sister has 86% Great Britain, 2% Irish/Scottish/Welsh, 2% Scandinavian and, 0% Western Europe. Both show high levels of Great Britain DNA, so I assumed I should have more Great Britain DNA than I do, especially as it comes from both my mother’s side and my father’s side.
    My maternal grandfather has 48% Great Britain, 20% Irish/Scottish/Welsh, 15% Western Europe and, 7% Scandinavian.
    My maternal grandmother has 36% Irish/Scottish/Welsh, 27% Scandinavian, 25% Western Europe and, 2% Great Britain. My paternal grandfather has always claimed he was Irish and German but we do not have the DNA results or the genealogy on paper to prove either of these things he and his siblings and my father and cousins have red hair which we assume comes from Ireland according to his stories and blue eyes from Europe. No one in my family has as much Scandinavian ethnicity as I do except one of my mother’s first cousins has 55% Scandinavian. Her other percentages are similar to mine especially compared to other relatives I have. I am pretty confused about how I have been able to trace my family tree back to 7th to 10th grandparents, except on my paternal grandfather sight where we have no DNA test. According to the paper trail research my mainly come from England, Ireland, Scotland, or Germany. I have many ancestors that have been in America since the 1600’s and 1700s. There are few records of any of my paternal grandfather’s line beyond his grandparents. Those papers that do exist only list births deaths marriages and Census records within the United States. Even if my paternal grandfather were 100% Scandinavian, which I highly doubt, I should only have about 25% Scandinavian DNA from him and about 7% from my mother. That would still only equal 32% Scandinavian ethnicity. My sister and I both have more than that on our reports. I am curious to see my brother’s DNA results he will be sending in his kit in the next couple of weeks. This Scandinavian problem seems like a horrible glitch in the DNA system. I almost feel that if they don’t know where to assign certain groups of DNA they have a default label of Scandinavian ethnicity. Can you explain your opinion about how I came out with such a high percent of Scandinavian based on the rest of my family’s DNA? I know it will only be an educated guess. I did read your article about how this could happen but it is still a bit confusing for me. If I could afford it I would have my DNA tested by all of the other companies to compare my results but I cannot afford it My mother purchased ancestry kits for all of her children and their spouses for Christmas. Thank you for your time.
    Sara Gillihan

  18. In this article you stated “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.”

    How do you know the Ashkenazi Jewish results are accurate? How do you measure accuracy?

    • Jewish people know that they are Jewish. People from Germany today know that they are German, for example. If German people test and show up as something else, that’s not good. Jewish people tend to test very true, but others don’t.

      • Thanks for the prompt reply. One follow-up question — is Jewish the only type of DNA that is named for a religion, rather than a geographic area? Thanks in advance.

        • Jewish isn’t just a religion, it’s also an ethnicity. The lines blur significantly. However, the Jewish people from the Middle East were displaced en masse and their DNA is distinguishable from the Germanic Europeans because of that.

          • My father’s results came back as 50% Ashkenazi Jew (which I believe to be accurate based on what we know about his mother). However my results came back as 0% Ashkenazi Jew. Is it possible that I wouldn’t have inherited any of those genes from my father?

          • Do you match your father? If so, then something else appears to be wrong. Which testing company? I would contact them.

  19. Thank You for posting this high quality article on DNA. I read through it, but it still doesn’t AFAIK explain my own odd results. I did the AncestryDNA test when my family all received kits as Christmas gifts. The results came back and correctly linked my up with my parents, uncle and some cousins. Everything seems “normal” except for the fact that my trace DNA included “European Jewish” and “Central Asian”….neither of these categories are present in my Mother or Fathers DNA profile. I sure wish someone else who has had the same experience can shed some light on how this could happen. It was my understanding that a child could only inherit whichever DNA their parents had….sort of like each parent holds a poker hand…and their offspring can only have cards present in their two hands. I have two “wild cards” it seems.

    • Your parents DNA may have recombined to form segments that “look like” those other ethnicities. This is a prime example of why these results, especially small amounts, needs to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

  20. Hi, do you know which company has the best or largest reference population for the Greek islands? It seems some companies split greece and italy and others don’t due to generations of intermingling.

  21. Dear Roberta, another weird “ethnicity” result in My Heritage. Father-90% European 10% Asian Jew. Mother- 97% European 3.3% North Africa.
    * Son #1 6% North Africa,1% Nigeria
    * Son #2 4% North Africa 1% Nigeria
    Possible??? Question????
    Can environment influence DNA??? We actually lived in Nigeria for 3 years when our sons were pre-teens. I know “ethnicity” is a guess but I find it rather strange that Nigeria, specifically, showed up in our DNA “guesstimate”.

    • MyHeritage has a well known glitch that gives lots of people false Nigerian. For the most part MyHeritage is way off – or tells deeper ancestry. I am half Italian on every other test and I have verified ancestors from Italy going back hundreds of years (mountain towns in Abruzzo) and MyHeritage gives me 0% Italian and assigns it to half Greek and half Iberian instead.

      • Hi Roberta,

        I took the test with MyHeritage and got some confusing results. From my fathers side the family tree goes back to the Canary Islands and converted Sephardi Jews. I got 0% Sephardi. From my mothers side I knew about some italian greatgrandfather as well as a Sioux relative. Got 3.1% italian and 1.3% native american. I also got 28.8% Iberian which is no surprise as well as 38% Central America that covers half the continent with no specification (from Guatemala to Argentina).
        Then, I got 11.3% from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as 6.2% from Finland. And 7.9% from North Africa (Egypt, Lybia, Morocco)
        This last three regions got me by surprise. The only thing that could ring a bell with Ireland and Scotland would be my mother’s and my son’s freckles and red hair. Can these results be completely wrong?

  22. Hi My Heritage had me at 87% English and 13% Scandinavian.
    Would higher concentratios like this seem more reliable ethnicity estimates?

  23. Thanks for your comment Roberta.
    Would it seem likely that the only other ethnicity – in my case Englishness, is therefore understated?
    Maybe another firm might analyse things differently and bring in other ethnicities, would you say? You indicate maybe German substituting for Scandinavian.

  24. Finally I would like to make a few points to this facinating blog. Ethnicity is probably of highest importance for individuals in the growing commercial market..
    Understanding human origins over time is more the anthropological focus of interest . The two approaches may coincide at various points.
    My facination is to know more about what seems apparent in my test – the (narrowness of ethnic origin) high estimate for Englishness rather than the broader Britishness. Another measure I would personally find incredibly interesting if it were ever possible to measure, is my long run species origins i.e. any Neanderthal DNA in there?

  25. Pingback: Ethnicity is Just an Estimate – Yes, Really! | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  26. Hi Roberta.
    Thanks for all your help in our finding our way. My question has to do with my mother who took Ancestry DNA along with myself and my brother. I have traced her family tree to French Canadian on her mother’s side and France on her father’s side…census and church records…going back to 1600.
    Her test showed an initial crazy variety (Greece, Italy, Iberian, Irish, and Norway) but was later more defined by Ancestry. She laughed and scoffed at the science.
    Now Ancestry has corrected her lineage to 50% France (not included the first time) and 47% British Isles. Quite confusing. Does this mean one of her parents would have to have been British? Now she is questioning her paternity…she is 97 and I don’t want to make her test again.
    Thank you

    • No. Ethnicity is just an estimate. Period. If you tested her at multiple vendors, the results would vary at each one.

    • PLEASE, please do not let her question her paternity. Here’s a quick way to prove it. Look for your closest matches and see if you can place some of them on her mother’s known line and her father’s known genealogy lines. You can also use the Leeds method to group her matches into 4 quadrants representing her grandparents, then look for the family lines that intersect your own.

  27. Italian dating back years of Italian marriages/say im French but my first cousin came out Italian and my Moms sister Italian but my test says im French/new to me?

    • Remember that ethnicity is only an estimate and that trying to differentiate between Italy and France is like trying to differentiate between Indiana and illinois.

  28. Hi Roberta, I took MyHeritage DNA test as I wanted to check my Ashkenazi Jewish gens. It shown 0%, but in the same time I have more than 2000 dna matches with other Ashkenazi Jews, some of them are 100% Ashkenazi. What is more I found my second cousin with 15% of Ashkenazi. Is it still possible that I have 0% Ashkenazi or it can be MyHeritage issue with ethnicity estimation?

  29. Hello Roberta,

    I would be very interested in getting your perspective on my recent experience with Ancestry DNA.

    Last summer I submitted my mother’s DNA sample to Ancestry for testing. Initial results came back as predominantly North Western Europe, Britain, a small reading of 3% Scandinavian, less than one percent Jewish, and less than one percent Iberian Peninsula. Then about 4 months later Ancestry provided updated results. They were:

    59% England, Wales & NW Europe
    41% Scottish / Northern Ireland

    A few weeks ago Ancestry provided a further refinement of those results into geographical origins in England Midlands / The Potteries; as well as Central Scotland; and they also now show links to certain settlement areas in the Province of Ontario, Canada.

    That is pretty precise information and I was quite impressed with the accuracy of those results given their strong concordance to my known maternal heritage & available family tree information (ie: all English from Cheshire, Yorkshire and Wiltshire; and Scots/Irish from Perthshire and Ulster).

    Now however, this is where it gets a bit messy.

    As explained above, my known maternal heritage is approximately 50% British from my mother (zero % Scandinavian in her updated Ancestry DNA results and zero % Scandinavian in her known heritage / family tree history going back 5 to 6 generations on most of her known family lines).

    And, my known paternal heritage is 50% Norwegian from my father’s family whose heritage we can trace back to several areas of Norway for 5 to 6 generations on several lines, and further back on others. However as my father was deceased prior to commercially available DNA testing kits, no sample was ever obtained from him.

    In April this year I submitted my own DNA sample to Ancestry. Per the preceding paragraphs I was expecting results somewhere along the lines of about 50% British (English & Scots/Irish) and 50% Norwegian.

    However my Ancestry DNA results came back as the following:
    55% Norwegian
    19% Swedish
    15% Scottish/Irish
    11% England/Wales/ NW Europe.

    Those numbers simply don’t make sense if we go by the science that we inherit half of our DNA from each parent. In my case, Ancestry’s estimate puts me at 74% Scandinavian (combined Norwegian / Swedish) and a mere 26% British ( Scots/Irish & English, Wales, NW Europe).

    That suggests I received a surplus of 24% Scandinavian from my father, or that I got short-changed 24% on my British genetic material from my mother. That does not make sense.

    As such, back in May, 2019 as a result of my request for specific information as to how my results could be so skewed towards Scandinavian and how I could have lost genetic material from my biological mother, Ancestry apparently opened an error report on my case (initially the Customer Service Associate to whom I was speaking tried to sell me another kit to re-do the test – I balked at that).

    It has now been 2 months since the filing of that error report and I have made multiple queries to Ancestry in an attempt to receive an update. Their Customer Service Associates keep sending my generic responses and hyperlinks to literature and videos, none of which specifically answer the question as to how I could have received such odd results. My requests for specific info about my error report case go unanswered.

    I have read your website and several others and have tried to make sense of my own DNA results from Ancestry, however nothing that I have found touches on this particular anomaly. Nor does admixture seem to be the explanation in this case.

    I would be grateful for your insights on this.



  30. Thank you. Given the current limitations of such autosomal testing, not much point in submitting other family members’ DNA for testing.

    • There’s a lot more than ethnicity if you’re interested in genealogy. Have you transferred to MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA and GedMatch? It’s extremely difficult to differentiate between European nations. Think about migration. Many are the size of states in the US.

      • Yes thanks, in fact I am presently awaiting Y chromosome testing results from Family Tree DNA. Will probably do a FTDNA mt mitochondrial test after that too.

  31. Hello,
    I’ve researched my family tree and done an ethnicity estimate based on 64 4th GGparents which suggests I should be 50% Mexican (maternal line 100% from Mexico), 34% English, and the rest German and Irish; the DNA results were 25% Native American- Mexico, 61% England/Wales/N. Europe, 4% Spain, and then an odd mix. I still can’t find an explanation for the low Native American and high English mix- if anything, shouldn’t the Spanish DNA be higher? I realize the way Ancestry lumps things together, that ‘extra’ England/N. Europe DNA could represent European DNA mixed into the Mexican line, but it just seems odd. As far as the family can be traced back, there’s no European DNA- especially not English- in the Mexican side.

  32. Hello,

    I am sorry but I do not understand everything despite the different articles I read. I would like to get some information about the Y-DNA. There is not historic information about the migrations and origins, as it is in the autosomal test.

    In the autosomal test it is possible to know the distirbution of the origins. Why, in the Y-DNA test, cannot we know the most recent origin area, such as Western Europe or British Isles ?

    How do I have to consider the Y-DNA matches at the 12, 25 and 37 markers ?
    What does the genetic distance mean ? For example how do I have to interpret a genetic distance of 3 in the marker 37, of 1 in the marker 25 and of 0 in the marker 12 ?
    I know that they share a part of my DNA, but what generation are they combined with me ?

    In the ancestral origins, there is a list of different countires with percentage, according to each marker (12, 25 or 37), as well as the genetic distance. What do they mean ?

    In the haplogroup origins, there is a long list of different haplogroups with countries, comments and genetic distances according to each marker. How do I have to interpret these results ?

    When I am looking at the map of migrations, the information stops 25,000 years ago. And earlier, before 25,000 years, there is nothing else. Why not ?

    I read that Toutankhamon had a R-M269 haplogroup. My grandmother’s cousin did the Y-DNA test and has a R-M269 haplogroup. They share the same haplogroup. Is that mean they are « distant cousins » ? Is that mean my grandmother’s cousin paternal ancestors were likened to Toutankhamon ?

    Besides, how can we find historic information about each haplogroup ?

    By doing the Y-DNA test I wanted to prove that my paternal lineage is from the Vikings, but 25,000 years agos, I cannot confirm it. How do I have to analyse the results ?

    Thank you for all your replies.
    Best regards,

  33. Thank you for your wise words regarding the unreliability of intra-continental ethnicity testing. I’ve been a member of 23andMe since the earliest days (and Oxford Ancestors before that), and have watched my ethnicity percentages change over the years from the same sample. Though I can trace my lines back to the British Isles pretty reliably for hundreds of years, I’ve always attributed my 15% Scandinavian ancestry to having largely Scots and Norman forebears, but a couple of years ago, out of nowhere, I suddenly had 1% Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. That lasted about a year, and then that disappeared and was replaced by 1% Spanish or Portuguese ancestry, and then, that disappeared too and blended into the “broadly Northern European” category. To expand on the unreliability of the “Scandinavian” percentage, while the “Viking” contribution to “English” DNA is smaller than one would think, large parts of western and northern Scotland (and the Isle of Man) were actually ruled by Norway, same as late as the 1400’s.

  34. I don’t think it’s appreciated how far back atDNA can trace, and the Ethnicity estimation methodology doesn’t seem to have a mechanism to select a timeframe – Ancestry’s White Paper refers to about a 1000 segments of 3-10cM, which isn’t the range we’d choose be working in to trace recent ancestry (say to 5GGP).

    I’ve plotted numbers of atDNA Matches on a cM scale and they rise exponentially below 20cM with 40% of my Matches in the 6-7cM range; I’ve also modelled the expected numbers of Matches to 8C (roughly in line with the Isogg Wiki Cousin Stats) and they make quite a small contribution to that ‘spike’. Ancestry also have Timber to remove IBS segments as best as they can, that still leaves a few ‘pile-up’ like Clusters but again they have a similar profile and are a small percentage. So that leaves ‘Distant Matches’ as the main contributor to those low level Matches.

    Paul Rakow did an interesting study called ‘Ancestral Segments’ which seems applicable ( – so I think the Ethnicity Estimates probably work on a timeframe similar to a Tip-Report profile for Y-DNA Matches (a Gamma distribution?).

    I suspect about 30% of my Ethnicity estimate is ‘ancient’ (e.g. 14% Sweden, 13% Ireland & Scotland, 4% Germanic Europe & 1% Spain, for a 100% England Tree to the mid-1700s (confirmed by DNA-Matches)).

    n.b. You’re obsessed with Lederhosen and Kilts!

  35. Pingback: Top 10 All-Time Favorite DNA Articles | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  36. Some of these tests surely are open to interpretation – as in the Germanic equation (it was more of a Language, until Von Bismarck started uniting the german-speaking peoples into an empire in the 19th century), but the results can be also be paradigm-shattering! My paternal line has long held a certain Highland clan association, having visited the ancestral home as a teen and recognizing some physical tendencies – but I just got some results I’m trying to come to grips with. I joined a certain ydna project only to find ZERO matches – not even one remote out of a thousand. My paternal gr.grandfather was orphaned at a young age and raised by a distant aunt (we were told), and presumed his birth surname was preserved correctly – but all attempts to find his father netted bupkus. Yesterday, another unrelated Highland clan project contacted me revealing 15 matches out of a few hundred on the ydna test with me! I had actually given up hope decades ago finding a 4th generation paternal ancestor – after all, nobody can be completely sure regarding scenarios that far removed (cases of Adoption, Amnesia, Foundling, Fugitive, Kidnap, Orphan, Refugee, Runaway, Stolen and/or Assumed Identity, etc.). I’m still trying to come to grips with this, and haven’t told the kids – SURE HOPE MY SAMPLES WEREN’T MIXED UP WITH SOMEONE ELSES! That would be like Alex Haley finding out he was adopted right before the mini series “Roots” went into production … Anyway, Facts are stubborn things (according to John Adams), and this is paradigm-shattering for me. I’m not gonna run out and change my name or anything, but I might have a real chance at tracing my ancestry back to the old country!

  37. Here’s an illustration that ethnicity results can’t always be taken very seriously. In FTDNA’s MyOrigins 3.0, I’m told that I’m 79% “Western Europe”, which is subdivided into 54% “Central Europe”, 21% “Ireland”, and 4% “England, Wales, and Scotland”. Meanwhile, MyOrigins says that my father is 95% “Western Europe”, divided into <0% "Central Europe", <0% "Ireland", and 95% "England, Wales, and Scotland".

    Now, this is simply impossible. I *cannot* be only 4% of something that my father is 95% of, or 54% of something he doesn't have *at all*. I inherited half of each parent's autosomal DNA, and only half of my DNA is from each parent.

    Of course, some folks would suggest maybe my father isn't really my father. Well, we match on the half of our DNA. In fact, I can see in 23andMe's chromosome browser that we match across the entire length of each chromosome.

    Fortunately, I can compare our results in Ancestry Composition and see where, given shared DNA, we also have the same ancestry call. I'd say 23andMe is consistent more often than not, but not 100% — though being better than FTDNA doesn't take much doing.

    • It’s NEVER appropriate to question parentage based on ethnicity. I know you know this. Just saying it for anyone reading later.

  38. Hi Mrs Roberta who I am I know my 4 generation and where I came from, I blood line is come from Asia but my DNA result is say 38.1% Europe I am confused.
    Your ethnicity results
    EUROPE Greek and South Italian
    Balkan 6.0%
    Finnish 2.1%
    Middle Eastern 25.7%
    Central Asian 25.1%

  39. I was curious about the Eurogenes K13 module 2nd population source. For the 1st population source is SouthWest England and West Scottish. The second population source shows a lot of regions from the county of India. North_Kannadi, Chamar, Kol, Kanjar, Uttar_Pradesh, Velamas, Piramalai, Brahmin_UP, Kshatriya, Dharkar, Kurumba, Dusadh, Chenchu, Gujarati, Sakilli, Bangladeshi, most of these are between 2.0-2.3% I am not aware of any India heritage. 2% would be about 7 generations right?

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