Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages

There has been a lot of discussion about ethnicity percentages within the genetic genealogy community recently, probably because of the number of people who have recently purchased DNA tests to discover “who they are.”

Testers want to know specifically if ethnicity percentages are right or wrong, and what those percentages should be. The next question, of course, is which vendor is the most accurate.

Up front, let me say that “your mileage may vary.” The vendor that is the most accurate for my German ancestry may not be the same vendor that is the most accurate for the British Isles or Native American. The vendor that is the most accurate overall for me may not be the most accurate for you. And the vendor that is the most accurate for me today, may no longer be the most accurate when another vendor upgrades their software tomorrow. There is no universal “most accurate.”

But then again, how does one judge “most accurate?” Is it just a feeling, or based on your preconceived idea of your ethnicity? Is it based on the results of one particular ethnicity, or something else?

As a genealogist, you have a very powerful tool to use to figure out the percentages that your ethnicity SHOULD BE. You don’t have to rely totally on any vendor. What is that tool? Your genealogy research!

I’d like to walk you through the process of determining what your own ethnicity percentages should be, or at least should be close to, barring any surprises.

By surprises, in this case, we’re assuming that all 64 of your GGGG-grandparents really ARE your GGGG-grandparents, or at least haven’t been proven otherwise. Even if one or two aren’t, that really only affects your results by 1.56% each. In the greater scheme of things, that’s trivial unless it’s that minority ancestor you’re desperately seeking.

A Little Math

First, let’s do a little very basic math. I promise, just a little. And it really is easy. In fact, I’ll just do it for you!

You have 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents.

Generation # You Have Who Approximate Percentage of Their DNA That You Have Today
1 You 100%
1 2 Parents 50%
2 4 Grandparents 25%
3 8 Great-grandparents 12.5%
4 16 Great-great-grandparents 6.25%
5 32 Great-great-great-grandparents 3.12%
6 64 Great-great-great-great-grandparents 1.56%

Each of those GGGG-grandparents contributed 1.56% of your DNA, roughly.

Why 1.56%?

Because 100% of your DNA divided by 64 GGGG-grandparents equals 1.56% of each of those GGGG-grandparents. That means you have roughly 1.56% of each of those GGGG-grandparents running in your veins.

OK, but why “roughly?”

We all know that we inherit 50% of each of our parents’ DNA.

So that means we receive half of the DNA of each ancestor that each parent received, right?

Well, um…no, not exactly.

Ancestral DNA isn’t divided exactly in half, by the “one for you and one for me” methodology. In fact, DNA is inherited in chunks, and often you receive all of a chunk of DNA from that parent, or none of it. Seldom do you receive exactly half of a chunk, or ancestral segment – but half is the AVERAGE.

Because we can’t tell exactly how much of any ancestor’s DNA we actually do receive, we have to use the average number, knowing full well we could have more than our 1.56% allocation of that particular ancestor’s DNA, or none that is discernable at current testing thresholds.

Furthermore, if that 1.56% is our elusive Native ancestor, but current technology can’t identify that ancestor’s DNA as Native, then our Native heritage melds into another category. That ancestor is still there, but we just can’t “see” them today.

So, the best we can do is to use the 1.56% number and know that it’s close. In other words, you’re not going to find that you carry 25% of a particular ancestor’s DNA that you’re supposed to carry 1.56% for. But you might have 3%, half of a percent, or none.

Your Pedigree Chart

To calculate your expected ethnicity percentages, you’ll want to work with a pedigree chart showing your 64 GGGG-grandparents. If you haven’t identified all 64 of your GGGG-grandparents – that’s alright – we can accommodate that. Work with what you do have – but accuracy about the ancestors you have identified is important.

I use RootsMagic, and in the RootsMagic software, I can display all 64 GGGG-grandparents by selecting all 4 of my grandparents one at a time.

In the first screen, below, my paternal grandfather is blue and my 16 GGGG-grandparents that are his ancestors are showing to the far right.  Please note that you can click on any of the images to enlarge.


Next, my paternal grandmother


Next, my maternal grandmother.


And finally, my maternal grandfather.


These displays are what you will work from to create your ethnicity table or chart.

Your Ethnicity Table

I simply displayed each of these 16 GGGG-grandparents and completed the following grid. I used a spreadsheet, but you can use a table or simply do this on a tablet of paper. Technology not required.

You’ll want 5 columns, as shown below.

  • Number 1-64, to make sure you don’t omit anyone
  • Name
  • Birth Location
  • 1.56% Source – meaning where in the world did the 1.56% of the DNA you received from them come from? This may not be the same as their birth location. For example an Irish man born in Virginia counts as an Irish man.
  • Ancestry – meaning if you don’t know positively where that ancestor is from, what do you know about them? For example, you might know that their father was German, but uncertain about the mother’s nationality.

My ethnicity table is shown below.


In some cases, I had to make decisions.

For example, I know that Daniel Miller’s father was a German immigrant, documented and proven. The family did not speak English. They were Brethren, a German religious sect that intermarried with other Brethren.  Marriage outside the church meant dismissal – so your children would not have been Brethren. Therefore, it would be extremely unlikely, based on both the language barrier and the Brethren religious customs for Daniel’s mother, Magdalena, to be anything other than German – plus, their children were Brethren..

We know that most people married people within their own group – partly because that is who they were exposed to, but also based on cultural norms and pressures. When it comes to immigrants and language, you married someone you could communicate with.

Filling in blanks another way, a local German man was likely the father of Eva Barbara Haering’s illegitmate child, born to Eva Barbara in her home village in Germany.

Obviously, there were exceptions, but they were just that, the exception. You’ll have to evaluate each of your 64 GGGG-grandparents individually.

Calculating Percentages

Next, we’re going to group locations together.

For example, I had a total of one plus that was British Isles. Three and a half, plus, that were Scottish. Nine and a half that were Dutch.


You can’t do anything with the “plus” designation, but you can multiply by everything else.

So, for Scottish, 3 and a half (3.5) times 1.56% equals 5.46% total Scottish DNA. Follow this same procedure for every category you’re showing.

Do the same for “uncertain.”

Incorporating History

In my case, because all of my uncertain lines are on my father’s colonial side, and I do know locations and something about their spouses and/or the population found in the areas where each ancestor is located, I am making an “educated speculation” that these individuals are from the British Isles. These families didn’t speak German, or French, or have French or German, Dutch or Scandinavian surnames. People married others like themselves, in their communities and churches.

I want to be very clear about this. It’s not a SWAG (serious wild-a** guess), it’s educated speculation based on the history I do know.

I would suggest that there is a difference between “uncertain” and “unknown origin.” Unknown origin connotates that there is some evidence that the individual is NOT from the same background as their spouse, or they are from a highly mixed region, but we don’t know.

In my case, this leaves a total of 2 and a half that are of unknown origin, based on the other “half” that isn’t known of some lineages. For example, I know there are other Native lines and at least one African line, but I don’t know what percentage of which ancestor how far back. I can’t pinpoint the exact generation in which that lineage was “full” and not admixed.

I have multiple Native lines in my mother’s side in the Acadian population, but they are further back than 6 generations and the population is endogamous – so those ancestors sometimes appear more than once and in multiple Acadian lines – meaning I probably carry more of their DNA than I otherwise would. These situations are difficult to calculate mathematically, so just keep them in mind.

Given the circumstances based on what I do know, the 3.9% unknown origin is probably about right, and in this case, the unknown origin is likely at least part Native and/or African and probably some of each.


The Testing Companies

It’s very difficult to compare apples to apples between testing companies, because they display and calculate ethnicity categories differently.

For example, Family Tree DNA’s regions are fairly succinct, with some overlap between regions, shown below.


Some of Ancestry’s regions overlap by almost 100%, meaning that any area in a region could actually be a part of another region.


For example look at the United Kingdom and Ireland. The United Kingdom region overlaps significantly into Europe.


Here’s the Great Britain region close up, below, which is shown differently from the map above. The Great Britain region actually overlaps almost the entire western half of Europe.


That’s called hedging your bets, or maybe it’s simply the nature of ethnicity. Granted, the overlaps are a methodology for the vendor not to be “wrong,” but people and populations did and do migrate, and the British Isles was somewhat of a destination location.

This Germanic Tribes map, also from Ancestry’s Great Britain section, illustrates why ethnicity calculations are so difficult, especially in Europe and the British Isles.


Invaders and migrating groups brought their DNA.  Even if the invaders eventually left, their DNA often became resident in the host population.

The 23andMe map, below, is less detailed in terms of viewing how regions overlap.


The Genographic project breaks ethnicity down into 9 world regions which they indicate reflect both recent influences and ancient genetics dating from 500 to 10,000 years ago. I fall into 3 regions, shown by the shadowy Circles on the map, below.


The following explanation is provided by the Genographic Project for how they calculate and explain the various regions, based on early European history.


Let’s look at how the vendors divide ethnicity and see what kind of comparisons we can make utilizing the ethnicity table we created that represents our known genealogy.

Family Tree DNA

MyOrigins results at Family Tree DNA show my ethnicity as:


I’ve reworked my ethnicity totals format to accommodate the vendor regions, creating the Ethnicity Totals Table, below. The “Genealogy %” column is the expected percentage based on my genealogy calculations. I have kept the “British Isles Inferred” percentage separate since it is the most speculative.


I grouped the regions so that we can obtain a somewhat apples-to-apples comparison between vendor results, although that is clearly challenging based on the different vendor interpretations of the various regions.

Note the Scandinavian, which could potentially be a Viking remnant, but there would have had to be a whole boatload of Vikings, pardon the pun, or Viking is deeply inbedded in several population groups.


Ancestry reports my ethnicity as:


Ancestry introduces Italy and Greece, which is news to me. However, if you remember, Ancestry’s Great Britain ethnicity circle reaches all the way down to include the top of Italy.


Of all my expected genealogy regions, the most definitive are my Dutch, French and German. Many are recent immigrants from my mother’s side, removing any ambiguity about where they came from. There is very little speculation in this group, with the exception of one illegitimate German birth and two inferred German mothers.


23andMe allows customers to change their ethnicity view along a range from speculative to conservative.


Generally, genealogists utilize the speculative view, which provides the greatest regional variety and breakdown. The conservative view, in general, simply rolls the detail into larger regions and assigns a higher percentage to unknown.

I am showing the speculative view, below.


Adding the 23andMe column to my Ethnicity Totals Table, we show the following.


Genographic Project 2.0

I also tested through the Genographic project. Their results are much more general in nature.


The Genographic Project results do not fit well with the others in terms of categorization. In order to include the Genographic ethnicity numbers, I’ve had to add the totals for several of the other groups together, in the gray bands below.


Genographic Project results are the least like the others, and the most difficult to quantify relative to expected amounts of genealogy. Genealogically, they are certainly the least useful, although genealogy is not and never has been the Genographic focus.

I initially omitted this test from this article, but decided to include it for general interest. These four tests clearly illustrate the wide spectrum of results that a consumer can expect to receive relative to ethnicity.

What’s the Point?

Are you looking at the range of my expected ethnicity versus my ethnicity estimates from the these four entities and asking yourself, “what’s the point?”

That IS the point. These are all proprietary estimates for the same person – and look at the differences – especially compared to what we do know about my genealogy.

This exercise demonstrates how widely estimates can vary when compared against a relatively solid genealogy, especially on my mother’s side – and against other vendors. Not everyone has the benefit of having worked on their genealogy as long as I have. And no, in case you’re wondering, the genealogy is not wrong. Where there is doubt, I have reflected that in my expected ethnicity.

Here are the points I’d like to make about ethnicity estimates.

  • Ethnicity estimates are interesting and alluring.
  • Ethnicity estimates are highly entertaining.
  • Don’t marry them. They’re not dependable.
  • Create and utilize your ethnicity chart based on your known, proven genealogy which will provide a compass for unknown genealogy. For example, my German and Dutch lines are proven unquestionably, which means those percentages are firm and should match up relatively well to vendor ethnicity estimates for those regions.
  • Take all ethnicity estimates with a grain of salt.
  • Sometimes the shaker of salt.
  • Sometimes the entire lick of salt.
  • Ethnicity estimates make great cocktail party conversation.
  • If the results don’t make sense based on your known genealogical percentages, especially if your genealogy is well-researched and documented, understand the possibilities of why and when a healthy dose of skepticism is prudent. For example, if your DNA from a particular region exceeds the total of both of your parents for that region, something is amiss someplace – which is NOT to suggest that you are not your parents’ child.  If you’re not the child of one or both parents, assuming they have DNA tested, you won’t need ethnicity results to prove or even suggest that.
  • Ethnicity estimates are not facts beyond very high percentages, 25% and above. At that level, the ethnicity does exist, but the percentage may be in error.
  • Ethnicity estimates are generally accurate to the continent level, although not always at low levels. Note weasel word, “generally.”
  • We should all enjoy the results and utilize these estimates for their hints and clues.  For example, if you are an adoptee and you are 25% African, it’s likely that one of your grandparents was Africa, or two of your grandparents were roughly half African, or all four of your grandparents were one-fourth African.  Hints and clues, not gospel and not cast in concrete. Maybe cast in warm Jello.
  • Ethnicity estimates showing larger percentages probably hold a pearl of truth, but how big the pearl and the quality of the pearl is open for debate. The size and value of the pearl is directly related to the size of the percentage and the reference populations.
  • Unexpected results are perplexing. In the case of my unknown 8% to 12% Scandinavian – the Vikings may be to blame, or the reference populations, which are current populations, not historical populations – or some of each. My Scandinavian amounts translate into between 5 and 8 of my GGGG-grandparents being fully Scandinavian – and that’s extremely unlikely in the middle of Virginia in the 1700s.
  • There can be fairly large slices of completely unexplained ethnicity. For example, Scandinavia at 8-12% and even more perplexing, Italy and Greece. All I can say is that there must have been an awful lot of Vikings buried in the DNA of those other populations. But enough to aggregate, cumulatively, to between a great-grandparent at 12.5% and a great-great-grandparent at 6.25%? I’m not convinced. However, all three vendors found some Scandinavian – so something is afoot. Did they all use the same reference population data for Scandinavian? For the time being, the Scandinavian results remain a mystery.
  • There is no way to tell what is real and what is not. Meaning, do I really have some ancient Italian/Greek and more recent Scandinavian, or is this deep ancestry or a reference population issue? And can the lack of my proven Native and African ancestry be attributed to the same?
  • Proven ancestors beyond 6 generations, meaning Native lineages, disappear while undocumentable and tenuous ancestors beyond 6 generations appear – apparently, en masse. In my case, kind of like a naughty Scandinavian ancestral flash mob, taunting and tormenting me. Who are those people??? Are they real?
  • If the known/proven ethnicity percentages from Germany, Netherlands and France can be highly erroneous, what does that imply about the rest of the results? Especially within Europe? The accuracy issue is especially pronounced looking at the wide ranges of British Isles between vendors, versus my expected percentage, which is even higher, although the inferred British Isles could be partly erroneous – but not on this magnitude. Apparently part of by British Isles ancestry is being categorized as either or both Scandinavian or European.
  • Conversely, these estimates can and do miss positively genealogically proven minority ethnicity. By minority, I mean minority to the tester. In my case, African and Native that is proven in multiple lines – and not just by paper genealogy, but by Y and mtDNA haplogroups as well.
  • Vendors’ products and their estimates will change with time as this field matures and reference populations improve.
  • Some results may reflect the ancient history of the entire population, as indicated by the Genographic Project. In other words, if the entire German population is 30% Mediterranean, then your ancestors who descend from that population can be expected to be 30% Mediterranean too. Except I don’t show enough Mediterranean ancestry to be 30% of my German DNA, which would be about 8% – at least not as reported by any vendor other than the Genographic Project.
  • Not all vendors display below 1% where traces of minority admixture are sometimes found. If it’s hard to tell if 8-12% Scandinavian is real, it’s almost impossible to tell whether less than 1% of anything is real.  Having said that, I’d still like to see my trace amounts, especially at a continental level which tends to be more reliable, given that is where both my Native and African are found.
  • If the reason my Native and African ancestors aren’t showing is because their DNA was not passed on in subsequent generations, causing their DNA to effectively “wash out,” why didn’t that happen to Scandinavian?
  • Ethnicity estimates can never disprove that an ancestor a few generations back was or was not any particular ethnicity. (However, Y and mitochondrial DNA testing can.)
  • Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, except in very recent generations – like 2 (grandparents at 25%), maybe 3 generations (great-grandparents at 12.5%).
  • Continental level estimates above 10-12 percent can probably be relied upon to suggest that the particular continental level ethnicity is present, but the percentage may not be accurate. Note the weasel wording here – “probably” – it’s here on purpose. Refer to Scandinavia, above – although that’s regional, not continental, but it’s a great example. My proven Native/African is nearly elusive and my mystery Scandinavian/Greek/Italian is present in far greater percentages than it should be, based upon proven genealogy.
  • Vendors, all vendors, struggle to separate ethnicity regions within continents, in particular, within Europe.
  • Don’t take your ethnicity results too seriously and don’t be trading in your lederhosen for kilts, or vice versa – especially not based on intra-continental results.
  • Don’t change your perception of who you are based on current ethnicity tests. Otherwise you’re going to feel like a chameleon if you test at multiple vendors.
  • Ethnicity estimates are not a short cut to or a replacement for discovering who you are based on sound genealogical research.
  • No vendor, NOT ANY VENDOR, can identify your Native American tribe. If they say or imply they can, RUN, with your money. Native DNA is more alike than different. Just because a vendor compares you to an individual from a particular tribe, and part of your DNA matches, does NOT mean your ancestors were members of or affiliated with that tribe. These three major vendors plus the Genographic Project don’t try to pull any of those shenanigans, but others do.
  • Genetic genealogy and specifically, ethnicity, is still a new field, a frontier.
  • Ethnicity estimates are not yet a mature technology as is aptly illustrated by the differences between vendors.
  • Ethnicity estimates are that. ESTIMATES.

If you like to learn more about ethnicity estimates and how they are calculated, you might want to read this article, Ethnicity Testing, A Conundrum.


This information is NOT a criticism of the vendors. Instead, this is a cautionary tale about correctly setting expectations for consumers who want to understand and interpret their results – and about how to use your own genealogy research to do so.

Not a day passes that I don’t receive very specific questions about the interpretation of ethnicity estimates. People want to know why their results are not what they expected, or why they have more of a particular geographic region listed than their two parents combined. Great questions!

This phenomenon is only going to increase with the popularity of DNA testing and the number of people who test to discover their identity as a result of highly visible ad campaigns.

So let me be very clear. No one can provide a specific interpretation. All we can do is explain how ethnicity estimates work – and that these results are estimates created utilizing different reference populations and proprietary software by each vendor.

Whether the results match each other or customer expectations, or not, these vendors are legitimate, as are the GedMatch ethnicity tools. Other vendors may be less so, and some are outright unethical, looking to exploit the unwary consumer, especially those looking for Native American heritage. If you’re interested in how to tell the difference between legitimate genetic information and a company utilizing pseudo-genetics to part you from your money, click here for a lecture by Dr. Jennifer Raff, especially about minutes 48-50.

Buyer beware, both in terms of purchasing DNA testing for ethnicity purposes to discover “who you are” and when internalizing and interpreting results.

The science just isn’t there yet for answers at the level most people seek.

My advice, in a nutshell: Stay with legitimate vendors. Enjoy your ethnicity results, but don’t take them too seriously without corroborating traditional genealogical evidence!



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164 thoughts on “Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages

  1. what i would like to know is whith out the DNA of people from long ago, how can they say oh your related to king george for example/

    • They can’t. Not from people back further than about 9 or 10 generations, at least not through DNA. They can confirm a common Y or mtDNA haplotype, but that could also mean that you share a common ancestor, not that you descend from that specific person.

  2. Hey, Roberta, thanks for the great insight ! I learned some things… 🙂 Btw, a small question, I wanna buy&do a big vendor test, but my issue is that I am born&raised in Romania with Romanian parents, grandparents, ggparents and gggparents :))) and I’m afraid I’ll have a 80% eastern european result or something like that…. :)) Do you think my fear is legitimate? Thank you ! 🙂 🙂 🙂

      • Hi, Paul and Roberta, I am also a Romanian, but I know a paternal ancestor 4 generations back was from Greece (that is documented, but we have a story in the family he might have originated in Italy; still a mystery to us). I did my tests with Family Tree DNA, and I found out I am 27% Greek or Italian, 67% Eastern European, and 6% Armenian or Turkish. So that was quite surprising. Especially that my Greek/Italian percentage is so high! I will have my father take the Y test, which we hope will be more relevant. So, Paul, I think it’s worth the try!. I am still shocked at the 6%. Also, my mitochondrial DNA (the mother’s lineage) indicated Hungarian, which was also shocking to me, but I think it’s because Transylvania used to be Hungary until 99 years ago. Thank you and good luck!

  3. Roberta,
    Thanks, one of the best explanations out there! Can you comment on why I share 25% with a maternal aunt (expected) yet share only 25% with a male double cousin (our fathers married sisters). Somehow I expected we would look more like siblings? Where has my expectation gone wrong?
    Thanks, SS

  4. Good article Roberta,
    Although you touched on it briefly, these estimates DO change over time as the various companies update reference populations. As a perfect example, my original DNA test on Ancestry in late 2012 had me at Scandinavian 65%, Southern European 19%, Central European 16% and a few others. By 2014, I was 42% Irish, 36% Western European, 6% Great Britain, and the Scandinavian had dropped all the only 3%. And now I’m 42% Ireland/Scotland/Wales, 36% Western European and 6% Great Britain with Scandinavian holding steady at 3%. So the names changed but the percentages didn’t.
    Then I transferred my Ancestry DNA over to FTDNA, and their “estimate” is 30% Scandinavian, 28% British Isles, 26% West and Central Europe, 11% Southeast Europe, and 5% East Europe. Totally different percentages, but from the same general areas.
    The only thing that has stayed consistent is the estimates from GEDMATCH using the same settings. When I saw the difference from FTDNA, I downloaded the DNA and uploaded this to GEDMATCH and it was only tenths of a percent different than what I had Uploaded from Ancestry in 2014.
    Btw… Most of the admixture groups show about 8% to 40% Fennoscandian/North Sea areas (Scandinavian).
    Hope this helps.

  5. Do the Genographic Projects Geno 2,0 NG use a same method with FTDNA FF – MyOrigines 2,0 Ethnic testing? My Cousins Geno 2,0 NG results ia exactly same with his FF – MyOrigines after i transferred his results from Geno 2,0 NG to FTDNA. About 56% Southeast Asian and 44% Eastern Asian.

  6. Interesting article! I tested with MyHeritage this year, and am still trying to interpret the results 🙂
    I got my results back in april 2017 but some time later they updated the results (because of a better reference-group? I don’t know) which did some things for my ethnicity-reports. For instance my Ashkenazi Jewish results (at a low 3,5%) disappeared and I gained a 8% Eastern-European ethnicity.
    But what surprised me most, was a really high percentage of Scottisch/Irish of almost 40%. This is strange, since me and my first 64 ancestors (I already made the list you suggest in this article) are all from the Netherlands, with just 2 from Eastern-Germany, and this doesn’t change much down the line. But it may well be that the Netherlands is just too much of a blur, between all them Vikings and Saxons 🙂

  7. Thank you for writing this. It was very informative and interesting and reassuring. You are very good at writing and fully explaining your ideas. It was easy to read and I love how you went into such detail about all angles. I felt like I was following all of your thought processes on the subject. I wish I had your vocabulary and writing ability, but I have been out of school for too many years and forgotten how to use that part of my brain. Thanks for sharing your personal test results for examples. That was so awesome and helpful. Anyways, it was great. Thanks again, Jill

  8. Great article thanks. Quick question. What steps do you take or clues do you use to conclude that a 3x GG is of a certain ethnicity for the purposes of this exercise? For example, birth location, language, religion, etc.

  9. Great article thanks. Quick question. What steps do you take or clues do you use to conclude that a 3x GG is of a certain ethnicity for the purposes of this exercise? For example, birth location, language, religion, etc.

  10. I have a fairly likely explanation for your mysterious Scandinavian ancestry. I am French Canadian myself, and I can tell you that over 50% (if memory serves) of French migrants originally came from Normandy.
    The Vikings did have a presence in the British Isle as well.
    A fair bet is that your British and/or French ancestors carried quite a bit of Viking genes with them.
    Mystery solved, darling! I am not surprised at all. It makes perfect sense.
    I am myself a proven descendant of Rollo and Charlemagne through Anne Convent, who was of noble lineage.
    Marie 🙂

    • Your Dutch ancestry could also include some Scandinavian “blood”: (1) because of the Normans and their descendats later marriages; (2) because of Vikings like Rorik of Dorestad, who ruled what is now known as the Netherlands.

      As for Germany, the Saxons were often in conflict with the Vikings. They were neighbors, so there could definitely be some adjuncture there as well.

  11. Roberta: Very informative. The whole DNAeXplained;series is great. You (and other experts) appear to hit home on my question below but I still seem uncertain about the answer. As background, I am ethnically Italian (South and North) on all lines. That is for sure.. However, my Family Tree results show Ashkenazi Jewish (AJ) of 3%. Upload to GEDmatch shows 6.49% and strong signals on almost all models in GEDmatch. . Upload to sites that use Imputation and 9.2% (DNALand), 9% (Gencove), and 2.8% (MyHeritage). AJ always seems to be there..

    I assume, therefore, that AJ (known to be an endogamous population) is a true signal for me and not noise. My question is whether the 3%, or so, has some genealogical significance or is merely the remnant of historical inheritance due to something like Roman era AJ intermixing? And, if the latter is the explanation, how is it that a real 3% signal could result, from ancient history (e.g. Viking remnants, as you say) given how rapid generational dilution takes place?

      • Thanks, much Roberta, i had seen that Article that you cited. If I read that Article correctly it tells me that I should have an Ashkenazi Jewish ancestor at the 5th or 6th generation with a 3% origin result by Family Tree. But, other literature seems to suggest that a 3% origin could reflect very Ancient ancestors (e.g. intermixing of mideast Ashkenazi males with Roman period women who converted to Judaism around the time of Christ) rather than due to having an ancestor in the last 5-10 generations or so. If true, how could a 3% result reflect ancient history inheritance given rapid generational dilution. If not true, then it is likely that I have an Ashkenazi Jewish ancestor within a genealogically relevant time frame of birth and death records.

  12. I have a general question. I had a DNA test that indicated a 30% contribution from Native American. Now, on the face of it, I would say that a contribution this high would probably have to have been recent and probably one or maybe two generations back. Is this a reasonable estimate?

    I don’t have any thing in my known ancestry that would account for any Native American contribution. However, there is a serious “hole” in my paternal lineage, since my father was, in all probability, born out of wedlock and raised by an unrelated family. I have identified a possible lineage for my father but this lineage does not contain any Native American ancestry that I can identify.

  13. I’ve been working on my family history for 40 years on and off. DNA testing has certainly made it a lot more interesting. My father’s ancestors all came from Norway in the 1850s and I’ve found a lot of census and baptismal info in the digitalarkivet to back-up and add to what I knew. However, when my dad and 2 of his siblings submitted their DNA samples (, all 3 came back with a fairly large percentage (12 to 18 percent) of ‘Great Britain.’ I believe that means that a great grandparent was likely British and not Norske. Am I correct?

    • Not necessarily, Bobbi!

      I live in Denmark, on the Western coast of Jutland. That’s just a short distance from Great Britain by boat. Historically, it’s a fishing town.

      I have a local friend who took a DNA test. According to the test, he is 80% British and only 20% Scandinavian. As far as he knows, his family has deep local roots. There aren’t supposed to be a bunch of Brits in the latest generations.

      What you are seeing is probaly the same thing as what he is seeing: the DNA that is being detected by the test comes from way back. My personal guess is that there has been so much trade between those neighbouring areas that people have also intermarried a lot. It makes the populations on each side of that stretch of water look very similar.

      Interestingly, I am French Canadian, and I have checked the results of other French Canadian DNA tests on the Internet. (I haven’t taken one myself yet.) Many of the results I have seen show a fairly high percentage of Nordic heritage. My guess to explain this one is that it comes from our French ancestors from Normandy. The other interesting thing about our results is that many of use show a fairly low percentage of actual FRENCH DNA. (Remember: we are proud French Canadians.) Most of us have a very high amount of British DNA and Iberian DNA. I also think that it must reflect the region of France our ancestors came from. We have excellent genealogical records–some of the best, if not the best in the world. Those immigrants came from France. We know that. But many came from the COAST of France–either the North or the South. On the North, you have the contacts with England. On the South, you are close to Spain and Portugal, regions that also engaged a lot in fisheries. It all makes sense, when you look at it that way, doesn’t it?

  14. My FTDNA ethnic results are 98% European = 92% East Europe and 6% British Isles. (2% are trace results)
    My 2 sons results:
    1st Son: 52% European = 35% East Europe, 1% British Isles, 11% Southeast Europe, 4% Scandinavia, 1% Finland
    2nd Son: 53% European = 45% European, 3% British Isles, 5% Southeast Europe

    My question is “Why” do my sons have these extra groups that I don’t have. (Southeast Europe, Scandinavia and Finland) Wife is 100% Polynesian so the results are my 50% share. Thanks.

    • I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s because every person in both Europe and Asia’s ancestors lived there at one point, so the signature remains and is hard to separate.

  15. Hi Roberta,
    My son and I did AncestryDNA. I’m 3% Japanese and my son is 13% Japanese. My husband is Western European, Irish and German. How does he have that much Japanese in him?

  16. Ethnicity isn’t just an estimate. It’s an estimate of a concept that that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Originally “ethnicity” was seen as a more politically correct concept than “race” – race bring defined as a biological concept frequently used to discriminate between different people (think Nazis, apartheid). As a kid in Australia I remember being given a Victorian encyclopedia that explained that Aboriginals were semi-human beings.

    Ethnicity was seen as a way to group people based on common culture, languages, beliefs – not something that can be measured at the DNA level. Ethnicity isn’t scientifically meaningful – but it is human nature to try to categorize people and to distinguish “us” vs “them”.

    To me, ethnicity reminds me of the Victorian palmreading machines one might have seen in old circuses or amusement arcades- fun to play with, but not to be taken seriously.


  17. I did a 23&me test which showed that I am “of 74.9% Askenazi Jewish with ancestry from 4 other populations”
    Broken down as: Italian 6.1, Greek & Balkan 1.3, Eastern European 0.3, Broadly Southern European 6.7, Broadly Northwestern European 4.9, Western Asian & North African 4.8, Western Asian 3.5, Broadly Western Asian & North African 1.3

    I have not done a family tree per say but I do know my lineage (according to oral family histories told by my grandparents) Maternal Grandmother Italian 100%, Maternal Grandfather Askenazi Jewish from Austria 50% & Romania 50%, Paternal Grandparents both 100% Croatian (formally Yugoslavian).

    My question is…at 74.9% Askenazi Jewish – does this mean that I also had to inherit some Jewish from my father’s side as well as my mother’s? My Paternal Aunt was very surprised at this result since the family did not have any prior knowledge of Jewish Heritage in their line.

    If so, how many generations back could/would a Jewish relative possibly be considering I show such a high percentage of Jewish ancestry? (Considering that all of my G-Grandparents from Croatia were were reportedly born of the Catholic faith to Catholic parents – meaning only that their Jewish descent was unknown to them).

    As this science is all new to me – I am sure I am misunderstanding how it all works. I I very much appreciate your explainations for the above. Thanks again for such an informative post!

  18. When I got my Ancestry DNA results – they were pretty much what I thought ( with the research I have done and the beginnings of my Family Tree) – – with a few pleasant surprises ( I’n a Newfie via England) – however when I transferred those results to My Heritage – I got Ethnic percentages that seemed way off from Ancestry’s…….for example – Ancestry has me at 44% East European / Russia…..42% Ireland and Scotland ( specifically the Galway /Connemara regions – where my GM was born and I have DNA matches – a lot !) ….So My Heritage has me at 0 % Ireland/Scotland (?) – but 47.7% Scandinavian ..! ……I have almost 2000 people on my tree -still a work in progress -have gone back on 2 branches to the 1400’s / 1200’s ….not i person from any Scandinavian country / name ……some German / Austrian ancestors – and Ancestry did have a 1% European Jewish ( which I knew was in there somewhere -because I remember as a small child my Polish GM speaking some Yiddish – yet absolutely no one in the family believed this including my mom who said I was crazy – lol) So what kind of explanation would explain the discrepancy with Irish / Scottish …and Scandinavian %’s ???

    • Ethnicity is only an estimate and all companies change their calculation methods from time to time.

      • One of my pet peeves about discussions about ethnicity is that they typically assume that we have a shared understanding of what ethnicity is – when in fact its a concept. that is comforting, fun but not well defined, or even meaningful from a scientific perspective.

        We all want to know where we are from, of course, – but what does that really mean? My children are American – but I grew up in Australia. I was born in Northern England, and my parents told me that we were English. Neither parent knew that they had great grand-parents who were born in Ireland and Wales.
        So that means that I should be a mix of Irish Welsh, and English, perhaps? But people move. My great grandmother Ada Ann Eatough comes from an English family of carpenters whose ancestors are said to be Flemish wood carvers who came to England in the 13th or 14th century. My third great grandfather Michael Jack, born in Dublin, was actually from a family called Jacques. This suggests that he quite possibly had Huguenot roots – if so his 17th century French blood, and the Flemish DNA from those wood carvers would probably be too far back to be captured by the reference populations used by todays ethnicity analyses. My Y-DNA shows an estimated path that my ancestors took to emerge from Africa to Eastern Europe, Turkey, reaching Western Europe in the bronze age.

        Ethnicity estimates are fun – but they also seem to generate a lot of anxiety and confusion.

  19. I have never been very good at math. My results are 58% English, 39% Germanic and 3% Norwegian. How can I have so much English if both of my parents were Dutch going generations back? Does this mean one of my parents isn’t my real parent?

    • No, do not conclude that at all. Ethnicity is just an estimate. Period. Look at your matches and look for ancestors on both sides.

    • Those ethnicity results are fun, but there is quite a margin of error, especially when it comes to percentages of ethnicity. Roberta explains to us how we can actually use DNA tests scientifically, and that involves taking the ethnicity percentages with a grain of salt.

      I’ve seen a Canadian news report on that. The journalist was an identical twin, and there were significant differences between her results and her sisters. If the analysis was perfectly standardized from one sample to the other, this shouldn’t happen. The conclusion of the report is that ethnicity estimates are a toy. It’s never going to beat actually building your family tree.

      The moral of the story is that you (or anyone else) certainly shouldn’t go confront their mother in a rage, and ask her if she cheated. LOL!

      You should, however, get interested in doing your genealogical research right and learn how to use DNA tests appropriately, so that it actually benefits your research.

  20. Thank you for this article! I’ve always felt that the ethnicity breakdowns are misleading. I’ve seen more people chase that 2% middle eastern (or whatever) and never find it in their paper ancestry. I’ve also had more people argue with me that their ethnicity breakdown is gospel. Your article is very helpful in dispelling this.

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  23. (Apologies if this is a duplicate- I searched but can’t find my previous post.)
    I used the ethnicity calculation method described above and determined my paternal line is English, Irish, and some German, while my maternal line is 100% Mexican. My ancestry results showed 61% for England, Wales, and Northwest Europe, 25% Native American (North, Central, South), 4% Spain, 4% Germanic Europe, and then 1-2% results for a few African countries, the Andes, and Sardinia (go figure).

    The DNA results for Native American indicated a cluster in Sonora, which matches the family tree, but we’re struggling to figure out how my DNA shows more England/Wales/NW Europe than should be possible based on the actual family history- your point about the intermixing of European populations is well-taken, but it’s the ‘greater than 50%’ result which I can’t get my head around. Even with the population mixing of Spanish, maybe French, groups with the native population of Mexico, it still seems the percentage of British Isles is too high. The maternal lineage has been traced back to the 1790s with no evidence of European intermarriage, so I’m trying to account for the ‘borrowing’ of about 11% of English DNA.

  24. Instead of using an unreadable notational form like GGGGGGGGG-grandparents, why not use algebra and write 9G-grandparents? I find it odd a computer and data “scientist” (as you like to call yourself) hasn’t figured this out.

    • Ironic that you’re not using your name. I use the multiple Gs because in the past people have been confused about whether there are 9 greats with 9G of if it means 9 generations, which as I’m quite sure you’re aware isn’t the same thing.

  25. Hi Roberta, you are way ahead on DNA, I more or less am on the starting line and this article is 100 % for me. I am exactly the case you have described. So as much I would like to follow you on the roots analysis, I do not need to as my 12% Scandinavian will still be 12% and an unknown factor in my geneology. I am British with pretty solid anglo saxon – with possible Irish links. Vikings ? maybe but I doubt it. The one annoying thing is my maternal grandfather – no one knows who is was or from where. I have made a calculated guess that some local boy was the father, never coming back from World War I. But then that 12% kicked in as I was staring my DNA journey. Could the father be from Scandinavia ? How would this alter the calculation ? 12 % would tie in perfectly for a grandfather – or ?
    Are there particular genes that carry ethnicity or is it just random ? From what we know of Scandinavians could this be narrowed down ?

    Some ideas please ?

  26. Im not a specialist on geneolgy, but very confused about my unexpected results from 23 and me. My father ‘s father is traced back on paper to two german immigrants who themselves parents were German with the last name Steinert, therefore my grandfather, I would assume would have close to 100% German dna. My father’s mother I believe is Irish and some other I’m not sure of. I would expect my father to be at least 50% or close to 50% German considering his parents paper trail. Unfortunately my father was never dna tested. When my results came through 23 and me, I surprisingly showed 39% Italian (Sicily), Northern European and Jewish which is my mom, but only 2% German. Why wouldnt I have more German heritage? I have no clue where the Italian comes from? Should I be curious about my true parents?

    • I should have left a clearer note. My mom is Askanazie Jew – her father and northern european her mother. My dad is 50% German and 50% Irish-European. There is no Italian heritage I have ever heard about in my family line, yet I show 39% Italian and my children show 14%. Where is my German heritage and wouldn’t it be more than 2%?

      • Ethnicity is only an estimate. I would worry too much about this and focus on matches and genealogy.

    • Take a look at your matches and see if you recognize any people from either parent’s sides. You can also transfer elsewhere for free and check matches there.

  27. Hi…. I’m a career research analyst and have spent much time researching my ancestors…
    I know both my maternal and paternal lines from censuses etc, place both lines solidly in the west country counties back to late 1700’s…. I have recently done a genealogy DNA test which largely fits with this: 61pc = English, and 15pc=Scottish. I understand that for me this basically means 86pc English heritage… However I have a problem. My Ethnicity DNA test shows – 8pc=German/north Europe, and 5pc = Swedish… We have no evidence of any Swedish/German ancestry, but anecdotal information from my mother suggests her my maternal grandfather may have had family links in Germany during WW2 and maybe Jewish, from letters he received asking for help.. One formula suggested to me indicated that if there was German/Swedish ancestry for this to be 100pc, it would have to be from my maternal great-great-great grand-parents.. but I cannot confirm their origins… It can’t be my paternal line because they go right back through the west English counties to late 1700’s…. Please , what emphasis can I put on the efficacy of the German/Swedish input ? The formula I was suggested was to double the minority ethnic percentage for each past generation – this would translate to 100pc German/Swedish at great-great-great grandparents level…

  28. My name has been lost my name i go by was my great grandmothers last name no trace of great grandfather he was a total mystery. So i really dont know if im indian. Or jewish. Realy want to know

  29. Pingback: Ancestry’s SideView™ – Dividing Your Ethnicity in Two | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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