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. Thanks Roberta. Nice overview. I want to mention one thing about 23andme. I think they do have very good admixture data for a couple of endogamous European population that the other sites do not. That would be Ashkenazi and Finnish. I happen to have ancestry from both and the numbers work out pretty close to right on for my known ancestors. I also consistently match people with those ancestries on the segments that 23andme declares to be of those admixture. Just want to mention this because if anyone is specifically interested in these populations they might want to consider testing at 23andme over the other sites.

  2. According to an article recently published by, sold 560,000 DNA kits during their black Friday sale and 1.4 million in the forth quarter of 2016. They projected that they should have 10 million people in their DNA database within two years. They also hinted that could go public sometime this year. So the rosey projections could be hype. But with the amount of new matches appearing almost daily, I tend to believe their sales reports. I love this time of the year, when all the DNA kits given as presents become the gift of a new cousin in the new year.

    Thanks for the great articles.


  3. Fascinating blog post! In very general Native American ancestry, the Anzick boy’s genome seems to be carried by 80% of all Native N. Americans. That % rises to 90% when checking the boy’s genome with Central & S. American natives.

  4. Fantastic post! I belong to several genealogy related groups on Facebook, and this question comes up frequently in all of them. A lot of people seem to be hung up on the exact percentages. This post will be a good reference for all those people who are worried about that, and hopefully it will give them some incentive to get to work on their family trees to help them understand a little better.

    • I tested specifically for the family tree DNA origins, I have a “mystery” Father, and I just wanted to know what my background was because I look nothing like my half-siblings or my Mother. So the origins idea was perfect for me.
      Got my results, mostly Norwegian and Swedish, it fit the bill of one of the Fathers in question and me being a 5’9″ blonde seemed to work. Then they went and changed something and my results are completely different, Italian and Croatian. No Father match for that.
      So sure it would be a happy place if we all knew who our parents are and could make great big trees, but for some of us the percentages are all we’ve got, so it would be nice if they were accurate.

  5. As usual a well balanced article that is a joy to read! Using your technique I am 100% French. Needless to say I smiled a bit when AncestryDNA reported me to be 55% British … but looking at their map since they include the northwest of France and Belgium in Britain, then I suppose it is correct.
    I would like to pick up on the one portion of your comments that refers to the use of haplogroups for ethnicity. I think it has a lot more promise than the autosomal analysis. Using the FT DNA results for French Heritage or some of the surname projects – using those of known ancestors (yes, using traditional genealogy), I have been able to find that my French hides J2, E-L117, I-M253 in addition to R-M269 and some subclades. The first two hint to Mediterranean including North African heritage, the third Scandinavia and of course the last one most of Western Europe.

  6. Boy, does your Scandinavian mystery ever ring true for me. I have a Family Tree DNA result of 43% Scandinavian and an report of 25% Scandinavian and I have yet to turn up a single Scandinavian ancestor through diligent research. There are always those “maiden name unknown” ancestors I guess who could help account for this but they are mostly far enough back in time that I don’t know how they could make up a 43% Scandinavian result. I have tried to explain this as due to the Viking invasion of England as well, but methinks that was far enough back in time to not have THAT much influence on my results. The other mystery group/area that shows up for me is Southern Europe/Iberian on both Family Tree and Ancestry (34% Family Tree DNA, 7% and those are also mysterious. Maybe as testing matures and more people are tested adjustments will be made to the ethnicity guesses and they will be somewhat more accurate???

    • Denise, both your Scandinavian and Southern Europe could be explained by English ancestors. Do you have those? Especially those who were Puritans? that is what I’ve found in my tree, but I had to go back very far to get where the Southern Europe was coming from. I’ve learned that we need another element: knowledge of World History.

  7. RootsMagic? Roberta, I thought you said you were still using PAF? I’m glad you switched. Now maybe you can work with Bruce Buzbee to have him improve his excellent DNA tools. I also own and have used PAF, Ancestral Quest, Legacy, and Family Tree Maker. RootsMagic has the best DNA tools of them all. Any chance you and Bruce will get together on that?

  8. Two points. Technically, ethnicity is NOT genetic. We should refer to our ancestral geographic origins as such, not as ethnicity, which is silly. Ethnicity is a language + customs. It can be inherited, but like wealth it has nothing to do with DNA. Second, ethnicity is largely a matter of self-identification. If you feel you’re Jamaican and want to learn the patois, the music, the cuizine, go for it, because having Jamaican ancestors often gives none of those things.

  9. Thank again for an in-depth article that explains the ethnicity issue. I share your articles with people on my friends list that have questions on certain subjects, I can always find an article you wrote to guide them in the right direction. Some day if you are ever in the New Orleans area, we will have to get together. Love ya Cousin!

  10. Awesome article as always. I have 2 questions for you:

    1. What about finding (and double-checking) links to genetic cousins especially those whose current home is a foreign country? I’ve found that I have 3rd and 4th cousins who are Russian, Swedish or Greek, and those areas at reflected with the three big three vendors but I have my documented paper genealogy reflects no such ancestry. The same would be for when 23andMe gave those matches whose 4 grandparents all came from the same country. Then the list expanded to all over the place. Does that come into play at all here?

    2. Would you put the admix calculators at in the same category of great cocktail conversation and accuracy?

    • I can’t answer about the 23andMe calculations. They really don’t share how they work internally.
      Yes, I would put all admixture calculations in the same category. There are only a limited number of publicly available reference populations, and they pretty much all have to utilize those. The vendors can mine their own data, if they see fit.
      In terms of genetic cousins, remember that people and populations migrate. The only people you can really use in these ethnicity calculations are your own ancestors.
      Just like the rest of genetic genealogy, the rest are clues:)

  11. Great post – thanks.
    According to my genealogy tree, a little more than half my ancestors were English or Irish (mostly Colonial America) and a quarter were Swedish. The rest are mostly Swiss, German and French with some unknown. When Ancestry did their first admix, they sent out a questionnaire asking what we thought the results should look like, I answered and, as if by magic, my new admix matched my answers almost exactly. I have been skeptical ever since.
    FTDNA shows mostly Western Europe so I guess it means my Brits were actually all Saxons or Normans???
    You are right, whole mountain of salt.

  12. Hi
    I understand what you are saying and your explanation, but how do these vendors get many different ethnicities for me?. what is their time frame.?

    My reasoning is that I have over 250 years of each of my paternal and maternal lines via continuous registry records……all from ONE region in Northern Italy, ….clearly then my results should all say 100% italian, 100% european………..the only thing i get close to these numbers is 99.5% European and 34% Italian ( this is the most from any vendor ) .
    Do they measure present to 1870 to present under Italy as italians …and the others……
    Do they measure 1820 to 1870 under Austria as Austrian
    Do they measure 700 to 1797 under Venice as Venetians

    Clearly , either the programs are extremely bad or they must each go back at least 2000 Years

    I find this frustrating.

    kind regards

  13. Dear Roberta,
    If a person can only go back to GG-grandparents (16 people @~ 6 1/4 % each) via the paper genealogy, does the margin of uncertainty for given ethnicities rise? (2-4 standard deviations now, instead of one)? Some of my paper lines go back further, but not all…

    • I think part of that answer had to do with where those people were located. If they are scattered across the US and you don’t know their heritage, that’s a different scenario than if they are all living in Germany.

  14. Roberta, when explaining this I also look at the “1.56% from each Ancestor” the other way – you only got 1.56% of their DNA! But which 1.56%? Was this random 1.56% of each Ancestor a truly representative sample, or might it have been from a small part of the Ancestor’s heritage? The answer, of course, is: it varies. And so this becomes another variable in the mix… please pass a little more salt.

  15. Roberta, you write: “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?” It seems to me, that the minority native and african blood did wash out because they did not intermarry with persons of their own race; whereas the Scandinavian did not wash out, because your British ancestors kept marrying other British persons. Yorkshire in Northern England, for example, was settled by Danes, who ruled from York. Englishmen from Yorkshire will all show a high percentage of Scandinavian ”blood”. So that your Anglo-American ancestors of Northern English origin would be counted as Scandinavian, i presume. The Jutes too, who earlier on settled the south of England, also came from Denmark. The Angles and Saxons are closely related to the Jutes, the Danes, the Frisians and other nothern ”Sea” Germanic peoples. At all three vendors I have a high Scandinavian percentage, though in my genealogy there are no modern-day Scandinavians present. According to FTDNA, I am 39 percent British Isles, 37 percent Scandinavian!, and 24 Western and Central Europe. 23andMe and AncestryDNA give similar percentages. Genealogically I am about 73,5 percent English, 26,5 percent German. But my maternal grandfather came from Yorkshire, and my paternal grandmother’s father came from nearby Lancashire. Both Yorkshire and Lancashire are in the north of England, and the people of Yorkshire are known to be of Danish origin. Hence, my high Scandinavian ethnic percentage.

    • That’s certainly a possibility for part of the puzzle, but in my case, those numbers don’t add up either. The Vikings did not replace the population. To begin with, they were mostly men and interbred with the local women – so the Viking is reduced by 50% in that one generation. They did not replace the male population, so their offspring would have intermarried with at least some people who did not carry Viking heritage, so reduced even further. So from the beginning, there was a lot of admixture. More followed and unless the Vikings bloodlines were present in the entire population at a specific level, it would have continued to be reduced, as a whole. It’s not the same as an endogamous population where they intermarried with no outsiders for hundreds or thousands of years. I think some of the Scandinavian certainly can be ancestral, but I think there is something else problematic as well. Hopefully, time will tell.

  16. Hmmm…. A set of IDENTICAL twins at FTDNA My Origins:
    Twin A – European 100%
    Western and Central Europe 100%
    Twin B – European 99%
    Scandinavia 42%
    Western and Central Europe 25%
    Southern Europe 20%
    British Isles 12%
    If identical twins don’t match, is there hope for others? I guess that I’ll have to buy the salt by the truckload.

  17. Roberta,
    Would like to hear if you compared your genealogy research results with the results of any or all the Admixture (heritage) Utilities or Admixture/Oracle with Population Search options, and your results.

    Also, aren’t the databases used by the testing companies based on self reporting of testers of their “known” ancestry and where they think their ancestors were born? Many people in the USA did not tell their descendants they had African ancestors…

    • I do utilize GedMatch, but there are several tools, each with multiple versions, many of which focus on just specific regions, so they would not all apply to me. Each of the testing companies has some verbiage about their reference populations. Some maybe doing mining of their own databases in addition. If so, they would likely be utilizing people actually living in AFrica, and showing to be nearly 100% AFrican as opposed to someone in the US with mixed heritage.

  18. About your low percentage of Italian or Greek DNA, I’m about 97% French Canadian, FTDNA’s my origins gives me 40% Southern European. So it’s probably coming from your French ancestors, the DNA would have come in their line from population movement anywhere from Antiquity to Middle Ages.

    About your Scandinavians, didn’t Yvette said Dutch usually have about a third in their ethnicity result? A would guess there were population movement around the North Sea in Antiquity, so some your Dutch, French and German ancestors could have significant antic noise DNA from Scandinavia. I have 3% on FTDNA.

    Then, about how wild the numbers can get from generation to the next, my mother has 36% British Isles, I have none. We do share 3,384 cM so there’s no question she’s my mother, but of her 50% DNA she gave me, none of her 36% British Isles get through to me. ^__^

    One last left field comment, you have found Henry Bolton’s parents? 2016 was sure profitable on feeling the holes in your 7th generation line. Only Willam Crumbley II’s wife and Elisabetha Mehlheimer’s lover are left, although they will be though clients, I’m afraid.

    • Yes, you’re right about Yvette and that may be it, or at least a good part. I have made a lot of progress. A lot of it has been through the research for those 52 ancestor stories. And you’re right about Elisabetha Mehlheimer – his name was not in the church books, so I doubt it will be anyplace else either. And it’s not a male line, so no hope of that either. I think that one is gone forever:(

      Regarding Henry Bolton’s parents, I think my cousin Pam has found them, in London. And it looks like we have found Nancy Mann’s parents too, or at least narrowed the candidates significantly – through a combination of both traditional research and DNA. She did that work too.

      • I’m looking forwards for the updates on your search in your 52 ancestor stories. ^_^

        About Elisabetha’s lover, we never know, some local census could turn up at some point. Or some army register could name a man’s partner as Elisabeth Mehlheimer(in). Or some will or whatnot will name the both together. Although it looks like it will be for another generation of genealogist to find the answer… -_-

        • One of the reasons I’m actually doing the 52 ancestors series is to document what I have done, and what remains to be done. I’m actually hoping that one day, someone, someplace will pick up where I’ve left off. And I hope there is someone in the next generation to be interested:)

      • Her employer would sure be a prime suspect, or even one of his son if he had any, but we would need to find some papertrail to indicate where she worked. Preferably in the years around her daughter Barbara’s birth. We do need a local census.

        Having someone to take the work after us is sure neat, but we would like to get the answers before we go to another world. XD

    • Back to your Italian and Greek DNA, it could even comes from Neolithic population movements. The Carcassonne-Bordeaux corridor was one of the earliest farmer settlement in France, next only to the Mediterranean Coast.

  19. Thanks Roberta! This might be my weekend project. But going by what I know from my paper trail ancestry, my Ancestry dna ethnicity estimates and my FTdna ethnicity estimates, I’m going to need all the salt in the dead sea!

  20. A wonderful blog indeed…

    I imagine that the Scandinavian that many people are seeing is due in part to the many Viking invasions during the Middle ages. The Vikings’ genetic contribution was probably so great, perhaps 20%, a guess on my part, that probably most people of British origin have a significant percentage of Viking ancestry. In other words, since most British people have Viking ancestry and then one of them marries another person of Viking ancestry, the Scandinavian ancestry remains and doesn’t get diluted easily. One way to look at is think of adding blue food coloring to water. The blue food coloring represents the Viking ancestry and the water represents the pre-Viking population. If you add 1/5 cup of blue food coloring to 4/5 cup water, the water will be blue (present day British population). Now if you take that blue water (one person of British ancestry) and mix it with blue water (another person of British ancestry) the water will still remain blue. The Viking ancestry just doesn’t go away so easily. Or alternatively, because of Viking ancestry, modern-day British is hard to untangle from Scandinavian?

  21. Robin,

    I’ve been an avid reader and follower of your discussions on your DNAeXplained e-mails that I receive periodically from you and you have caused me to want to know much, much more about who I am? I was talked into doing my DNA testing several years ago by a friend of Scottish ancestry Arnie McClure and I did it through 23andme. Arnie can trace back at least 4 generations of McClures from his ancestry chart to Scotland. I can go trace back 4 generations of Wennings from my ancestry chart that go back to the lowlands of Germany along the North Sea. Here’s my question: Arnie and I ended up both being of R1b1b2a1a haplogroup and I’m wondering how that can be? I’ve been doing a lot of reading, research and checking trying to understand and figure out the rest of my story and don’t understand or know what to do?

    I know the R1b haplogroup is the most common in Northwestern Europe but how do I find more information specifically on the path of my ancestors who ended up in Northern Germany? Am I from U106 Germanic branch or another and how did my friend whose roots lie in Scotland, become seemingly my “genetic brother?”

    I want to find out everything I can about myself and how do I go doing that? How do I dig deeper and should I take another test from another company? Also can I hire you to do some work for me that I don’t know how to do?

    Please, I need help!

    Ron Wenning Lewisburg, PA

    robertajestes posted: “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”

    • 23andMe uses old terminology and only a partial test. You need to test at Family Tree DNA and take the 37 marker Y test. It will show you a haplogroup and also others whom you match. There are additional tests you can take for further refinement later if you so wish. Many of these haplogroups are thousands of years old, and new branches are being discovered all the time. The link to Family Tree DNA is on the sidebar of this blog.

  22. It is interesting. The day after you post this, some blogs are reporting that 23andMe has updated their ethnicity tools and now it can tell you what percentages of ethnicities you received from each parent and further if you hover above the chromosome it will tell you where on the chromosome that parents ethnicity is. I didnt test with 23andMe so I wouldn’t know personally. Have you seen that new tool yet?

    • Yes, I’ve seen the new tool. 23andMe has always shown you which parts of your DNA came from which parents if you have tested a parent. However, the new tools attempt to show you how far back in time your “full-blooded” ancestor of a particular ethnicity might have lived.

  23. Very interesting article. I have a good example, 4 siblings – 1 male + 3 female. We are 6.25% Native American Indian (Choctaw) from our great great grandmother who was full blood. I tested on ancestry and it came back 7%. When I transferred my DNA to FTDNA, it showed 5%. When I look at it on, it shows 6%. My brother shows 3% on FTDNA and 2.5% on gedmatch. One sister shows 6% on FTDNA and 6.75% on gedmatch, while the youngest shows 5 and 5.18. So we are all 6.25% Native American, but we did not equally receive the DNA that was passed down from our 2nd great grandmother. We also have a much greater difference in our Scandinavian amounts, I show 26%, one sister shows 11%, the other sister only 3% and our brother no Scandinavian. I think it is amazing how it all works and makes us the individuals we are.

  24. Roberta, completely agree with your comments about ethnicity percentages, and have said much the same in my newsletter.

    I was, however, surprised to note that neither you nor any of the others who have replied so far mentioned the Norman invasion of 1066 (a pretty significant event in British history). The Normans may have sailed from Normandy, but they came originally from Scandinavia (Norman = Norseman), and are likely to have contributed more to your Scandinavian DNA (and mine) than the Viking incursions.

    • Yes, you’re right – it’s all in the mix someplace – but again, the Vikings would have to have displaced the entire male population in Normandy to maintain a large percentage into the future. I suspect all of these probably have something to do with the Scandinavian, but if all of my Dutch and half of my French end English was Scandinavian, I’d be more than 50%. We don’t see the same issue with the English being mistaken for Germans because of the Anglo-Saxon settlements. It’s still a mystery – albeit a very interesting one.

      • Or maybe Angles and Saxons would show up as mostly Scandinavian in these modern tests and Germans only became Germans with the Frankish conquest…

        Do the average British tester have a Scandinavian problem too? Or is it some weird twist we only see among North Americans?

  25. Roberta, you have 1.6% Broadly Southern European in your screenshot of your 23andme results but you put 4.3% Broadly Southern European in your spreadsheet.

  26. I have found that in 23andme , one gets a set of ethnic percentages. These percentages change dramatically every time a family member joins 23andme………example
    I went from 22% italian
    to 26% italian when my son joined and 10 months later when my father joined , I went to 34% Italian.
    My french/german went ……..15% to 11% to 13%
    British – Irish …………….8% to 4% to 2%

    Clearly the percent from a sole individual ethnicity is clearly only a small percentage of that person and the bulk of the ethnicity is made up of similar markers based on their database……….regardless of whoever they are.


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  32. Hi Roberta! Your article was a very good read.I recently did the Ancestry DNA. I am 41% Native American. But it covers from the top of North America to the bottom in South America. Is there a DNA test that could break it down even further? Thanks so much.

    Kindest regards

  33. Reading this was fascinating. My aunt..father’s sister…tested to have a wee bit of Japanese at 23 and Me. I used a salt lick with that. It would be handed down as family lore. Doing the paper trail quite a way back, some pre colonial, there isn’t even a hint. What gets me is the Finnish I keep coming up with. I am stuck on my 3rd gr grandmother with no clue. But the name Pauley makes me wonder if that is where all the Finnish comes from. The Scandinavian I write off as all the Scottish ancestry.

    • Cyndye, Copy your DNA data for everyone you had tested to the web site for free, then use their multiple tools available for estimating their ancestry. Each tool can indicate a different ancestry and percentage depending on the data base used. You can also use the option to find matches to two family members to search for more cousins.

      • I have 6 on Gedmatch. Oddly enough (not), no Japanese shows up for my aunt there. Just got Tier 1 and need to learn how to play with those toys.

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  36. Your Scandinavian comments were interesting. We were very surprised to find my father has 46% Scandinavian in his Ancestry DNA test. We new about our German and Irish roots, and expects little bits of different ethnicities in Europe here and there, but that was very surprising. Then we made a connection- a close family-1st cousin connection with someone that’s grandparents were both from Sweden. Now, a family mystery has begun and we are finding clues that my father’s mother and the son of these Swedish grandparents knew each other and were family friends…we are trying to rule out the surprising possibility that my father may have been the result of those two- not my grandmother and who I thought my grandfather was. I hope that I’m making sense:)

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  39. My great grandfather, my mother’s grandfather, was assumed by some to be part or all native American or African American. My DNA through National Graphics saliva test show I am 41% Northern European, 39 % Mediterranean, and 18% Southwest Asia (plus 1.9% Neanderthal which we all have). Does that disprove the native American or African American contribution?

    • I would say get a second opinion. If you upload your results on GEDmatch, you can compare your results with other databases and other people. Southwest Asia could be a hint, but of course it depends whether or not you have actually some other sources for Asian ancestry. It is always interesting to read about all those family stories of Native American great-grand-mothers. I have seen a case where people were assumed to have Native ancestry just because they lived in a town that has an Indian reservation nearby.

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  42. But what we get from the tester is cM (centiMorgans) rather than %. How do you convert cM to %?

    • There is no direct conversion. However, a person has roughly 7000 autosomal cM segments without the X chromosome. Not all vendors include the X in their calculations. Males and females differ when including the X, with females having about 7400 and males having about 7200. You expect around 3500 for a parent/child pair with fully half identical matching DNA. You can calculate the amount of matching cMs as a percentage of roughly 7000 to obtain an approximation.

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  44. Hello! Now for something totally different!. I know all of my ancestors till the 1850’s, and many of my branches (about 60% of them) until the late 1500’s, i am portuguese and all of my ancestors were born in Portugal with very few exceptions of some spanish ancestors from the late 1700’s.

    Now my ethnicity results from Myheritage were this:

    1st – Iberian (35,1%) Makes sense although i expected a much larger number around 80/90%
    2nd – English (22,9%) I haven’t got any english ancestors at least 5 generations back
    3rd – North African (15, ) Makes sense from a hstoric point of view, as the Iberian Peninsula was invaded and colonized by Berbers (North African tribes from Morocco and Algeria) for 500 years. But from a genealogy standpoint makes absolutely no sense.
    4rd – Sardinian (14,4%) Again from an pre-historic point of view it can make sense but from a genealogy standpoint makes absolutely no sense.

    The rest of them are:

    5th – Greek (6,4%)
    6th – Scandinavian (4,8%)
    7th – Italian (0,8%)

    Furthermore i have entire branches (for example from my paternal greatgranfather) whose ancestors are almost entirely, and for at least 250 years, from one village only.

    None of the explanations shown above ( post and users comments) really can explain these results.

    Can somebody help me explaining these results…

    Thank You,

  45. Thank you for a fascinating, pragmatic description of the limitations of genetic testing for genealogy. I know that once offered both Y and mitochondrial testing, then stopped. Family Tree DNA continue to offer both. Do you have any plans to do a mitochondrial test yourself, or to co-opt a male relative to do a Y test?

    One question – it seems as if interest in genetic testing is increasing at a geometric rate. Does that mena that the raw data produced by the companies who did you your autosomal testing could be reprocessed by them to produce more accurate results once their user population is 2x or 5x its current size? Is a feature like that offered?

    Once again, thank you for your generosity in sharing your own data to explain things.

    • I have taken the mtDNA and have provided scholarships for many cousins to test both Y and mtDNA lines that I don’t personally have, but were carried by my ancestors. All of the major vendors do update their ethnicity results from time to time. The match results are added as they occur.

  46. I don’t get why any of this makes any difference to anyone, personally. People have been moving around and then mating for tens of thousands of years. All my GGGG grandparents may have come from somewhere else but their GGGG grandparents also all came from somewhere else. So they were not “purebred”. So the genetic makeup of everyone is entirely mixed by this point geographically. What makes a true difference in “who I am” is where I was brought up, what my experiences were there, what I learned, and what values I adopted. This is from my parents and my environment, not my GGGG grandparents. Not to mention my own personal choice decisions being a major factor in who I am. Genes do not pass on cultural experience and learned values. Genes do control personal characteristics, traits, etc but this is not geographic related. I note that the Swedes are not all excellent high jumpers.

    • John, I believe that is not the point of these tests for those that have their DNA tested. It does not need to make a difference and wouldn’t make a difference for you apparently. But for people who have their DNA tested it can give them an idea on their ethnic background and it’s damn fascinating! It will most probably not change a thing in the way you breathe, eat or dress, but it can help you understand certain things that were passed on to you from your parents and in turn your parent’s parents. It’s just curiosity and more for some. I had my DNA tested with My Heritage and am highly surprised by the outcome. It makes me think about certain things. But at my age it won’t change how I am, how I behave. Just probably how I think and what I think and what I want to research and find out more about.

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