Jessica Biel’s episode aired on Who Do You Think You Are on Sunday, April 2nd. I wanted to write a follow-up article since I couldn’t reveal Jessica’s Native results before the show aired.
The first family story about Jessica’s Biel line being German proved to be erroneous. In total, Jessica had three family stories she wanted to follow, so the second family legend Jessica set out to research was her Native American heritage.
I was very pleased to see a DNA test involved, but I was dismayed that the impression was left with the viewing audience that the ethnicity results disproved Jessica’s Native heritage. They didn’t.
Jessica’s Ethnicity Reveal
Jessica was excited about her DNA test and opened her results during the episode to view her ethnicity percentages.
The locations shown below and the percentages, above, show no Native ethnicity.
Jessica was understandably disappointed to discover that her DNA did not reflect any Native heritage – conflicting with her family story. I feel for you Jessica. Been there, done that.
Jessica had the same reaction of many of us. “Lies, lies,” she said, in frustration.
Well Jessica, maybe not.
Let’s talk about Jessica’s DNA results.
Native or Lies?
I’ve written about the challenges with ethnicity testing repeatedly. At the end of this article, I’ll provide a reading resource list.
Right now, I want to talk about the misperception that because Jessica’s DNA ethnicity results showed no Native, that her family story about Native heritage is false. Even worse, Jessica perceived those stories to be lies. Ouch, that’s painful.
In my world view, a lie is an intentional misrepresentation of the truth. Let’s say that Jessica really didn’t have Native heritage. That doesn’t mean someone intentionally lied. People might have been confused. Maybe they made assumptions. Sometimes facts are misremembered or misquoted. I always give my ancestors the benefit of the doubt unless there is direct evidence of an intentional lie. And if then, I would like to try to understand what prompted that behavior. For example, discrimination encouraged many people of mixed ethnicity to “pass” for white as soon as possible.
That’s certainly a forgivable “lie.”
Ok, Back to DNA
Autosomal DNA testing can only reliably pick up to about the 1% level of minority DNA admixture successfully – minority meaning a small amount relative to your overall ancestry.
Everyone inherits DNA from ancestors differently, in different amounts, in each generation. Remember, you receive half of your DNA from each parent, but which half of their DNA you receive is random. That holds true for every generation between the ancestor in question and Jessica today. Ultimately, more or less than 50% of any ancestor’s DNA can be passed in any generation.
However, if Jessica inherited the average amount of DNA from each generation, being 50% of the DNA from the ancestor that the parent had, the following chart would represent the amount of DNA Jessica carried from each ancestor in each generation.
This chart shows the amount of DNA of each ancestor, by generation, that an individual testing today can expect to inherit, if they inherit exactly 50% of that ancestor’s DNA from the previous generation. That’s not exactly how it works, as we’ll see in a minute, because sometimes you inherit more or less than 50% of a particular ancestor’s DNA.
Utilizing this chart, in the 4th generation, Jessica has 16 ancestors, all great-great-grandparents. On average, she can expect to inherit 6.25% of the DNA of each of those ancestors.
In the rightmost column, I’ve shown Jessica’s relationship to her Jewish great-great-grandparents, shown in the episode, Morris and Ottilia Biel.
Jessica has two great-great-grandparents who are both Jewish, so the amount of Jewish DNA that Jessica would be expected to carry would be 6.25% times two, or 12.50%. But that’s not how much Jewish DNA Jessica received, according to Ancestry’s ethnicity estimates. Jessica received only 8% Jewish ethnicity, 36% less than average for having two Jewish great-great-grandparents.
Now we know that Jessica carries less Jewish DNA that we would expect based on her proven genealogy. That’s the nature of random recombination and how autosomal DNA works.
Now let’s look at the oral history of Jessica’s Native heritage.
The intro didn’t tell us much about Jessica’s Native heritage, except that it was on her mother’s mother’s side. We also know that the fully Native ancestor wasn’t her mother or grandmother, because those are the two women who were discussing which potential tribe the ancestor was affiliated with.
We can also safely say that it also wasn’t Jessica’s great-grandmother, because if her great-grandmother had been a member of any tribe, her grandmother would have known that. I’d also wager that it wasn’t Jessica’s great-great-grandmother either, because most people would know if their grandmother was a tribal member, and Jessica’s grandmother didn’t know that. Barring a young death, most people know their grandmother. Utilizing this logic, we can probably safely say that Jessica’s Native ancestor was not found in the preceding 4 generations, as shown on the chart below.
On this expanded chart, I’ve included the estimated birth year of the ancestor in that particular generation, using 25 years as the average generation length.
If we use the logic that the fully Native ancestor was not between Jessica and her great-great-grandmother, that takes us back through an ancestor born in about 1882.
The next 2 generations back in time would have been born in 1857 and 1832, respectively, and both of those generations would have been reflected as Indian on the 1850 and/or 1860 census. Apparently, they weren’t or the genealogists working on the program would have picked up on that easy tip.
If Jessica’s Native ancestor was born in the 7th generation, in about 1807, and lived to the 1850 census, they would have been recorded in that census as Native at about 43 years of age. Now, it’s certainly possible that Jessica had a Native ancestor that might have been born about 1807 and didn’t live until the 1850 census, and whose half-Native children were not enumerated as Indian.
So, let’s go with that scenario for a minute.
If that was the case, the 7th generation born in 1807 contributed approximately 0.78% DNA to Jessica, IF Jessica inherited 50% in each generation. At 0.78%, that’s below the 1% level. Small amounts of trace DNA are reported as <1%, but at some point the amount is too miniscule to pick up or may have washed out entirely.
Let’s add to that scenario. Let’s say that Jessica’s ancestor in the 7th generation was already admixed with some European. Traders were well known to marry into tribes. If Jessica’s “Native” ancestor in the 7th generation was already admixed, that means Jessica today would carry even less than 0.78%.
You can easily see why this heritage, if it exists, might not show up in Jessica’s DNA results.
No Native DNA Does NOT Equal No Native Heritage
However, the fact that Jessica’s DNA ethnicity results don’t indicate Native American DNA doesn’t necessarily mean that Jessica doesn’t have a Native ancestor.
It might mean that Jessica doesn’t have a Native ancestor. But it might also mean that Jessica’s DNA can’t reliably disclose or identify Native ancestry that far back in time – both because of the genetic distance and also because Jessica may not have inherited exactly half of her ancestor’s Native DNA. Jessica’s 8% Jewish DNA is the perfect example of the variance in how DNA is actually passed versus the 50% average per generation that we have to utilize when calculating expected estimates.
Furthermore, keep in mind that all ethnicity tools are imprecise. It’s a new field and the reference panels, especially for Native heritage, are not as robust as other groups.
Does Jessica Have Native Heritage?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but here’s what I do know.
- You can’t conclude that because the ethnicity portion of a DNA test doesn’t show Native ancestry that there isn’t any.
- You can probably say that any fully Native ancestor is not with in the past 6 generations, give or take a generation or so.
- You can probably say that any Native ancestor is probably prior to 1825 or so.
- You can look at the census records to confirm or eliminate Native ancestors in many or most lines within the past 6 or 7 generations.
- You can utilize geographic location to potentially eliminate some ancestors from being Native, especially if you have a potential tribal affiliation. Let’s face it, Cherokees are not found in Maine, for example.
- You can potentially utilize Y and mitochondrial DNA to reach further back in time, beyond what autosomal DNA can tell you.
- If autosomal DNA does indicate Native heritage, you can utilize traditional genealogy research in combination with both Y and mitochondrial DNA to prove which line or lines the Native heritage came from.
Mitochondrial and Y DNA Testing
While autosomal DNA is constrained to 5 or 6 generations reasonably, Y and mitochondrial DNA is not.
Of course, Ancestry, who sponsors the Who Do You Think You Are series, doesn’t sell Y or mitochondrial DNA tests, so they certainly aren’t going to introduce that topic.
Y and mitochondrial DNA tests reach back time without the constraint of generations, because neither Y nor mitochondrial DNA are admixed with the other parent.
The Y DNA follows the direct paternal line for males, and mitochondrial DNA follows the direct matrilineal line for both males and females.
In the Concepts – Who To Test article, I discussed all three types of testing and who one can test to discover their heritage, through haplogroups, of each family line. Every single one of your ancestors carried and had the opportunity to pass on either Y or mitochondrial DNA to their descendants. Males pass the Y chromosome to male children, only, and females pass mitochondrial DNA to both genders of their children, but only females pass it on.
I don’t want to repeat myself about who carries which kind of DNA, but I do want to say that in Jessica’s case, based on what is known about her family, she could probably narrow the source of the potential Native ancestor significantly.
In the above example, if Jessica is the daughter – let’s say that we think the Native ancestor was the mother of the maternal great-grandmother. She is the furthest right on the chart, above. The pink coloring indicates that the pink maternal great grandmother carries the mitochondrial DNA and passed it on to the maternal grandmother who passed it to the mother who passed it to both Jessica and her siblings.
Therefore, Jessica or her mother, either one, could take a mitochondrial DNA test to see if there is deeper Native ancestry than an autosomal test can reveal.
When Y and mitochondrial DNA is tested, a haplogroup is assigned, and Native American haplogroups fall into subgroups of Y haplogroups C and Q, and subgroups of mitochondrial haplogroups A, B, C, D, X and probably M.
With a bit of genealogy work and then DNA testing the appropriate descendants of Jessica’s ancestors, she might still be able to discern whether or not she has Native heritage. All is not lost and Jessica’s Native ancestry has NOT been disproven – even though that’s certainly the impression left with viewers.
Y and Mitochondrial DNA Tests
If you’d like to order a Y or mitochondrial DNA test, I’d recommend the Full Mitochondrial Sequence test or the 37 marker Y DNA test, to begin with. You will receive a full haplogroup designation from the mitochondrial test, plus matching and other tools, and a haplogroup estimate with the Y DNA test, plus matching and other tools.
You can click here to order the mitochondrial DNA, the Y DNA or the Family Finder test which includes ethnicity estimates from Family Tree DNA. Family Tree DNA is the only DNA testing company that performs the Y and mitochondrial DNA tests.
If you’d like to read more about ethnicity estimates, I’d specifically recommend “DNA Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum.”
If you’d like more information on how to figure out what your ethnicity estimates should be, I’d recommend Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages.
You can also search on the word “ethnicity” in the search box in the upper right hand corner of the main page of this blog.
If you’d like to read more about Native American heritage and DNA testing, I’d recommend the following articles. You can also search for “Native” in the search box as well.
I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.
Thank you so much.
DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- Family Tree DNA
- MyHeritage DNA only
- MyHeritage DNA plus Health
- MyHeritage FREE DNA file upload
- 23andMe Ancestry
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
- Legacy Tree Genealogists for genealogy research