While this question is very straightforward, the answer is not.
I have tested with or uploaded my DNA file to the following vendors to obtain ethnicity results:
The links above provide product reviews of recently released or updated results.
Guess what? None of the vendors’ results are the same. Some aren’t even close to each other, let alone to my known and proven genealogy.
In the article, Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages, I explained how to calculate your expected ethnicity percentages from your genealogy. As each vendor has introduced ethnicity results, or updated previous results, I’ve added to a cumulative chart.
It bears repeating before we look at that chart that ethnicity testing is relatively accurate on a continental level, meaning:
- Native American
Intra-continent or sub-continent, meaning within continents, it’s extremely difficult to tease out differences between countries, like France, Germany and Switzerland. Looking at the size of these regions, and the movement of populations, we can certainly understand why. In many ways, it’s like trying to discern the difference between Indiana and Illinois.
What Does “Best” Mean?
While the question of which test is best seems like it would be easy to answer, it isn’t.
“Best” is a subjective term, and often, people interpret best to mean that the test reflects a portion of what they think they know about their ethnicity. Without a rather robust and proven tree, some testers have little subjective data on which to base their perceptions. In fact, many people, encouraged by advertising, take these tests with the hope that the test will in fact provide them with the answer to the question, “Who am I?” or to confirm a specific ancestor or ancestral heritage rumor.
For example, people often test to find their Native American ancestry and are disappointed when the results don’t reveal Native ancestry. This can be because:
- There is no Native ancestor.
- The Native ancestor thought to be 100% was already highly admixed.
- The Native ancestor is too far back in the tester’s tree and the ancestor’s DNA “washed out” in subsequent generations.
- The testing company failed to pick up what might be arguably a trace amount.
Genealogy Compared to All Vendors’ Results
In some cases, discrepancies arise due to how the different companies group their results and what the groupings mean, as you can see in the table below comparing all vendors’ results to my known genealogy.
In the table below, I’ve highlighted in yellow the “best” company result by region, as compared to my known genealogy shown in the column titled “Genealogy %”.
British Isles – The British Isles is fairly easy to define, because they are islands, and the results for each vendor, other than The Genographic Project, are easy to group into that category as well. Family Tree DNA comes the closest to my known genealogy in this category, so would be the “best” in this category. However, every region, shown in pink, does not have the same “best” vendor.
Scandinavian – I have no actual Scandinavian heritage in my genealogy, but I’m betting I have a number of Vikings, or that my German/Dutch is closely related to the Scandinavians. So while LivingDNA is the lowest, meaning the closest to my zero, it’s very difficult to discern the “true” amount of Scandinavian heritage admixed into the other populations. It’s also possible that Scandinavian is not reflecting (entirely) the Vikings, but Dutch and German as a result of migrations of entire peoples. My German and Dutch ancestry cumulatively adds to 39%.
Eastern European – I don’t have any known Eastern European, but some of my German might fall into that category, historically. I simply don’t know, so I’m not ranking that group.
Northwestern Europe – For the balance of Northwestern Europe, 23andMe comes the closest with 43% of my 45.24% from my known genealogy.
Mediterranean and Southern European – For the Mediterranean, Greece, Italy and Southern Europe, I have no known genealogy there, and not even anyplace close, so I’m counting as accurate all three vendors who reported zero, being Living DNA, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage.
Unknown – The next grouping is my unknown percentage. It’s very difficult to ascribe a right or wrong to this grouping, so I’ve put vendor results here that might fall into that unknown group. In my case, I suspect that some of the unknown is actually Native on my father’s side. I haven’t assigned accuracy in this section. It’s more of a catch all, for now.
Native and Asian – The next section is Native and Asian, which can in some circumstances can be attributed to Native ancestry. In this case, I know of about 1% proven Native heritage, as the Native on my mother’s line is proven utilizing both Y and mitochondrial DNA tests on descendants. I suspect there is more Native to be revealed, both on her side and because I can’t positively attribute some of my father’s lineage that is mixed race and reported to be Native, but is as yet unproven. By proof, I mean either Y DNA, mitochondrial DNA or concrete documentation.
I have counted any vendor who found a region above zero and smaller than my unknown percentage of 3.9% as accurate, those vendors being Family Tree DNA, Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage.
Southwest Asia – I have no heritage from Southwest Asia, which typically means the Indian subcontinent. National Geographic reports this region, but their categories are much broader than the other companies, as reflected by the grey bands utilized to attempt to summarize the other vendor’s data in a way that can be compared to the Genographic Project information. While I’m pleased to contribute to the National Geographic Society through the Genographic Project, the results are the least connected to my known genealogy, although their results may represent deeper migratory ancestry.
As you can see, the best vendor is almost impossible to pinpoint and every person that tests at multiple vendors will likely have a different opinion of what is “best” and the reasons why. In some ways, best depends on what you are looking for and how much genealogy work you’ve already invested to be able to reliably evaluate the different vendor results. In my case, the best vendor, judged by the highest total percentage of “most accurate” categories would be Family Tree DNA.
While DNA testing for ethnicity really doesn’t provide the level of specificity that people hope to gain, testers can generally get a good view of their ancestry at the continental level. Vendors also provide updates as the reference groups and technology improves. This is a learning experience for all involved!
I hope that seeing the differences between the various vendors will encourage people to test at multiple vendors, or transfer their results to additional vendors to gain “a second set of eyes” about their ethnicity. Several transfers are free. You can read about which vendors accept results from other vendors, in the article, Autosomal DNA Transfers – Which Companies Accept Which Tests?
I also hope that ethnicity results encourage people to pursue their genealogy to find their ancestors. Ethnicity results are fun, but they aren’t gospel, and shouldn’t be interpreted as “the answer.” Just enjoy your results and allow them to peak your curiosity to discover who your ancestors really were through genealogy research! There are bound to be some fun surprises just waiting to be discovered.
If you are interested in why your results may vary from what you expected, please read “Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum.”
If you’re interested in taking a DNA test, you might want to read “Which DNA Test is Best?” which discusses and compares what you need to know about each vendor and the different tests available in the genetic genealogy market today.
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