Ethnicity and Physical Features are NOT Accurate Predictors of Parentage or Heritage

Let me say that again, ethnicity results are NOT an accurate predictor of heritage, or parentage. This is a great deal of confusion swirling around this topic. The fact that people are doubting parentage, or grandparentage, based on ethnicity results alone is alarming.

This week I receive this inquiry:

  • I recently found my suspected birth father but he says he’s probably not because he has 2 generations of Amerindian in him and my tests came back negative until I did the analysis at GedMatch and found it to show Amerindian in small traces.

And this:

  • I recently took an ethnicity test and it showed less Scandinavian than it should. My father’s grandfather was from Sweden. Since my Scandinavian is less than 25%, is my father really my father, and is his father really his father? Now I’m really confused and frightened.

Last week, I receive this inquiry:

  • My father and I both tested, but my ethnicity doesn’t all seem to be shared with him. Now I’m doubting whether he is really my father.

And this:

  • I received my ethnicity results, which showed no Native ancestry – but I know my ancestor was Native because she looks Indian in her photo.

And these are, by far, not the only inquiries in this vein. Some variation arrives almost every single day.

Be still my heart. Let me say this again


First, let’s talk about why, and then I’d like to share what I consider to be a perfect example with you.

Why is ethnicity alone not an accurate predictor of parentage or heritage?

  • The field of population genetics, which is the underlying science beneath ethnicity predictions, is in it’s infancy. This means that if you were to test with the various vendors who offer these tests, your results would come back with different readings, sometimes significantly different readings. And this is just for one person – you – not the combination of two people. You can see my results from various vendors in the article, Which Ethnicity Test is Best?
  • Ethnicity results from all vendors can only be considered estimates based on the people they are comparing your results to (reference panels) and their internal software algorithms.
  • Some vendors have more experience than others.
  • I have seen ethnicity results that reflect an ethnicity for a child that is not included in either parents’ ethnicity results, when the parents are unquestionably the biological parents of the child. Clearly, this can’t be accurate. I suggest reading the article, Ethnicity Testing, a Conundrum, to understand more about how ethnicity estimates are generated.
  • You can easily have an ethnicity not found in one parent, if you inherited that portion of your DNA from the other parent.
  • You may not have inherited a portion of DNA from a parent in which a particular ethnicity is found. Your parent may have it, and you may not have inherited that piece of DNA. For examples of how and why this works, please read the article, Ancestral DNA Percentages – How Much of Them is in You?
  • Ethnicity estimates are only considered to be predominantly accurate at the continent level, specifically, Asia, Europe, Africa, Native American and Jewish. Yes, I know that Native American and Jewish are not continents, but their DNA is different enough from the rest that the presence of Jewish or Native DNA is presumed to be, generally, accurate, unless they are very small amounts which could also be noise.
  • Unless you’ve tracked your ancestors back several generations through genealogy, you won’t have an accurate expectation of the percentages of ethnicity. For an article describing how to do this, please read, Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages and Concepts – Percentage of Ancestors’ DNA.
  • You do inherit exactly 50% of the DNA of your parents, but you do NOT necessarily inherit 50% of each ancestors’ DNA that your parents carried. For example, if your parent carries 6.25% of a particular ancestor’s DNA, which is equivalent to that of a great-grandparent, you may or may not inherit half, or 3.12%, of that ancestor’s DNA. You will inherit someplace between none and 6.25%. Please read the article, Generational Inheritance, for more information about how DNA is inherited in successive generations.
  • You may not inherit a portion of a specific ancestor’s DNA that reflects a particular ethnic admixture, or at least not that the reference panels used by various companies can identify as associated with that ethnicity today. For more on how companies determine ethnicity, please read Determining Ethnicity Percentages.
  • In the case of minority admixture, meaning when you carry a small amount of admixture from one ethnicity – it may or may not be noise. If it’s genuine, it may or may not be found by ethnicity tests.
  • The absence of an ethnicity in your ethnicity results is not evidence that the specific ethnicity was not present in your ancestor, especially back in time several generations.
  • The lack of an ethnicity in your results does NOT equate to the fact that an ancestor of that ethnicity is not your ancestor. In other words, you can have a Native American ancestor, back several generations, and not show Native American ancestry in your ethnicity results. Absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence.
  • In the case of admixture involving both Native and African, and especially in the US, your Native or African ancestor(s) may have been admixed themselves, so you don’t really know what to expect in terms of percentages.
  • How you look, known as your phenotype, may or may not reflect perceived or real heritage at the level you expect.

Can Ethnicity EVER Predict Parentage?

Ok, given the above, is there an example of where an ethnicity test MIGHT cause us to wonder at parentage?

At one time, I would have said yes, if you “look white” but your presumed parent was considered to be black, or vice versa. I’m using black and white here as examples because in the US, we have a lot of admixture and “white” and “black” are different enough from each other that one would expect to be able to visually tell the difference, especially in relatively recent generations.

However, that’s not always true. Remember the story about the black twin and white twin from the same parents?  Here’s the Snopes confirmation, along with photos.

My Friend, Rosario

Rosario has been most gracious in allowing me to share his story in advance of a book he is currently penning. His journey is particularly poignant, considering the discussion above.

Rosario studied at Harvard and then became…are you ready…an opera singer. Rosario was raised as an Italian man, specifically Sicilian. Fitting, as in Luciano Pavarotti. Those good Italian operatic genes.

Except…Rosario discovered that he isn’t Italian.

What he is, however, is a genealogist.

Rosario’s mother was taken from her parents and raised in foster care. She had a brother who was shipped off elsewhere, to other states, bouncing from one terrible situation to another until his untimely death. Separated as a child, she had little contact with her brother until they were adults, and then only on two occasions. Her brother and her parents were hushed-up secrets.

Rosario’s mother told him that her heritage was Sicilian, and Rosario became, culturally, a Sicilian man.

Interested in the challenge of his mother’s past, and as genealogists are inclined to do, Rosario started digging in like a dog after a bone. He wanted to share his proud Sicilian heritage with his children.

What he found would amaze him, shock him and leave him reeling – all at the same time.

The Truth Surfaces

First, Rosario found inconsistencies.

For example, he found three different birth certificates for his mother. No one has three birth certificates, but his mother did. One without a father’s race, one with the father’s race redacted and then a third one with all information present. The father was identified as “black” but given that Rosario was raised as Sicilian, an area in Europe where people are darker and could be identified as black, that was Rosario’s assumption. Made sense and might also explain the confusion and the three different birth certificate versions.


Rosario’s first real clue came when his DNA results were returned showing the following ethnicity mixture:

  • 18% Sub Saharan African
  • 2% Malagasy
  • 2% Native American
  • 78% European

Rosario didn’t exactly know what to do with these startling results. They couldn’t be true, because his father was white, his father’s parents were white and his mother’s parents were Sicilian.

Years would pass before additional inroads would be made, hindered by the legal system, his mother’s failing health, young children of his own and the lack of relatives. Rosario had no one to ask.

Eventually, Rosario would discover that his grandparents, his mother’s parents, one white and one black, were prosecuted for engaging in sexual activity with each other – in Vermont.

In fact, they were not allowed to marry due to their different races, and their children, Rosario’s mother and her brother, were removed from their parents when the parents were sent to prison for the crime of having sex with someone not of their race.

Rosario’s grandfather was black. And yes, he was sent to prison, for having sex with a white woman – in the northeast – not in the deep south. Rosario’s white grandmother was sent to prison as well, which is when Rosario’s mother was placed in a foster home and her “darker brother” was sent away – far away – to another state where he was caught up in a horrific maze of institutional abuse.

The photo above is from one of only two times as an adult that Rosario’s mother saw her brother.

Given what had already happened to Rosario’s mother, yanked from her parents and brother and placed in a foster home by the age of 9, it’s easy to see why she fabricated the story of her family being Sicilian. Dark-skinned Sicilian was much safer than “half black” in a place and time when people were sent to prison and children ripped from their families. Her brother would eventually commit suicide as the result of the abuses he suffered as a child – and not at the hands of his parents but as a result of horrible system in which he was systematically and repeatedly abused by adults who were supposedly “better” than his law-breaking parents.

For those of you who have never suffered the horrors of a family story in which your parent or grandparents were abused or mistreated, either by people they trusted or a system that was put in place to help them – good for you. But trust me, these revelations change the entire picture of who you think you are, your self-identity – and they will, guaranteed, rock your world to the point of physical nausea and literal nightmares.

The Photo

After adjusting for a bit, trying to absorb his new reality and attempting to come to grips with the abuses suffered by his grandfather, grandmother, mother and uncle, Rosario was beset by a new drive to get to know his until-then-missing grandparents.

Who were these people, as people? What were their lives like, before and after prison? Did they love each other? What did they look like? Were there any pictures?

Rosario looked high and low, and then finally, finally…through a hint planted in his mind in the middle of the night – Rosario woke up knowing the answer.

Earlier this year, Rosario was able to obtain his grandfather, Jerome Barber’s picture – a mugshot, the only photo he, or his mother, has ever seen of this man.

Jerome Barber’s Heritage

If Jerome Barber was entirely “black,” then his child, Rosario’s mother, would have been half black, or 50%, and Rosario would be 25% IF Rosario received exactly 25% of this grandfather’s DNA.

Looking at an expected DNA contribution of 25% African, given a black grandfather, compared to Rosario’s reported rate of 18% sub-Saharan African shows that expectation and reality can vary widely. In this case, there is a 7% difference with only one generation between Rosario and his “black” ancestor. It’s probable that Rosario’s 2% Malagasy and 2% Native also descend from this line based on testing of other family members including his mother and newly discovered relatives on his father’s side.

However, even with Rosario’s 18% sub-Saharan African and a black grandfather, until I told you, one would never look at Rosario and expect him to carry African heritage.

In photos of Rosario’s mother, you’d never guess that she is half black and half white, which is why she was “kept” and placed with a white foster family, while her brother, who was darker, was sent elsewhere. Unfortunately, Rosario’s uncle passed away before DNA testing was available.

So, in this case, Rosario’s phenotype, meaning how he looks, as compared to his genotype, his DNA contents, is deceiving and so is his mother’s.

Rosarios’s mother has DNA tested, and her results show only 28% sub-Saharan African where 50% would have been expected with a 100% black father.

Rosario’s expected amount of sub-Saharan African DNA would be 14% or half of his mother’s 28%, if you are calculating from his mother, but if you are calculating from a fully African grandfather, Rosario’s amount of African DNA would be expected to be 25%. Clearly, Jerome Barber wasn’t entirely black.

Expected percentages of DNA if Rosario’s grandfather was 100% African are shown below for each generation.

Expected Actual Difference
Grandfather 100 unknown unknown
Mother 50 28 -22%
Rosario 25 18 -7%
Rosario’s child 12.5 8 -4.5%

As you can see in the above calculations, based only on Rosario’s grandfather being entirely African, there is a significant difference, especially in his mother’s generation.

Looking at these DNA amounts differently, the next chart shows the expected amount of DNA calculated on the percentage of DNA the parent actually carries. Again, we begin with Rosario’s grandfather at 100%.

Expected Actual Difference
Grandfather 100 presumed unknown unknown
Mother 50 28 -22%
Rosario 14 18 +4%
Rosario’s child 7 8 +1%

Working backwards, given the amount of African DNA that Rosario’s mother has, 28%, Rosario’s grandfather may have only been about 56% African himself.

An awful irony.

Now that you know, you can look at Rosario and his grandfather’s photo together, and you can see the resemblance.

This same scenario works in reverse too. I cannot, tell you how many times people have sent me photographs with the idea that their ancestor “looks Native” but the DNA shows none or a small amount of Native admixture. In those cases, the DNA may show less than expected or no Native admixture because the DNA has washed out in the subsequent generations, the testing panels aren’t picking it up, or the ancestor wasn’t Native to begin with. It’s extremely easy to see a resemblance, especially if it’s something you are looking “for” or expect to see.

Identifying Parentage

If ethnicity isn’t a good predictor and is highly variable, then how does one identify a parent?

As I mentioned previously, every child inherits half of each parent’s DNA. Therefore, if any child and parent both take an autosomal DNA test from a vendor that provides matching and centimorgan (cM) amounts, in addition to ethnicity, you will know for sure if those two people are parent and child.

In the graphic below, I’m showing my mother’s DNA test which shows me as a match at Family Tree DNA.

You can see that the relationship is identified as parent/child, which means, genetically, the software can’t tell which one of us is the parent and which one of us is the child, but only a parent and child will share this amount of DNA.

By the way, the only reason I have my mother’s autosomal results to utilize, above, is because Family Tree DNA archives the DNA of their customers for 25 years, which allowed me to run the autosomal Family Finder test on her DNA years after her death.

You can also see in the chromosome browser, above, that I match my mother on the full length of every chromosome. The gray areas are not measured by the testing companies. Anyone who is not part of a parent/child relationship will not share all of all 22 chromosomes with someone who is not their parent or their child, except for identical twins. Said another way, if you are a parent or child, the entire portion of every chromosome 1-22 will match and be fully colored, as above.

Identical twins will match the full length of every chromosome too, but instead of the child matching 50% of the parent’s DNA, identical twins match exactly – 100% – not 50% – so the software vendors can tell the difference.

You can view the expected amount of DNA sharing for various relationships on this chart from the article, Concepts – Relationship Predictions.

Therefore, if you want to know whether or not someone is a parent, both parties must take an autosomal test at a vendor who provides matching between participants along with the amount of matching DNA and relationship predictions. Ironically, the test that provides the matching is the exact same test that provides ethnicity results – so if you tested at one of these vendors, you don’t have to take another test. You just have to look at matching results, assuming both people tested. Even if both parties aren’t available to test, such as the parent, if you can test a close relative of the purported parent, such as a sibling and still obtain probable confirmation, because close relatives tend to match within prescribed ranges.

Please, don’t just look at ethnicity results and begin questioning, or presuming.

The vendors who provide autosomal tests along with chromosome browsers are Family Tree DNA, used in the examples above, and 23andMe.

Ancestry also reports parent/child relationships and total matching DNA in centiMorgans (cMs), minus some amount of DNA removed by their Timber process, but does not provide a chromosome browser. MyHeritage reports relationships and cM amounts, but their cM matching amounts are problematic today and they do not provide a chromosome browser. Still, one should be able to discern a parent/child relationship from either Ancestry or MyHeritage.

You can read about the various vendor offerings in the article, Which DNA Test is Best?

Genetic Genealogy Tests are Not Legally Binding

Lastly, none of the genetic genealogy tests are legally binding relative to paternity, even though they can and do clearly inform of parentage.

These tests aren’t binding because the testers’ DNA samples lack “chain of custody,” meaning the DNA sample was not given in an environment where the identities of both testers can be legally proven. It would be very easy to return a negative paternity result by having your neighbor or buddy swab or spit for you. In other words, if you are looking for legal proof, to be used in legal proceedings, you need to consult with an attorney, follow their advice and utilize the methodologies, laboratories and procedures in your state or country to achieve your legal goals.

However, if what you are looking for is simply an answer, do NOT, NOT, NOT rely on any ethnicity results or appearances as hints.  Instead look at chromosome matching between the potential child and parent or close relative in the absence of a parent.


Rosario’s comments relative to ethnicity results and testing are very profound, especially given his recent experiences:

In your published articles, you astutely state the extremely variable nature of the companies’ platforms and methodologies. This begs the question, “is admixture variable or are the companies’ platforms?”

I think that this is the more appropriate question to ask.

People are taking their admixture results literally and that is a dangerous game to play. Families break up over this potent issue. We should tread lightly until we can demonstrate a more scientific conclusion than what is currently being offered.

I agree with Rosario, and would hazard an answer to his question as well.

How much DNA we inherit from any ancestor other than our parents is variable. Which DNA we inherit from any ancestor is variable.

The vendors test results, the reference populations and their internal algorithms are all variable.

Therefore, everything about ethnicity testing is at least somewhat variable – and is exactly why ethnicity testing should NEVER be interpreted as an indicator of parentage.

Chromosome matching is not variable relative to a biological parent/child relationship. Children always inherit half of the autosomal DNA of each parent on chromosomes 1-22.

Correction note:  Jerome’s surname corrected to read Barber.  Jackson was Jerome’s mother’s surname.



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52 thoughts on “Ethnicity and Physical Features are NOT Accurate Predictors of Parentage or Heritage

  1. Hi Roberta,

    I think that you meant to say “Absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence.” when mentioning Native American ancestry above.

  2. This was an interesting and disturbing story. I have no doubt there are many out there related to ignorance, cruelty, racism and sexism that altered family dynamics and their genealogy.

    I hope the future book does well unraveling this families story.

    This was a great way to demonstrate the issue of ethnicity vs ancestry.


    • Hey Kalani! Nice to see you here as well.

      So I took an aggregate of admixtures from all of the data points, FTDNA, 23, Ancestry, AncestrybyDNA, Gedmatch, Tribecode,DNA.Land(which I still have major issues with), and sought for consistency of clusters that would speak to Malagasy. Now, I know that you are familiar with who the Malagasy were so I won’t belabor the point here on Roberta’s forum.

      It was not until I received two matches from Madagascar (with whom I also triangulate with several others) and one from Seychelles that I was able to confirm that I had ancestry from there. Upon analysis of the shared segments that I had with these matches it became abundantly clear that the SEA, South Asian, East Asian, were all admixture that I shared with them. I also share some SSA with them as well, so “2% Malagasy” is probably not accurate to say. I would be more comfortable with saying that perhaps 5% of my admixture is derived from Malagasy ancestry.

      As you know, it’s a very fluid science.

  3. That was a powerful article, Roberta! We need to be flexible in our understanding of the DNA results and matches. Thanks for continually persevering with us readers. Bev Smith

  4. Dear Roberta,

    Thank you for this article on Ethnicity & Generational Inheritance. I think that everyone who takes a DNA test (or has a relative take one) should be required to read it. As you said, wrong interpretations of ethnicity from a DNA test can cause a lot of angst when the results don’t show what you anticipated. People just don’t “get” that as far as ethnicity is concerned, DNA results go back hundreds, if not thousands of years. I wonder if even considered that when they started running the ads on TV.

    In my case all eight of my Great Grandparents are from NW Ireland as far as I can prove from the available records, however all three of the DNA tests that I’ve taken (Ancestry, 23&Me, and FTDNA) show my ethnicity to be @ 40% Scandinavian with the rest from the British Isles, and a tiny bit from Northern Europe, so a good number (@ 30 – 40%) of my matches show Scandinavian surnames. Fortunately, I was a History major in College so I was aware of the Viking (i.e.: Scandinavian) invasions throughout the British Isles, including Ireland during the 8th & 9th Centuries. Further research on early Irish history (and geography) confirm that Ireland was quite a “melting pot”. There were Normans from France, Spanish & Portuguese sailors who were shipwrecked (and stayed) during the Elizabethan Era, Germans who fled religious prosecution and found safe haven in Ireland, not to mention the Scots & the English. As a result, my husband no longer calls me his “Irish Lass”, but now calls me his “Viking Princess”! LOL 😀

    Thank you, too, for your column/blog/newsletter on Genetic Genealogy. You make it so much easier to understand, especially for those of us without a scientific background.


    Eileen Miller

    On Sun, Jul 2, 2017 at 3:02 PM, DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy wrote:

    > Roberta Estes posted: “Let me say that again, ethnicity results are NOT an > accurate predictor of heritage, or parentage. This is a great deal of > confusion swirling around this topic. The fact that people are doubting > parentage, or grandparentage, based on ethnicity results alon” >

  5. Yes indeed as far as the heritage aspect is concerned, it appears that a number of people show disappointment with their ethnicity results because they did not fully reflect what they have been told all their lives, even leading some to an identity crisis as I have gathered from some of these “reveal” videos and from comments on message boards. I have even seen some who called their older family members, and even their ancestors, liars because their results did not align with what they felt they were which is so incredibly wrong and disrespectful… I do caste some of the blame on the marketing strategies of some vendors promising revelatory, precise results when in reality at this stage in the game they most likely won’t be that precise and will most likely change over time with newer population data, more advanced algorithms, etc.. The larger blame, however, should be on the consumer who did not take the time to educate themselves about these tests and autosomal DNA inheritance, and/or those who did not fully research their actual ancestry before taking these tests..

  6. My youngest daughter ,who is Anglo-Saxon married a man Half Mexican and half anglo saxon. They have 4 children ,3 boys and one daughter.The 2 first born boys have red hair,green eyes and white as snow.,no Spanish or Indian features. The 3rd born boy and the youngest daughter are medium dark skinned,dark haired ,with blue eyes .They definitely have Spanish features. Life is like a box of chocolate,you never know what you will get.There is a lot we don’t know about DNA,ethnicity,genectics. I had my DNA done by ancestry and based on my research ,it came back fairly close enough to what I already knew. I uploaded my raw DNA to MyHeritage and got considerable difference in ethnicity predictions. My opinion is ,it is what it is and what difference does it make?

  7. Who was the first to say (I’ve paraphrased, I”m sure) “the more I learn, the more I find out that I do not know!” It’s mind boggling how quickly our technology has been changing, such that a thing like “ethnicity” can be measured and quantified, at least in some ways. I am so, so, glad you’ve written what I hope will serve as a catalyst for an ongoing learning experience for all of us about genetic transmissions, how our genes show up and manifest themselves in future generations, what these results mean and what they don’t mean, and mostly, I pray that your writing will continue to promote further discussion about race, color, history, ethnicity, and what it means to be a part of the human family. Godspeed, Roberta.

    • As usual, Google helped me out as soon as I posted the above: Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.” and Socrates: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” My high school yearbook staff placed under my senior portrait, “…Wisdom consists in knowing what to do with what you know.” I always thought that was nice!

  8. Rosario’s story just broke my heart! Children were taken away from parents they loved because of somebody else’s hatred, and his uncle suffered terribly for it. I know it happened many times, but it still just boggles my mind. The Sicilian story reminded me of the Portuguese story of the Melungeons.

    I also have a tiny amount of sub-Saharan African and I have absolutely no idea where it came from. I am aware of the African in the lines of some cousins because of my 3rd great-grandfather’s inability to stay away from his servants, but I have no idea where mine came from.

  9. I would add, they don’t do full sequencing, they only tease a few thousands SNPs, not even 1% of the of the smallest chromosome, and they don’t even test the same from one company to the next. One could have 25% Native American DNA, but it just so happen that they all fall out of the DNA scanned.

    These tests as they are now are merely surveys, sometimes they are accurate, sometimes they are far off.

  10. To the best of my knowledge, Vermont never had an “anti-miscegenation” law. Is it possible that Jerome Barber was jailed for some other reason?

    • Thanks for your adept comment- you have done your preliminary homework, lol.

      It wasn’t until the rise of the KKK that northern states began to rethink race and the law. Many states in the northeast began to draft laws that invited anti misceganation back in without giving the “appearance” that they were a racist governorship. These states, including Vermont, passed legislation whereby couples who were black/white, could not be married if they came from an outside state. Now, many the state if Vermont claims that they were the first to abolish slavery, but this is a false claim. It was a semantical argument. We have compliled loads of evidence to the contrary, including census reports as late as 1840/50 were slaves are in fact enumerated.

      I also through a whole lot of heavy lifting, was able to procure some of the court dockets of the case. In it, the judge orders that my grandmother and grandfather can never live with each other.

      Around the same time, my grandfather’s brother was burned alive in his home and died. The white community was sending a message and the arsonist, who was known to the community,was never brought up on charges. About four years ago I received an email with an admission of guilt by the grandson of the arsonist.

      My family was the last black family to remain in that town, though for some odd reason, all 7 daughters (out of 11 siblings of my grandfather) had moved out of the state.

      Vermont also had the awful eugenics program.

      History will provide the answers if you dig deep enough.

      • My father’s family is from Westminster ,vermon t from 1827-1900
        Sometimes called BELLOWSFALLS WHERE they lived was called Blackville ,Vermont. Some whites called it Bigger Hill

        You will see my family s genealogy there

        The WESTMINSTER Vermont Historical SOCIETY has tons of in formation of my BROOKS FAMILY in they museum

        And Blacks find marry whites in the mid 1800#
        My feeT uncle Married a white woman in Vermont
        And there were other interracial marriages at the time.
        Ray Brooks

  11. Hi Roberta

    You may know I lived in Sicily off/on for 3 years and, I must say, Rosario and his mother both look very Sicilian. His grandfather may have originated there as well.

    First of all, Sicily is very close to Africa and, throughout known history, there has been a lot of interaction between this island and Africa. Sub Saharan Africans are still arriving in Sicily, as well as smaller islands between the two. Why? Today it has more to do with climate change causing the migration of tribes further north. In the past, they were neighbors, trading goods, skillls etc. Ancient fabulous mosaics with elephants and other African animals can be found in Sicily that are known to have been made by Tunisian (African) artisans. In fact the Tunis National Museum has pieces from the same artists! Ancient Carthage, one of the great cities on Africa’s north coast, traded with Sicily. Sicily is known as a melting pot of peoples traveling via the Mediterranean Sea.

    So my point is simply that, if she said she was Sicilian, it is likely she was, and quite possibly, that they both were, because all those genes could easily be stirred in a Sicilian pot! There are 18 million Sicilian-Americans and 5 million still in Sicily. It would be interesting, and Rosario may have looked at this already, to compare a large sampling of Sicilians to his results. Sicily is much more of a fluid boundary with Africa than most of Europe.

    • Hi Barb,

      We are definitely not of Sicilian origin. Mom fabricated the story to protect us all from the cruelness of the outside world.

      With that said, I am culturally Sicilian, just not biologically. I have lived there, have sung there, and have dual citizenship through my wife. There aren’t any modal Sicilians who resemble my grandfather unless they are immigrants from Burkino Faso, Senegal, et al or sons and daughters of.

      As a responsible genealogist, I have confirmed my lineage back to 1800. We were slaves like the rest of the Africans who were brought here. More of that in my book!

      • The book sounds like a fascinating read Rosario. Please let us know when you publish? Will there be an e-version?

  12. “Looking at these DNA amounts differently, the next chart shows the expected amount of DNA calculated on the percentage of DNA the parent actually carries. Again, we begin with Rosario’s grandfather at 100%.” But the two charts are identical.

    The last of the letters you cited at the beginning of this post mentioned an ancestor looking Indian in a photograph. A fascinating article about a woman who was classed as black based on her image is the following: “A Case of Mistaken Racial Identity: Finding Emma Dunham (nee Kelley) Hawkins” by Katherine E. Lynn, National Genealogical Society Quarterly (Volume 94, No. 1 March 2006.

  13. Interesting and informative. My own results with Family Tree DNA have gone through many changes. I am lucky in that my 4 grandparents were immigrants from Italy/Sicily and arrived within the Ellis Island era.
    So the results have now evolved as 100% European and that being 100% Southeast Europe. The geographic cloud extending over Italy, Sardinia,Sicily,Mainland Greece and the Balkans.

    It used to include Near Eastern and some Middle Eastern admixtures, but no more.

    23and Me have the composition as 93.9% Euro (91.6 Southern Euro), 5.3 Middle East/N.African, with 0.3 Asian/Native American and 0.1 Sub-Saharan African thrown in. In the “Your Ancestry Timeline, How many generations ago was your most recent ancestor for each population?”, 23andMe show calculations to an ancestor who was 100%, 8 generations back.
    What is, in my opinion, misleading is that 23andMe chose to put Native American on that timeline. It shows that I had a Native American ancestor between 1680 and 1770. That could not be possible as my ancestors were in Italy/Sicily. An infidelity incident would have yielded more NA content or would have more northern euro %, because Italians just weren’t here to mix with Native Americans that long ago.
    They cannot correctly place the noise that small amounts of Asian admixture make. It cannot be Native American dna if that dna never made it to the western hemisphere.

    AncestryDNA reports 71% Italy/Greece, 15% Caucasus, 10% Middle East.

    I agree that population genetics are in their infancy. The dna matches are quite accurate though, as many matches show up thru the different companies.

    • Sicily was Spanish for 400 years (1479-1861), including 1680-1770. The Spanish were busy exploring the Americas during that time. Sicily only became Italian in 1861! There was lots of time to get mixed up with Native Americans!

      • 23andMe reported my East Asian & Native American to be 0.3%,with 0.2% of that listed as East Asian. From that extremely low admixture they report <0.1% to be Native American, a tiny amount that could just as well be "noise".
        The point of my comment was that 23andMe should have included an East Asian ancestor in my timeline rather than Native American. Even in the world of tiny dna admixture, 0.2% is more than <0.1%. If you are not familiar with the 23andMe timeline, it is hard to explain.
        As far as Spanish (Iberian) occupation of Sicily bringing Native American dna, I believe it could be remotely possible, but then it would be wide spread in Spain.
        A more plausible explanation is Asian ancestry brought by Near and Middle Eastern ancestors, of which I have 4.7%, or remnants of the Huns. Asian dna confuses most population genetics, it is similar to Native American. Consumer ethnicity predictions are not accurate to that degree, and I would be a fool to claim any Native American descent.

  14. Population genetics has been around for a long time. Population genomics is quite young.

  15. Amazing post!
    If only the companies were as transparent as you were here, many people (me included) wouldn’t be distrustful of their ethnicity results. But they insinst on saying it’s highly accurate…

  16. Once I met a child at a hospital, he told me that her father was german and her mother native american, the kid looked like any other spanish american kid (maybe 60% european and 40% native anerican) with tanned skin.

  17. Oh my gosh, what a story. What a journey for Rosario. Having just been contacted by my birth family because of a match through a genetic testing service, I find many points where I can relate or connect.
    It’s been amazing, disorienting and confusing.
    Amazing because after years of being on the DNA test service and receiving way too many inquiries that began “WE’RE RELATED!” but we weren’t because even given your argument above, at .89% shared DNA and the mismatch of mtDNA, we weren’t related enough to mean anything to me. Then suddenly, someone appears whose DNA matches mine by about 30 percent. More, her recollection of some details matched what I knew. Blown. Away.
    It was also confusing because her maternal haplogroup was not exactly identical (C vs C1b2). The DNA service was able to explain how that could be. There have been several iterations of the test and that alone seemed likeliest to account for any mismatch.
    It’s also disorienting because, as in Rosario’s case, when the details begin to emerge and you learn “the rest of the story,” people you have known hypothetically become real. And now I am at the stage where I question whether I am still a “ghost child,” as I’ve come to call myself, or whether this, in the final analysis, really changes anything. It’s been a long time, and I’ve built a life without these people. Now here they are. Thankfully, so far, everyone is very welcoming and generous.
    For certain, I now have a family line and that is good, but that crucial time as a child, when things like surrendered for adoption and fostering can translate into feelings of abandonment and betrayal cause you to build a life and identity based on that.
    One note about population database, I learned that results for my group (Native American) was based on 108 individuals from Central America, which at first, was reported to me as having my roots in Central and South American tribes. I know that international adoptions do take place but they were rare at the time I was adopted, so that fact about the database began to feel weird and somewhat disingenuous. There are all kinds of reasons for the small database, including the fact that Native American population is something around 1.5% of the population, but social and political reasons also drive it, as well, which in turn affects the database and thus results.
    The ripples it caused among those who were certain they were at least half if not full-blood NAs but the test showed the percentage at around 8% or less was rather difficult to witness. Your explanations help give me some resolution about how such things can happen.

  18. Excellent posting, Roberta. What a journey for Rosario. All that pain that was suffered by his grandparents and brother. As a grandparent to several so-called “mixed race” children (and I do have a problem with that term as there is only one race – the human race), I hope that future generations will not be facing issues anything like Rosario’s family did. I wish him and his family all the best!

    • Jillian-

      That is very kind of you to say. What led to finding the photo of my grandfather was a paranormal event that occurred in January of this year.

      Once I found the photo I was tasked with presenting the information to my mother, who is in mid stage Alzheimer’s, for the first time. That moment of the presentation was the most powerful moment I have bore witness too as a human (for a whole host of reasons). It showed raw emotion, and that mom in the moment, finally saw her father for the first time. She was hugging and kissing his photo with tears rolling down her cheeks.

      I recorded the whole thing and each time I revisit, I get choked up. Unfortunately, an hour later I held up the photo again and mom said, “who is that?” But at least for a single moment, she had known her father.

      • Which of the photos did you show her, Rosario? For those who may not understand this question, a restoration group was kind enough to clean up the photos and to make a very special one with Abraham Lincoln.

  19. Ethnicity *can* be a predictor of heritage, but only if there is little or no admixture involved.
    As Roberta said “Unless you’ve tracked your ancestors back several generations through genealogy, you won’t have an accurate expectation of the percentages of ethnicity.”

    By “genealogy” she apparently means documentation, or traditional “paper” genealogy.

    In today’s world there are fewer and fewer people alive that came from an undiluted or non-admixed ancestral heritage.They are mostly old, and they won’t be here forever. Genetic genealogy is a useful tool, but it is not a substitute for research and documentation.

    As for predictions by the various vendors, they are not to be considered infallible or always accurate. Consider weather reports. They are based upon science. Are they always accurate? Sometimes they are entirely wrong. Whether ethnicity reports are or are not accurate in any particular case is proven through traditional genealogy.

    • I heard a representative of Ancestry say in an interview for MOMONDO that the DNA tests for ethnicity analyze 500-1000 year old information. That being so, it’s impossible – even if we have covered all of our family branches – to have our paper research match our DNA results.

        • That’s exactly what I am saying. People are complaining that their DNA results bring surprises that they deem inaccurate because their paper trail says their ancestors are from some place, but DNA testing brings very different information, as, according to Mr. Brad Argent, the results revealed may be related to ancestors who lived more than 5 centuries ago, and that should be the reason for disappointments.
          Only if you are royalty will you have records daing back more than 400-odd years. But being a plebean, u surely won’t.

  20. I forgot to add on the subject of slavery in Vermont and Blacks marrying whites, that my family were Native American listed as Black,color in WESTMINSTER ,Vermont town records but as you will see when you Goole the website, “COLOR PEOPLE OF WESTMINSTER,VERMONT”
    there is documentation showing
    That The BROOKS family Were Montauk/Narragansett/BROTHERTOWNN
    INDIANS OF NEW YORK, Where My 2ng Grgrandfather montgomery Brooks Was Born 1795
    they Are On The Montauk Tribal Roll Of Long Island,nyy
    You Will See The Sources To Verify That Informationn

  21. Interesting read, Roberta. Thanks for sharing the story and the information. It really gives you a broader perspective. I wanted to share my piece. Well, my sister took the DNA test with 23 and me and it gave some baffling results. Firstly, the results said certain information but when she logged back in again, they changed. It just makes you wonder if the more recent results are more accurate or the older ones are more. Furthermore, with the 90% confidence level, it lists her having Native American ancestry at 19.5%. This really surprised us because we can confirm that none of our grandparents were full Native American nor were they 50. (The results show 25.2% Native Americana and East Asian when in 50% confidence level!!) What could this possibly be? Our grandparents definitely did not have Native features and we do not also have. I believe 19.5% native american means a recent ancestor who had a strong native blood. (Which is definitely not the case).

  22. Thank you for the clarifications. I’m really new to this and have just recently started to use this in my heritage research. Ethnicity is, of course, interesting when doing the tests, but it is to find the matches and confirmation to the research that is the objective.

    I am, however, very suspicious in regards to some of the areas they have chosen. “Eastern Europe” is huge and quite undefined. Must be a huge diversity of ethnicity in such a region. 🙂

  23. Thank you so much to Rosario for sharing his story, and to you, Roberta, for writing this blog. Rosario’s case is similar to the case of my grandfather, my mother’s father – while he passed as white, as did his mother, despite also being mixed, his family was all sent to foster care due to being mixed race (and to their benefit, passed) – it was his native and black heritage through his mother that had them taken away. And despite knowing this, and seeing our ancestry in chromosome paintings as well as having our DNA matches as proof, commercial tests rarely acknowledge it, which breaks my heart. It’s because of your work, Roberta, with genetic genealogy, that I’ve been able to reconnect to the entirety of my family. Thank you so much for helping me make my family complete again, and helping us to discover who we are.

    TLDR, as Rosario and Roberta have said: you can look white and not be white. I have blue eyes and am multiracial through both parents like my mother before me. One of the most prominent examples of ‘passing’ is Kitt McDonald, the daughter of Eartha Kitt. She, like my grandmother and mother, have blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin. They’re still all black. The concept of passing as white have been used in the black community for generations for this exact reason. It’s because they could pass that they would move to a different state and lie on the census – they wanted the chance at a better life. And at the price of their identities and culture, they would hide.

    • I forgot to specify – my grandfather’s sister has told me the exact same story, of multiple birth certificates. She also has had a hell of a time of trying to get copies due to enrollment being a factor, something she was told by the person she spoke to that worked for the state. My grandfather was taken during what the native community calls the baby scoop era – which is what I assume Rosario’s mother and uncle were also caught up in. Something people don’t often realize is that it wasn’t just affecting the native community, but all minority communities (however, it obviously affected the native community a significant degree – me saying it affected others in no way is me saying that anyone suffered ‘worse’ than anyone else. My grandfather was taken, specifically, in the early days of CPS, the 1940s.

      (The ultimate irony being that none of us know what nation our ancestor was even enrolled in, and yet we still paid for it. To this day I still don’t know. I hope that by continuing to use your method of segment analysis I can find out. And while my grandfather was treated better, as expected, for passing, he was still never the same. He never had a chance to live a happy life because of racial hatred. He was an alcoholic to the day that he died. The white family that chose to foster him treated him poorly and he was never adopted. & to this day I still hate sending emails to GED matches on occasion, because I’m afraid of the denial I receive, that they could ever be mixed, something I deal with very often these days).

      I hope Rosario’s uncle is at peace. I’m so, so sorry for your family’s pain, Rosario. I sympathize. Best wishes to you all.

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