When ethnicity estimates were first produced by vendors, they tended to resemble the wild west.
Today, results are becoming more refined and hopefully, more accurate as reference populations grow and become more reliable.
The Ancestry ethnicity update has been in beta for several months, but this week, Ancestry rolled out the ethnicity update for everyone.
Checking Your New Results
To see your updated results, sign on and click on the DNA Story to the left with Ethnicity Estimates.
Ancestry then explains that while your DNA doesn’t change, the estimates (pay attention to that word) do as the science improves.
Ethnicity Estimate Aren’t Precise
I’ve said this before, and I want to say it again. Ethnicity is the least precise and the least accurate of DNA tools for genetic genealogy. Ethnicity estimates are the most accurate at a continental level. Within continents, like Europe, Asia and Africa, there has been a lot of population movement and intermixing over time making the term “ethnicity” almost meaningless.
I know, I know – ethnicity estimates are also the simplest because there isn’t much learning curve and they’re easy to understand at a glance. This deceptive “ease of use” also makes them interesting to people who have only a passing curiosity. That’s why they attract so many test takers who either love of hate their results, but never fully understand the true message or utilize any other genetic genealogy tools.
Let’s take a look at how ethnicity estimates have changed over time and if they have improved with the latest version.
Ethnicity Estimate Changes
In my case, my original Ancestry ethnicity estimate in 2012 was:
- British Isles 80%
- Scandinavia 12%
- Uncertain 8%
To say it was really bad is an understatement.
In 2013, Ancestry introduced their ethnicity V2 version which provided a lot more granularity.
Version 2 was dramatically different, with the British Isles moving from 80% to a total of 6%. Like a pendulum swinging, neither was accurate.
Ancestry introduced new features and combined their Genetic Communities with their ethnicity estimates in 2017.
In this new 2018 version, Ancestry has divided and recombined the British Isles and Western Europe differently and the resulting differences are significant.
My mystery Scandinavian is entirely gone now, but sadly, so is my Native American.
The New Results
I just got really boring – but the question is whether or not the new results are more accurate as compared to my proven genealogy. Boring doesn’t matter. Accuracy does.
Various Ancestry Ethnicity Versions Compared to Proven Genealogy
I created a chart that reflects the three Ancestry ethnicity versions as compared to my proven genealogy.
For the current version, I also included the ranges as provided by Ancestry.
As you can see, generally, the results are much more accurate, but the regions are also fairly broad which makes accuracy easier to achieve.
Until this current version, Ancestry didn’t show any Germanic, but now the Germanic estimate is exact at 25%. The Germanic range is also very tight at 24-26%, right where it should be.
The England, Wales & Northeast Europe category is somewhat high, but that could be accurate because I do have some ancestry that is unknown.
Unfortunately, my Native is proven, both through Y and mtDNA and by triangulating the Native segments to others descending from the same Native ancestors. That portion is now missing in my Ancestry ethnicity.
Ancestry V1 Test Versus the V2 Test
For the record, I’m using my Ancestry V1 test because I’ve used that test version for all previous ethnicity comparisons. My Ancestry V2 test ethnicity results are approximately the same, as follows:
- England, Wales and Northeast Europe – 76%
- Germanic – 22%
- Ireland and Scotland – 2%
The same tree is attached to both tests.
On my V2 test, which I seldom use, I had to answer a couple of question regarding my expectations about ethnicity testing changes and how accurate my previous results were perceived to be before I could access my updated results.
In Ancestry’s FAQ, they provided this list of how the regions were and are defined.
|Previous Region||New Regions|
|Iberian Peninsula||Spain, Portugal, Basque|
|Europe South||Italy, Greece and the Balkans, Sardinia|
|Europe East||Baltic States, Eastern Europe and Russia|
|Caucasus||Turkey and the Caucasus, Iran/Persia|
|Europe West||Germanic Europe, France|
|Native American||Native America—North, Central, South; Native America—Andean|
|Asia South||Southern Asia, Western and Central India, Balochistan, Burusho|
|Asia East||Japan, Korea and Northern China, China, Southeast Asia—Dai (Tai), Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Philippines|
Ancestry has addressed lots of other questions in their FAQ as well, and I suggest taking a look. I particularly like their comment, “Some places are complicated.” Indeed, that’s true with population churn both in historical times along with unknown pre-history and that complexity is exactly what makes intra-continental ethnicity estimates so difficult. Of course, people whose ancestors are from Europe, for example, want as much granularity as possible.
Previous Ethnicity Versions
For the first time, Ancestry explains what happened between versions, at least at a high level.
Click on the little “i” in the upper right hand corner of your ethnicity estimate box.
You’ll see more information.
Click on “View Previous Estimate” at the bottom.
Your previous ethnicity estimate is shown.
To see how your estimate changed, click on “Compare these results to your most recent Ancestry DNA estimate.”
This display shows you the differences compared to the previous version. In my case, England, Wales and NE Europe increased by 69%, but that’s because Ancestry redefined the regions. Note the little slide box underneath the regions on the map. You can slide back and forth from previous to current (update.).
I do wish Ancestry had told us where the “Scandinavian” went, what category it fell into. Are those segments, as a group, included in another region? Was the previous estimate simply flat out wrong? Was Scandinavian a vestige of Vikings who invaded much of Europe? What happened?
New Regions and Reference Samples
By clicking on “See other regions tested” at the bottom of your Ethnicity Estimate box, you can view the locations of Ancestry’s current reference populations.
The regions tested in which you have results are colored, and the regions where you aren’t showing results are shades of grey. This is an improvement over the previous version which people routinely misinterpreted to mean that they had results in those tested regions.
In my opinion, the best feature of the combined ethnicity and Genetic Communities is the combined mapping. For example, the screenshot below combines the ethnicity regions with the ancestors from my tree who immigrated from that region in that timeframe.
By clicking on the 1700 box, the people from that time period in my tree are displayed. I can enlarge the map to make the display larger, until finally individual “people” icons are displayed, as shown with Johann Peter Koehler, below. Clicking on the individual person pin shows that individual in the box at right.
By clicking on the “Lower Midwest and Virginia Settlers,” I see this region and Ancestry tells me where those settlers likely originated.
You can then scroll down to the bottom of the information box where you see “Ancestry DNA Members.”
Click on the 1000+ link and you will then see the people who match you in a specific region or migration.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t always accurate. My 2nd cousin match is showing as a “Lower Midwest and Virginia” match and our ancestors came from the Netherlands directly to Northern Indiana. Ironically, she shows up in three of the 4 regions I can select from. This feature is not 100%, but it’s still nice to be able to see where that match is grouped in terms of ethnicity and Genetic Communities, according to Ancestry.
Given this combined functionality, I do wonder if Ancestry’s new ethnicity isn’t simply population genetics, but a combination of population genetics, ancestors in my tree, my matches and corresponding DNA Circles with their associated history. If so, that would make sense, both in terms of what I’m seeing as my new ethnicity results and the map functionality as well. Could that be where my Germanic came from, and why it’s so precise at 25% which matches by tree exactly?
For me, Ancestry’s ethnicity estimates are significantly improved with the exception that my Native disappeared. I’ve worked long and hard on the Native aspect of my genealogy, and I know that part of my ethnicity mix is valid. However, that is a very small percentage overall (about 2%), and the combined improvements certainly outshine that one negative.
Of course, your mileage may vary. What are you seeing in terms of your new ethnicity estimates as compared to your known genealogy? Better? Worse? Did you lose any categories that you know are valid? What about small amounts of minority heritage?
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