Ethnicity – Far More than Percentages!

Since ethnicity results have been in the news recently, I thought this might be a good time to talk about how to squeeze more out of your ethnicity results than just percentages.

You do know there’s more, right? You can tell a lot more about where your ethnicity came from by who you match, and how. Vendors provide that information too, but you need to know where to look. Plus, I have some tips about how to use this information effectively.

Genealogists are always trying to squeeze every last drop of information out of every DNA test, so I’d like to illustrate how I use ethnicity in combination with shared matches at Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage and 23andMe. Each vendor has a few unique features and tools as well, plus people in their databases that other vendors don’t have.

Come along and see what you might discover!


Ancestry recently introduced a new ethnicity comparison feature so let’s start there. Ancestry’s new tool:

  • Compares the ethnicity of you and a match side by side.
  • Shows Shared Migrations
  • Shows you common matches with that person.

At Ancestry, I have a V1 (older) and a V2 (newer) test, so I’m comparing my own V1 to my own V2 test for purposes of illustration.

To start, click on DNA Matches. You’ll see a new blue compare button, beneath the green View Match button, at right.

Clink on any image to enlarge

Click on the blue Compare button. You’ll see a side by side display, shown below.

My V1, at left, compared to my V2 test, at right. My V2 test results do not have a photo uploaded, so you just see my initials. It’s interesting to note that even though these are both me, just tested on different chips, that my ethnicity doesn’t match exactly, although it’s mighty close.

Next, you’ll see the shared migrations between the two people being compared. This helps determine where your common ancestor might be found.

Last, you’ll see the shared matches between you and the other person. This means that those people match both you and the person you’re comparing against, suggesting a potential common ancestor.

On your matches page, you can also sort your matches by your regions.

Where Did Your Ethnicity Come From?

Ethnicity comparisons can be helpful, especially if you’re a person who carries DNA from different continents. I do not suggest trying to compare intra-continental estimates in the same way. It’s simply too difficult for vendors to separate DNA from locations that all border each other where countries are the size of states in the US, such as the Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland for example.

As I’ve said before, ethnicity results are only estimates, but they are relatively accurate at the continental level, plus Jewish, as illustrated below.

To be specific, these regions are the easiest for vendors to tell apart from the other regions:

  • European
  • African
  • Native American (North American, South American, Central American and Siberian in conjunction with the Americas)
  • Asian
  • Jewish

For example, if you are 30% African, 35% Native American and 35% European, you could use this information to form a hypothesis about how you match a particular individual or group of individuals.

If the person you match is 50% Asian and 50% African, it’s most likely that the region you match them on is the common African side.

Of course, the next step would be to look at the shared matches to see if those matches include your known relatives with African heritage. This is one reason I always encourage testing of relatives. Who you and your known relative both match tells you a lot about where the common ancestor of a matching group of individuals is found in your tree. For example, if someone matches you and a first cousin, then the common ancestor of the three people is on the side of your tree that you share with the first cousin.

Not exactly sure, or dealing with smaller amounts of continental ethnicity? There’s another way to work with ethnicity.

Ethnicity Match Chart

Make an Ethnicity Match Chart that includes the ethnicity of each person in the match group, as follows.

In this example, the only category in which all people fall is African, so that’s where I’d look in my tree first for a family connection.

Keep in mind that you match person 1, and people 2-4 match both you and person 1.

That does NOT mean that:

  • Person 2, 3 or 4 match each other.
  • Any of those people share the same ancestor with each other. Yes, you can match due to different ancestors that might not have anything to do with each other.
  • These people match on any of the same segments. You can’t view segments at Ancestry. You’ll have to transfer your results to Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage or GedMatch to do that.

Next, look at the trees for each person in the common match group and see if you can discern any common genealogy or even common geography. The best hints of course, at Ancestry, are those green leaf Shared Ancestor Hints. If you find a common ancestor or line, you’re well on your way to identifying how those people are related to you and potentially your match as well.

You could also use this methodology as an adaptation of or in tandem with the Leeds Method that I wrote about here.

Comparing Segments – Yes, You’ll Need To

Ancestry doesn’t offer a chromosome browser, but Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe and GedMatch all do, allowing you to view segments and triangulate. I always suggest uploading Ancestry results to GedMatch, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage. 23andMe does not accept uploads.

You’ll find instructions for downloading from Ancestry here, uploading to Family Tree DNA here, and to MyHeritage here.

Other Vendors

Each vendor offers their own version of ethnicity comparison. All vendors offer in common with (ICW) and shared match tools too, so you can create your Ethnicity Match Chart for a specific group of people from any vendor’s results – although I don’t mix vendor results on one chart. Plus, every vendor has people in their matching database that no other vendor has, so fish in every pond.

Family Tree DNA

Family Tree DNA offers shared ethnicity information on the myOrigins map. To view, click on MyOrigins, then on View MyOrigins Map.

Testers who opt in can view their ethnicity as compared to their matches’ ethnicity. You can also sort by ethnicity as well as use the pin function at bottom right to drop Y and mtDNA most distant ancestor pins on the map.

Please note that this is NOT where your match lives, but is the location of their most distant matrilineal (mtDNA) or patrilineal (surname) known individual.

If you’re looking for Native American matches, for example, you might look for someone with some percentage of Native American autosomal DNA and/or Native American Y or mitochondrial haplogroups. Click on any pin to view that person and their ethnicity that matches yours. You can also search for a specific individual to see how your ethnicity lines up.

On your match list, look for common surnames with those matches, see who you match in common and check your matches’ trees.

Linking your DNA matches to their location in your tree enables you to participate in Phased Family Matching, meaning you can then select people that are assigned to your maternal or paternal sides to view in the chromosome browser.

When viewing all maternal (red icon) or all paternal (blue icon) matches together on the chromosome browser, the segments are automatically mathematically triangulated. All you need to do is identify the common ancestor!

I love Phased Family Matches. Family Tree DNA is the only vendor to offer this feature and to incorporate Y and mitochondrial DNA.


MyHeritage provides multiple avenues for comparison, allowing users to select matches by their ethnicity, country or to simply compare their ethnicity to each other. To view matches by ethnicity, click on the Filter button, but note that not all ethnicity locations are included. You can also combine options, such as looking for anyone from the Netherlands with Nigerian DNA.

To view your matches ethnicity as compared to yours, click on the match and scroll down.

Look for people you match in common as well as the triangulation icon, shown at right, below. Another feature, SmartMatches (a filter option) sort for people who have common ancestors with you in trees.

I love triangulation and DNA SmartMatches and MyHeritage is the only vendor to offer this combination of tools!


At 23andMe, you can see your ethnicity beside that of your match by clicking on DNA Relatives, on the Ancestry tab, then click on the person you wish to compare to. In my case, I’ve also taken the V3 and V4 test at 23andMe, so I’m comparing to myself.

At 23andMe, you can view which portions of your segments are attributed to which ethnicity. Under the Ancestry tab, click Ancestry Composition and scroll down to view your Ancestry Composition Chromosome Painting.

You can see my Native American segments on chromosomes 1 and 2.

Click on Scientific Details, then scroll to the bottom to download your ethnicity raw data that includes the segment detail for the location of those specific segments.

Utilizing these chromosome and segment locations with any other vendor who supports a chromosome browser, and determining which side that ethnicity descends through allows you to identify matches who should also carry segments of that same ethnicity at that same location.

Here’s my Native segment on chromosome 2 from the download file. Remember, you have two copies of every chromosome – and in my case, only one of those copies on Chromosome 2 is Native. I know it’s from my mother, so anyone matching me on my maternal side at this location on chromosome 2 should also have a Native segment, and our common ancestor is the source of our common Native American heritage.

23andMe is the only vendor to identify ethnicity segments.

23andMe does show matches in common and common matching segments on the chromosome browser, but they don’t support trees.

Your Turn!

If you carry ethnicity from multiple continents (plus Jewish), what hints can you derive from using your ethnicity as a match tool?



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

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

22 thoughts on “Ethnicity – Far More than Percentages!

  1. Roberta. I tested at all three companies. Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe.
    I don’t have any grandparents in Italy or Greece. All I can think of this might have been a migration as I am mainly Western European.

    Family Tree DNA gave me Southeast Europe 21% and one of the other companies gave me 7% on Greece and Italy.

    • That’s why Europe is so difficult. Not only do these places butt up against each other, but the migration pattern is across all of them basically southeast to northwest. It’s very difficult to tease that apart.

      • One of my friends’ mother came out as 23% Greek/Italian Renaissance though her ancestors came from Belgium. Also got quite a bit of Irish too

  2. I only had one set of grandparents from Italy. My 21st great grandparents,Richard FitzAlan of Arundel and Alasia de Saluzzo. She was born Abt. 1271 in Saluzzo, Turin, Italy died 25 Sep 1292 in Arundel Castle, Sussex, England. My mother has a royal line from England to Virginia in the 1600’s.

  3. I see mention that we know accurately ethnicity by continent with the exception of Jewish. We can also see Jewish. Why is that ? I assume it is AJ, and not SJ or RJ.

  4. Roberta, My Native American is located at the same place, chromosome 2, as yours is.
    This result is also on 23 and me! I have French ancestors from Canada on my father’s side.

  5. My twin sister and I and my father are all tested on AncestryDNA v1 and FTDNA. My nephew has tested at 23andme.He recently noticed that he is 1/2% Sub-Saharan Africa. Checking on the rest of us, I found that we are all 1%, but only on AncestryDNA (a change from the earlier results which showed nothing in Africa). 23andMe shows two small segments on two different chromosomes. I can’t tell where the actual positions are but visually, they appear to be on segments that I have not mapped on DNAPainter. When I read 23andMe’s explanation, they state that the ethnic match is far from a universal characteristic; it is, instead the result of at least 5 people having it in the sampling database. I’m wondering if this is an anomaly, the result of all of use migrating out of Africa or if there might have been a European in the woodpile.

  6. If you carry primarily Eastern European Jewish ethnicity (as I do), what type of hints can you find using your ethnicity as a match tool?

    I wish I could trace the migration routes of my Jewish ancestors. All I know is where where my grandparents lived before they emigrated to the USA. Fortunately, I have a paper trail of my mother’s mother’s ancestors that goes back to the late 1700s in the Kiev region. My mtDNA result shows that my matrilineal ancestors were Sephardic Jews from Spain.

    • Unfortunately, for you there’s not much using ethnicity. You will have to focus on match groups with larger segments than normal. There is so much endogamy.

      • Absolutely yes! My maternal grandmother’s ancestors married first and second cousins. My great grandparents were second cousins.

  7. Roberta – thanks for posting this – Sadly, I would note that only a minor percentage of matches seem to show up on the Shared Origins list at FTDNA where they have to opt in, compared to Ancestry where they can choose to opt out. Sorting on Ethnicity could be particularly useful in a case like my friend’s, where she has a known Ashkenazi Jewish mother and an unknown African American biological father we are looking to identify. Being able to sort on the African column should be helpful, but unfortunately, only a handful of her matches have chosen to opt in.

    • GDPR states that special care has to be taken with ethnicity information, and that automatic opt-ins are not allowed. FTDNA has taken a conservative approach. It is unfortunate that more people don’t opt in. Perhaps displaying the feature more prominently would help.

  8. I just looked up my four 3rd and 4th cousins (all related through my mother’s mother) plus my strongest Family Finder match in the new chromosome browser. (By the way, the new chromosome browser is much improved.) My strongest FF match probably isn’t related to my mother’s mother’s side. I see exact matches on chromosome 6 for two of my cousins, similar matches on chromosome 17 for three of my cousins, and overlapping matches on chromosome 7 for two of my cousins. The fourth cousin has a huge match on my X chromosome but very little on the other chromosomes.

    Any guidance to interpreting these results? My mother’s mother ancestors were an endogamous Jewish family with a few intermarriages.

  9. Yes, those two cousins (LS and DS) match each other in 7 cM segments on three chromosomes. A third cousin (KP) partially matches them on two of the chromosomes but he has longer matches with me alone. The fourth cousin (an elderly woman from England) has a real long match on my X chromosome but she doesn’t match the other three cousins. We’re all related in the 3rd to 4th cousin range.

  10. Pingback: Ethnicity is Just an Estimate – Yes, Really! | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

Leave a Reply