In the last few days, Ancestry completed a rollout of an ethnicity update. For many customers, this is the first update since they tested – and the shocked, surprised, happy and unhappy commentary began immediately.
I’m receiving a lot of questions, including people who are doubting paternity based on ethnicity. In a word – DON’T.
Ethnicity is the tool that encouraged many people to test via ads promising to tell you who you are. Consumers perhaps had unrealistic expectations about their results.
I was seriously upset when Ancestry posted my first ethnicity results in 2012 stating that I had 12% Scandinavian, when I don’t have any. 12% isn’t “noise,” it’s equivalent to one great-grandparent – and I know who all of my great-grandparents are, confirmed by DNA, and where they were. No Scandinavians among them.
Make no mistake, I used to get excited, upset, or both. I was outraged in 2012, here, but not any longer. I’ve adjusted my expectations.
I understand what’s really going on, meaning that ethnicity is a great feel-good sales tool (queue up the music), but does not have the ability to predict ethnicity accurately beyond the continental level (Europe, Africa, Asia), plus Native American and Jewish.
Companies continually try to refine ethnicity estimates by:
- adding reference populations
- mining their own customer data
- taking advantage of academic research that may provide more and better tools
Consumers crave country or region-level specificity, but the technology today can’t deliver that, and maybe never will.
I discussed this in the article, Ethnicity is Just an Estimate – Yes Really!, which I illustrated by showing states in the US overlayed over Europe. No one would expect a company to be able to tell the difference between Indiana and Illinois residents, but for some reason, we expect differentiation between Germany and France. Or maybe we’re just hopeful!
That said, here is the graphic of my new Ancestry ethnicity results.
Along with the percentages.
I remember the first time I received an ethnicity result. I was INCREDIBLY excited – even though it turned out to be highly inaccurate.
Now, as then, ethnicity is ONLY AN ESTIMATE.
Let me say that again.
ETHNICITY IS ONLY AN ESTIMATE
Your ethnicity percentages at all the vendors are going to change, sometimes for the “better” and sometimes for the “worse.”
Of course, better and worse are terms defined by every person individually based on family stories, research or even just perceptions.
How Can You Determine Accuracy?
Years ago, I assembled a chart of what my expected ethnicity would be based on my known and proven family tree. You can read about how I did that in conjunction with my search for my Native American heritage in the article Revealing American Indian and Minority Heritage Using Y-line, Mitochondrial, Autosomal and X Chromosomal Testing Data Combined with Pedigree Analysis.
Understand that while each person inherits half of their DNA from each parent – we don’t inherit exactly half of their ancestor’s DNA that our parents carry. We might get 20% from one grandparent and 30 from another – totaling the 50% of our DNA inherited from one parent. So population level DNA isn’t going to be passed down in equal chunks in every generation either – but determining where your ancestors are actually from is the first step in setting expectations realistically.
Of course, this only works for genealogists who have already invested time into creating and documenting a family tree.
Comparing expected ethnicity to ethnicity estimates can be enlightening for everyone.
Here’s the chart I created showing various Ancestry updates beginning in 2012 through the current 2019 update, today. My “expected” percentage of DNA is shown in the Genealogy % column.
Note that my Scandinavian is “worse” at 15% than the original 2012 estimate at 12% – especially given that I have no Scandinavian ancestors. It had dropped to 0 in 2018.
The British Isles is about right. Western Europe is low, but if you combine Scandinavia with western Europe, that would be about right.
Ancestry vacillates back and forth on my Native. Now you see it, now you don’t. Those segments are proven through 23andMe’s ethnicity segment painting along with Y and mitochondrial DNA from those ancestral lines.
It’s worth noting that many companies provide ranges of DNA, with what’s expected to be the “most accurate” shown.
In a few days, I’ll share my results from all of the companies so you can take a look at the differences between companies.
Ok, so what now?
- A great discussion at the holiday table (and much safer than politics)
- An entry level test that will hopefully encourage at least some people to become interested in genealogy
- Not to be taken terribly seriously, seriously
- To be taken with a very large grain, up to the entire lick of salt
- A wonderful way to introduce the topic of family stories to people who might not otherwise be interested
- A great way to distinguish between continental level DNA, and matches, if you’re lucky enough to be admixed in this way
- NEVER to be used to doubt parentage
- To be viewed as an “entertainment value” test
Ethnicity IS NOT
- Ever a reliable predictor of parentage
- Confirmation of minority ancestry without additional research
- Disproof of minority ancestry without additional research
- A shortcut in lieu of genealogy research
- A reason to dismiss, or believe, a family story
Ummm – About Parentage
Regarding parentage – ethnicity testing can’t tell you any more about your parentage that your eyes looking in a mirror. People with known Italian parents, for example, show no Italian ethnicity – even when the matches to their Italian family are confirmed.
If you have ethnicity from multiple continents, by the time you can no longer see that visually – the percentage is too low for ethnicity to be able to help you reliably. Keep in mind that we can visually see continental admixture at the 25% level, and Ancestry gave me 15% Scandinavian ethnicity which I don’t have in reality. That’s more than the expected 12.5% of a great-grandparent.
Also remember that we often see what we are looking for. If I look long enough and hard enough in the mirror, I could see those Vikings😊
Why Do the Companies Produce Ethnicity Estimates?
If these results need to be taken with a grain, or maybe a lick of salt, then why do the companies continue to produce ethnicity estimates?
- Plain and simple, because consumers want them
- Ethnicity sells DNA tests (have you seen those ads?)
- Testers are enchanted with the results
- Ethnicity results engage consumers, making more people want to test “just to see”
- Ethnicity updates bring people back to sign in to their account and check their results again
For some companies, ethnicity is the gateway (drug) for selling subscriptions to search for those ancestors whose tales are told, or hinted at, through ethnicity results. Don’t think “gateway drug” like it’s a bad thing.
For all of us, ethnicity is a way for many people to stick their collective toes in the genealogy water – in a place where we can see that they exist. Even if they never create a tree or answer a message – for some, who can figure out who they are – just the fact that they are IN the data base helps us to place other matches accurately.
There’s always hope that we can introduce ethnicity testers to the wonderful world of genealogy. I always offer to share. I was a beginner once too, as we all were.
You can obtain ethnicity results from any of the major testing vendors, including:
You can also transfer your DNA to GedMatch to obtain other estimates using their admix tools.
If you’d like to read more about ethnicity results, I recommend the following article that explains what goes on under the hood, so to speak, and how estimates are created:
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