Ancestry has been rolling out their new DNA ethnicity results over the past couple of weeks. By now, pretty much all customers have updated results.
When you sign on and click on your DNA tab, you’ll see a message at the top that tells you whether you have new results or they are coming soon.
I wrote about how ethnicity results are calculated in the article, Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum. You might want to take a minute and read the article because it applies to methods generally and is not specific to any one vendor.
Ethnicity analysis is quite accurate at the continental level, plus Jewish, but less so within continents like Europe. Your results will vary from vendor to vendor and from update to update with the same vendor over time.
To be very clear, your DNA doesn’t change – and neither does your genealogy, obviously – but the evaluation methods used by various vendors change as more people test, reference populations grow, and the vendors improve their algorithms.
Of course, “improve” is subjective. Changes that “improve” one person’s results have the exact opposite effect on other people.
The Eye of the Beholder
Every time vendors release new population or ethnicity results, everyone runs to check. Then – queue up either “they finally got it right” or teeth gnashing! 😊
Everyone hopes for “better” results – but expectations vary widely and how people determine what “better” means to them is quite subjective.
So yes, the accuracy of the results is truly in the eye of the beholder and often related to how much genealogy they’ve actually done. Surprises in your genealogy can equal surprises in your ethnicity too.
First, let’s be very clear – you do NOT inherit exactly half of the DNA of each of your distant ancestors in each generation. So you might have NO DNA of an ancestor several generations back in time and multiple segments contributed by another ancestor in the same generation. I wrote about how inheritance actually works in the article, Concepts: Inheritance.
Obviously, if you don’t carry a specific ancestor’s DNA, you also don’t carry any genetic markers for any portion of their ethnic heritage either.
The best you can do in terms of ancestral ethnicity percentage expectations is to methodically analyze your tree for the geographic and ethnic heritage of your ancestors.
I explained how I calculated realistic ethnicity estimate percentages in the article, Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages.
In summary, I made a spreadsheet of my 64 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, each of which, if the DNA was divided in exactly half and passed to the next generation, would contribute 1.56% of my DNA.
Vendors can typically measure geographically-associated DNA less than 1%. At some point, however, the segments are simply too small to reliably identify and associate with a geographic location or population.
Over time, how different vendors refer to and label different parts of the world both vary and change.
Region Names and Ancestral Assignment
I created a spreadsheet where I track both my “expected” DNA based on my genealogy and the amount of reported DNA from that region by each vendor. As I added vendor results, I sometimes had to add categories since their categories aren’t exactly the same as mine. You’ll observe this in the following sections.
You might notice the “inferred” category. I wrote about this in the Calculating Ethnicity Percentages article, but the inferred locations stem from situations like an unknown wife of a man who is living in England or Germany. We can probably infer that they are from that same country.
In the US, an earlier era spouse’s ethnicity might be inferred from marrying a Scot’s-Irish person, living in a Scots-Irish community or being a member of a Scots-Irish church, for example. Chances are very high that a Scots-Irish man’s wife is also from the “British Isles” someplace.
When creating my spreadsheet, I was intentionally conservative in my genealogical estimates.
Ancestry Update in General
Are there any trends or themes in this most recent Ancestry update? As a matter of fact, yes.
Everybody’s Scottish it seems. I hope you didn’t trade your kilt in for that liederhosen a few years ago, because it looks like you just might need that kilt again.
In fact, Ancestry wrote a blog article about why so many people now have Scotland as an ethnicity location, or have a higher percentage if they already showed Scotland before. I had to laugh, because let me summarize the net-net of the Ancestry article for you, the British Isles is “all mixed up,” meaning highly admixed of course. That’s pretty much the definition of my genealogy!
Another theme is that many testers have Scandinavian origins again.
Back in 2012, Ancestry had a “Scandinavian problem,” and pretty much everyone was Scandinavian in that release, even if they had nary a drop of Scandinavian ancestry. And no, not every person has an unknown paternity event and if they did, the Scandinavians cannot possibly be responsible for all of them. The Viking prowess was remarkable, but not THAT remarkable.
Eight years later, Scandinavian is back.
So, how did Ancestry do on my percentages?
Well, I’m Not Scottish…
In the greatest of ironies, I now show no Scottish at all. My calculations show 5.46%, and it’s probably higher because I descend from Scots-Irish that I can’t place in a location.
I guess I need to turn in my Campbell tartan along with a few others.
I do, however, have Norway back again, but no Scandinavian genealogy.
This chart shows all of the Ancestry updates over time, including this latest, plus a range column for this update.
In addition to the 2020 percentage numbers, I’ve included the ranges shown by Ancestry in the far right column for the 2020 update.
When viewing your own results, be sure to click on the right arrow for a population to view the range.
You’ll be able to view the range and additional information.
In this case, Ancestry is confident that I have at least 35% DNA from England & Northwest Europe, and perhaps as much as 41%.
You’ll note that my range for the questionable Scandinavia is 0-5. The only two ethnicities that have ranges that do not include zero are England & Northwestern Europe and Germanic Europe.
I know that I have Native American heritage and that it’s reflected in my ethnicity – or should be.
23andMe results, below, shows me the chromosome locations of Native American segments, and when I track those segments back in time, they track to the ancestors in the Acadian population known to have married Native American partners as reflected in church records. Those ancestors were proven as Native through Y and mitochondrial DNA of their descendants which you can view in the Acadian AmerIndian DNA Project, here.
I wrote about using ethnicity segments identified at 23andMe with DNAPainter to triangulate ancestors in the article, Native American and Minority Ancestors Identified Using DNAPainter Plus Ethnicity Segments.
For me personally, including my Native heritage in my ethnicity results is important. I can’t “do” anything much with that at Ancestry, other than view my match’s shared ethnicity. Since my Native heritage doesn’t show at Ancestry, I can’t use it at all genetically.
Why is this important? Looking at a match on my Acadian line and seeing that we share at least some Native heritage MIGHT, just MIGHT be a hint about a common ancestor. Of course, that’s just a clue, because we might both be native from different sources. If my Native ethnicity is missing at Ancestry, I can’t do that. It’s worth noting that in 2017, Ancestry did report my Native heritage and other vendors do as well.
23andMe provides detailed, downloadable, segment information that translates into useful genealogical information. FamilyTreeDNA has announced that they will be providing ethnicity segment information as well after their new myOrigins release.
The Big 4
How do the Big 4 vendors stack up relative to my genealogy and ethnicity?
And for Native American heritage?
I took the liberty of highlighting which vendor is the closest to my estimated genealogy percentages, but want to remind you that these percentages will only be exactly accurate if the DNA is passed exactly in half in each generation, which doesn’t happen. Therefore, my genealogy is an educated estimate as well. Still, the results shouldn’t be WAY off.
An appropriate sanity check would be that my genealogy analysis and the DNA ethnicity results are relatively close. Many people think they are a lot more of something because those are the family stories they heard – but when they do the analysis, they realize that they might expect a different mixture. For example, my aunt told me that my paternal grandmother’s Appalachian family line was German and Jewish – and they are neither. However, German and Jewish lived in my head for a long time and that was what I initially expected to find.
Both MyHeritage and Family Tree DNA are slated to release new versions of their population genetics tools – so you’ll be seeing new estimates from both vendors “soon.” Both announced at RootsTech they would deliver new results later in the year, and while I don’t have a release date for either vendor – keep in mind that both FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage have brought new labs online from scratch in record time in a humanitarian effort to fight Covid. This critically important work has assuredly interrupted their development schedules. You can read about that here and here.
Kudos to both vendors. Ethnicity can wait.
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