Want Ancestor-Specific Ethnicity? Test Mitochondrial DNA

Recently, someone’s mitochondrial DNA test revealed that their ancestor was from Africa, but that person had no African heritage showing in their autosomal results or revealed in their genealogy.

They wondered how this was possible and which test was “wrong.” The answer is that neither test is wrong.

Mitochondrial DNA is important EXACTLY for this reason. It does not divide with inheritance, while autosomal DNA does and eventually disappears entirely.

Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from our direct matrilineal line – our mother – her mother – on up the tree directly through all mothers.

If you need a refresher, the article, 4 Kinds of DNA for Genetic Genealogy shows how different types of DNA are inherited from our ancestors.

Mitochondrial DNA and Ethnicity

Let’s look specifically at mitochondrial DNA ethnicity as compared to autosomal ethnicity.

In the chart above, an African ancestor (or ancestor of any ethnicity) who was the only ancestor of that ethnicity in your heritage is shown at the top – your five times great-grandmother. Using a 25-year generation, their autosomal DNA would have been admixed with partners of a different ethnicity 7 times between them and you.

Of course, that means the autosomal DNA of that ancestor would have been divided in (roughly) half 7 times.

Percent of Inherited Autosomal DNA

In the Percent of Inherited Autosomal DNA column, we look at it from your perspective. In other words, of the 100% of your ethnicity, stepping back each generation we can see how much of that particular ancestor you would carry. You carry 50% of your mother, 25% of your grandmother, and so forth.

You inherited approximately 0.78% of your GGGGG-Grandmother’s autosomal DNA, less than 1%.

If she was 100% African, then that 0.78% would be the only African autosomal DNA of hers that you carry, on average. You could carry a little less or a little more. We know that you don’t actually inherit exactly half of each of your ancestors’ DNA from your parents, nor they from their parents, so we can only use averages in that calculation.

Ancestral Percent Autosomal Ethnicity

In the Ancestral Percent Autosomal Ethnicity column, we look at it from the ancestor’s perspective.

Of your GGGGG-Grandmother’s 100% African ethnicity, how much would each subsequent generation be expected to inherit of that ethnicity, on average?

You would inherit 0.78% of that ancestor’s DNA. Given that GGGGG-Grandma was 100% African in this example, you would carry 0.78% African ethnicity.

Percent Mitochondrial DNA Inherited

Now, look at the Percent of Mitochondrial DNA Inherited column. Your African GGGGG-Grandmother’s mitochondrial DNA was 100% African in her generation, 7 generations ago, and still is 100% African in you, today.

That’s the beauty of mitochondrial DNA. It’s a forever record – never divided and never washes away.

How else would you EVER figure out her African roots today without records? Even if you did inherit a small amount of autosomal African DNA, and the vendor reported less than 1%, how would you determine which ancestor that African DNA came from, or when?

Not to mention trying to figure out if less than 1% or any small amount of reported ethnicity is a legitimate finding or “noise.”

What about if you, like my friend, carried no African autosomal DNA from that ancestor? There would be nothing to report in your autosomal ethnicity results – but your mitochondrial DNA would still tell the story of your African ancestor. Even after that trace is long gone in autosomal DNA.

Mitochondrial DNA is MUCH more reliable for each specific line in determining the “ethnicity” or biogeographical ancestry of each ancestor. I wrote about how to use your mitochondrial DNA haplogroup, here.

Discovering Your Forever Record

Everyone can test for their own mitochondrial DNA, and you can test other family members for their matrilineal lines as well. For example, your father or his siblings carry the mitochondrial DNA of his mother. You get the idea.

I record the mitochondrial haplogroup of each of my lines in my genealogy records and on their WikiTree profile card so others can share – now and in the future.

Genealogy research of female ancestors is less difficult with at least “one” record that reaches back where surnames and autosomal DNA don’t and can’t.

What will your mitochondrial “forever history” reveal?

Mitochondrial DNA tests are on sale this week for Mother’s Day – click here to upgrade or purchase.



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29 thoughts on “Want Ancestor-Specific Ethnicity? Test Mitochondrial DNA

  1. It’s unfortunate for all the other descendants who had that line go through a male ancestor along the way. They may never know about this unexpected ancestry. Gaining that kind of insight from mtDNA is a lucky break.

  2. A friend’s mother was born in India to British parents. School records showed her great-grandmother and the GGM’s mother as ‘Eurasian’ indicating Indian ancestry.

    This ancestry was not reflected in his mother’s autosomal ethnicity estimate, but her mitochondrial haplogroup is specific to Northern India.

  3. My mtDNA originated in North Africa (Morocco and Spain). Initially, my autosomal results showed traces of North and East African ancestry, but after two ethnicity updates, those traces disappeared. As you illustrate in your chart, my African ancestors were many generations away from me.

  4. My maternal grandparents were from Poland and my paternal grandparents were from Lithuania yet My Heritage shows 1.2% Nigerian for me. Is that just noise?

    • There’s no real way to know. Have you tested at or transferred to other vendors to see if it shows up there too?

  5. Since I have taken the full mitochondrial test, does that cover all the female descendants of my grandmother’s daughters thus they have no need to do the test? I am aware that sons would inherit her mitochondria but cannot pass it on.

    • Yes, unless you have a heteroplasmy or unusual mutation which might cause you to have very few or no matches.

  6. With the full mtDNA test, if I have a heteroplasmy, will all of my GD=0 matches have the same heteroplasmy or are those left out of the calculation?.

  7. LivingDNA generated an mtDNA result for me of j1c3j. FTDNA showed this as a terminal subclade on the public tree – with 90% of the locations being central Europe, with 2 in UK and 2 in Ireland. My gggg gm was probably born in Ireland in the late 18th century; records are scarce with the first record being a baptism in 1814 in Tipperary.

    I wonder how the mtDNA travelled from central Europe to Ireland…

  8. As always, Roberta, you explain things so clearly! In this instance, there is a good bit of misconception that an autosomal ethnicity profile is the end all. I think that sometimes the marketing approach of some DNA testing companies makes things worse. That said, I just forwarded this article to a couple of people who will undoubtedly appreciate it.

    With regards to “losing” an mtDNA heritage via a male line, I use a tagging system in my database that allows me to track all descendants of a specific mtDNA matriarch, distinguishing between the direct matrilineal line and the “indirect” dispersion of that heritage. It’s a bit arduous but once you generate a chart, it’s amazing to discover connections you may never have suspected.

    Thank you!

    • That’s an interesting approach. In my software at home I use the haplogroup as a middle name, or second middle name. What do you do?

      • Roberta,
        Very interesting article as usual, but what found kind of crazy on myself is when I first took a DNA test at Family…never had African DNA what so ever and when I did my Brother he had a trace but since that test of which now has changed when it comes to ethnic backgrounds because that trace my brother had is now none existent. When we did the Ancestry DNA test nothing there but had discovered that a biological cousin on my Father’s Biological family had a trace of African DNA but as Ancestry did updates to their DNA ethnic backgrounds changed this Cousin’s African DNA went away, but now that I uploaded to My Heritage me and my Brother’s DNA results from Family Tree when they did the free uploads my ethnic backgrounds shows North African DNA of 4.2% and 0.9% Nigerian and my Brother didn’t show any so explain how could this be possible because it never showed up in any otherof the DNA tests I have done and I haven’t even done a mitochondria test yet…thinking about doing an upgrade to my Mom since she already has a Family Finder in Family Tree to get her Halogroup.
        To top it off I even uploaded my Mom’s results from Family Tree to My Heritage and she has no trace whatsoever…so is it possible that this comes from my Biological Grandfather’s Maternal lines? I did definitely see a change in my Brother’s upload to My Heritage in fact it listed as 1.3% Mesoamerican and Andean so does this mean Native American in my Brother’s ethnic backgrounds too? I am baffled and consumed with so many possibilities. Can you put this in layman’s terms as to not flyover the top of my head…my curiosity is definitely killing the cat on this one..
        Lol 😆🤣.
        Thanks for article definitely have re-read again.


        Cindy Carrasco

        • Ethnicity is only an estimate. Small amounts can be noise. Ethnicity estimates are not MyHeritages’s strongest area. In order, I trust 23andMe and FTDNA about the same, then Ancestry and MyHeritage. But each version changes with all vendors so I would not worry too much about it.

    • I’ve do e that. I’ve tracked my U6a7a1b and v7a (maternal grandfather’s mother) lineages and discovered two new 3rd cousins! I’m related to their fathers but somehow I’m also connected to their mothers in some u known way

  9. I just went to my mtDNA results looking for this ethnicity information (I’ve only ever looked at my matches). What am I looking for? Ancestral Origins?

    • Or Haplogroup Origins, or the public map which shows countries. Did you see last week’s article about how to use your haplogroup and what it means?

      • I hadn’t seen it, no. Thanks for pointing me there, it cleared up a lot of confusion and then as I scrolled way down, my eyes rolled up and I had to stop reading LOL. I can only handle just so much of that technical stuff. I’m glad you’ve got a higher tolerance for it than I do.

  10. I think it worth noting that while 23andMe shows ethnicity at tenths of a percentage, Ancestry.com and FTDNA (MyOrigins) do not, showing only full percentages. So in your example, the 5th-great grandmother at .78% would not appear.

    My 23and Me test from years ago showed (and still does) 0.6 percentage of Native American that does not appear on Ancestry.com nor FTDNA. I had uploaded to GEDmatch to find the stretch of cMs on chromosome 15 reflecting this heritage and verified its existence. Since then I found my Native ancestor, an 8th-great grandmother, Marie-Olivier Manitouabeouich, an Algonquin girl who married a French immigrant to Quebec in 1644. That her DNA has survived recombination since then still amazes me. As you point out, it’s a questions of averages, and some cMs are sticky and survive recombination while others do not. Of course your article highlights the fact that had she been a matrilineal ancestor, my mtDNA haplogroup would be 100% Native American, not 0.6%

  11. What a great article, Roberta! It hits home for me, that is amazing. Last month, one of my classmates asked me about mtDNA and if it was worth it to spend the $ on it. She said she thought I was Latino because of my olive skin color.

    Your article I read today, all of a sudden, made sense to me! For some previously unknown to me reason, her question had me studying my mtDNA matches surnames and the info gleaned from the contact person. I have more Italian and Spanish mtDNA matches on record then I do from my small amounts of United Kingdom. I’ve met 3 of my mother’s sisters, done DNA on one Aunt and 3 first cousins, but also did mtDNA on my aunt. All my cousins and aunts were so very pale skin colored compared to me.

    Great info, thank you!

  12. Hello, Roberta,
    My father’s family has had a ‘mystery’ all our lives – my paternal grandfather.
    Suffice it to say that prior to his marriage to our grandmother, in 1919, he is a complete blank. He admitted to having changed his name and that the name our family grew up with is not the name he was born with. He gave no reason for this change, just that he did it.
    He claimed 100% Native American heritage, but very few tribes (what I understand), have a database to compare to. The area he claims to come from had all records destroyed in severe flooding in 1900.
    He claimed not to know when he was born… but certain stories compared to historic fact would place his birth in the late 1870’s to early 1880’s. We do know that he had 2 older brothers, but no names or locations to go with that information.

    I just submitted a Family Tree DNA, one cousin just received results on an Ancestry test, and another cousin has done both Ancestry and 23andMe. (NOTE: The last is a double-first cousin – my mother’s brother married my father’s sister)….We are all female … and I believe all tests were mtDNA ….

    My question – What comparisons could we possibly find that might give a clue to our grandfather’s identity? Anything?

    • You’ll want to use Genetic Affairs clustering. That will cluster your matches into groups. Three of the primary 4 or so you should recognize.

      • Hello, Roberta,
        I’m am curious about the odds here… My direct 1st cousin recently received her Ancestry DNA results. Her father and my father are brothers, and their father was the ‘Mystery’ I spoke of in my previous post.
        My cousin – female – has done extensive work on both of her Mother’s lines and our mutual Grandmother…
        So far in her matches – out to 8th cousins – EVERY DNA match goes to someone in one of the 3 lines she has researched…. there does not seem to be a 4th line at all… she is still looking …. but doesn’t that seem to be a bit odd? Even on a mytocondrial (Family) DNA?
        I’m confused
        Thank you,
        Myra Bowling

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