This is the first article in a 3-part series focusing on your DNA results:
- Disappointed with Your DNA Ethnicity Estimates?
- Solving Mysteries Using Your DNA Results (coming soon)
- How to – Delicately – Approach a New-Found Relative (coming soon)
Finding out about our ethnic roots is all the rage these days, thanks in large part to massive Christmas sales on DNA kits and compelling and emotional videos put out by companies like Ancestry.com. The ads tease us, hinting at the possibility of intriguing or shocking surprises in your background: maybe you’re not as German as you think; maybe you have African roots. Or maybe you’ll simply gain a deeper understanding of yourself by knowing your ethnic heritage.
But the ads are incredibly misleading – they don’t touch on the inaccuracy of these ethnicity tests. And they unfortunately don’t advertise where the true accuracy and power of the tests lie.
Still, it’s hard to not get caught up in the excitement and so people buy tests, spit in tubes and anxiously await results. The fine print on the DNA tests warns of possibly “uncomfortable” results, but how many people actually read the fine print? [side note: read the fine print!]
The truth is, it’s not uncommon to receive results that are much more than just uncomfortable, and they may have nothing at all to do with your ethnicity. But your results might also bring surprisingly happy news. More about that in the next post…
Let’s stick to ethnicity estimates for a minute. Let me tell you about my mother’s reaction when she saw her results: she was both elated and disappointed; shocked and unsurprised.
Her AncestryDNA results told her that she’s 94% French, which was pretty much exactly what she expected, having deep roots in Québec, Canada. Traditional research had already found that almost all of her lines extend back at least a couple of hundred years in Québec and prior to that, France. She’s a very proud Québécoise, so this was happy news.
My Dad, on the other hand, was born in England, with no French roots at all (you can imagine some of the dinner conversations around our table while I was growing up…)
So when my Mum saw that I was only 16% French and my sister just 22% French, she was shocked. And sad. My poor Mum. She called me up: “I’m feeling very disappointed that both you and your sister inherited more DNA from your father than from me”.
Her reaction is, of course, incredibly logical. If I inherited 50% of her DNA, we’d expect to see 47% French in my blood, at a minimum. Same for my sister.
And this is where a very, very large grain of salt comes into play. Remember! These results are exactly what they say they are: ESTIMATES. They make for great dinner conversation, but can’t be relied upon as concrete evidence.
If you have no idea what your ethnic background is (this may be the case if you were adopted), then your results may be useful by pointing you in a direction for further research. If you have a significant amount of a particular heritage, particularly at a continental level, that’s not something to ignore. But otherwise, don’t sweat the small stuff.
European ethnicity results are especially tricky – not only was there a lot of movement between regions over the centuries, but in my case, my Dad gave me a lot of “England, Wales & Northwestern Europe”, which from AncestryDNA’s point of view, just so happens to also include quite a bit of northern France:
So maybe a portion of my DNA that AncestryDNA labelled as “England, Wales & Northwestern Europe” was actually from my mother and should fall into the France category. If you dig deeper into how exactly these companies calculate ethnicity estimates, you’ll learn how complex these programs are and how they sometimes smooth out results, lumping bits of DNA into a neighbouring region. So rather than focus on a specific region, look at your results from a continental point of view.
The September 2018 update was also the first time that AncestryDNA gave France its own category instead of being lumped into “Europe West”. AncestryDNA themselves advise to expect changes in their predictions in future updates and I expect to see more of France in my results at that time, which should make my Mum pretty happy.
Roberta Estes, genealogy guru, created some wonderful graphics that really show why it’s so difficult to determine ethnicity at anything less than the continental level.
More Than Just an Ethnicity Analysis: DNA Can Help Solve Mysteries!
Now, there’s another side to your DNA results that can potentially expose more than just your ethnicity. And this side of DNA testing is accurate. Your DNA might help solve a long-standing family mystery, or help an adoptee find their birth family, or it may uncover deep, possibly dark, family secrets. And this can affect not just you, but your immediate family.
Back to my Mum’s results: in addition to her ethnicity estimate, my mother’s DNA connected her to a previously unknown, very close relative who had taken the test simply to find out about her heritage. She, and as a result her immediate family also, ended up finding out a lot more than they bargained for. It wasn’t particularly happy news for them. On the other hand, this new relative’s results helped me to solve a 100-year-old mystery within my family. Ethnicity had nothing do with solving this case, but the puzzle pieces couldn’t have been linked together without DNA testing. My next post will walk through the steps of how I solved that mystery…
To learn more about how AncestryDNA calculated ethnicity in their latest September 2018 update, check out these articles:
- Roberta Estes’s Summary of the 2018 Update
- Blaine Bettinger, The Genetic Genealogist’s article: AncestryDNA Revises Ethnicity Estimates
- AncestryDNA’s Ethnicity Estimate 2018 White Paper [PDF]
- Family History Fanatics’ YouTube video: Understanding Ethnicity Part 2: Admixture Algorithms – DNA and Genealogy [~5 minutes]
Sources:1. “Ethnicity FAQ,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/cs/dna-help/ethnicity/faq : accessed 12 December 2018).