September 18, 2020
One of my nieces took an autosomal DNA test a while ago. When I talked to her about it (hoping she was becoming more interested in genealogy), she said she only took the test because she was interested in seeing what her ethnicity was. She told me she didn’t care about learning anything else from the test.
I suspect that ethnicity is probably one of the main reasons that people take DNA tests, but, after talking to my niece, I wondered if the tests’ ethnicity estimates were accurate enough to be worthwhile. As a genealogist, I, of course, had heard lectures where it was repeatedly stressed that the tests were very good at detailing ethnicity at a continental level such as Asia or Africa, but not so great at determining specific nationalities within those continents. However, I haven’t paid much attention to the ethnicity section of the DNA tests I’ve taken for a few years, and I know that the testing companies have stated that their ability to determine ethnicity has improved. Since I have my DNA at four different companies, I decided to compare their ethnicity results on a very small sample: myself.
One of the main reasons I haven’t spent much time looking at my ethnicity results is that I have done a great deal of genealogical research on my family, and I know that most of my ancestors are fairly recent immigrants to the United States from Europe. Out of my eight great grandparents, only one was born in the United States. The rest were born in various parts of the British Isles, Norway and Sweden. Due to the good records kept in those countries, I have been able to trace most of my lines in those specific countries for hundreds of years. While I know that people did immigrate to and from those countries, it wasn’t common, and my ancestors tended to live in rural areas where the population was mostly stable. Based on my genealogical research, my ancestry is 25% Norwegian, 25% Swedish and about 50% English. The English portion is a bit iffy since one of my great grandparents was of Colonial American ancestry whose families have been in America since the 1600s. Although the original immigrants were from the British Isles, the time frame gave those ancestors plenty of opportunity to intermarry with folks of other ethnicities. Furthermore, my research is not complete enough on some of those lines to state positively where all of them came from.
I have either tested or uploaded my DNA to four testing companies: Ancestry, My Heritage, Living DNA and Family Tree DNA. After looking at all four sets of results, I was unsurprised to find that all four companies agreed that I’m 100% European since that’s what everything I knew about my family had indicated. However, when I looked at the breakdown of those European results, each company had its own take on how the percentages added up. My British Isles portion was pretty much the same at all four companies, around 40%, although My Heritage only noted 26% English. All four companies gave me small percentages of other nationalities varying from Ancestry’s 7% Irish to Living DNA’s nearly 4% Finnish and Baltic, and, most surprising, Family Tree DNA’s 11% Greek, Italian and Iberian peninsula (no idea where that came from).
When it came to my Scandinavian DNA, the results were very different. Ancestry and Family Tree DNA showed me as 57% and 53% Scandinavian, respectively, which is probably pretty accurate based on my research. Living DNA and My Heritage both showed me with miniscule Scandinavian DNA with 3.5% and 2.8% respectively. However, Living DNA gave me a big chunk of Germanic heritage at 51%, and My Heritage allocated most of my ancestry to North and West Europe at 71%.
After having done my comparisons, it’s clear that the way that the various companies determine what countries someone’s ancestors came from is not standardized across the different platforms. With the exception of those smallish pieces of southern European ancestry that Family Tree DNA thinks I have, both the Ancestry and Family Tree DNA estimates are pretty accurate. As for Living DNA and My Heritage, I think they may have issues with their Scandinavian groupings, and more work needs to be done before I would consider their results as anything but a topic for head scratching among my cousins who have also tested.
As for my niece, and anyone else who takes a DNA test for ethnicity, the standard warnings still hold. The tests are great for showing continental origins but not so accurate when it comes to national origins. Although Ancestry has some cute commercials about lederhosen and kilts, I probably wouldn’t suggest you base your purchase of either solely on a DNA test ethnicity result!
Researcher/Director at Large