Aug 25, 2023

Using DNA for Ethnicity

August 25, 2023

People take DNA tests for all sorts of reasons. Some take the tests for genealogical purposes. They want to find out who their third great grandfather was, for example. Others do DNA tests for health reasons. They want to assess their risk of acquiring a congenital illness.


These are good reasons for taking a DNA test. A not-so-good reason is to determine one’s ethnicity. It’s surprising to me how many people cite that as the reason they took a DNA test. It’s not that I’m surprised people want to know more about their background. What surprises me is that so many folks take the DNA results they receive as absolute proof of where their family came from.


At this point I have taken DNA tests from four different companies. My reason for taking so many tests was to hopefully find distant cousins who could help me fill in some blanks on my family tree. Ethnicity was not the reason I took the tests, although it was fun to see what each company found for me.


I’ve always known that my father’s parents were from Scandinavia. My grandmother came from Norway in 1914. My grandfather was born in America, but both of his parents were from Sweden. My mother’s family came from England. One set of great-grandparents on that side came from England in the 1870s. Another great grandmother came from New Zealand in 1877. Her parents were from England. My final great grandfather had colonial New England ancestors, most of whom came from England in the 1600s.


With a family history like this, I assumed the test would show my ethnicity to be one-quarter Norwegian, one-quarter Swedish and the other half primarily English. The four DNA testing companies did agree that my ancestry was 100% European, and they all agreed that I had at least some Scandinavian and some English ancestors.


That’s where the similarities ended. One company believes that I am around 2% Scandinavian. Another believes that my Scandinavian ancestors account for about 40% of my DNA. My English percentage varies at the four companies from about 10% to 70%.


For me, none of this means a great deal. That’s because when I look at my ethnicity results at the four companies, I keep an important fact in mind. The companies all refer to their results as ethnicity “estimates.”


The fact that four companies gave me such varying ethnicity results reinforces this. DNA testing is accurate at telling you from which continent your ancestors came. They’re not so great at telling you from which country within a continent that your ancestors came. Boundaries changed; people moved from one place to another. Turns out there’s not much difference between a Norwegian and a Swede. Even their languages are intelligible to each other. No wonder it’s tough to distinguish exactly which one passed their DNA on to you.


If the ethnicity estimates suggest that you have Scottish ancestors, it’s fine to use that as a springboard to researching exactly who and where those Scottish ancestors might have been. Despite what the commercials might say, it’s not time to buy a kilt based on those ethnicity estimates.


Carol Stetser