Besides its use in genealogical research, DNA testing is also employed for a simpler purpose: people have their DNA analysed to find out where their family is from, to trace their ethnicity.

I thought it might be interesting to compare the ethnicity predictions from my own DNA test results with what I know about my family tree. I have enough tested matches between documented forbears and people with whom I share DNA to be reasonably sure I’m getting it right.

Map from MyHeritage showing events from my family tree overlaid with my ethnicity estimate. The events are arranged by country. (click on image to enlarge)

My mother is from Germany. On her side of the family five of my great great grandparents were born in Brandenburg, two in Baden-Württemberg and one in Schleswig-Holstein. Based on their occupations, surnames, and religion, I have no reason to believe their immediate ancestors were from other parts of Europe.

On my father’s side, five of my great great grandparents were born in Australia. Of my 64 paternal fifth great grandparents:

  • 21 were English 33% or 16% of my DNA 
  •  17 born Scotland 27% or 13% of my DNA 
  •  18 from Ireland, though this may include some Anglo-Irish 28% or 14% of my DNA 
  •  4 from Wales 6% or 3% of my DNA 
  •  2 from the Isle of Man 3% or 1.5% of my DNA 
  •  1 from France 1.5% or < 1% of my DNA
  •  1 English but of French Huguenot extraction 1.5% or < 1% of my DNA

AncestryDNA predicts my ethnicity to be 100% European:

  • 59% from Great Britain, which includes England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man 
  • 20% Europe East 
  • 12% from Ireland 
  • 4% from Finland / North-west Russia 
  • 2% from Europe-West 
  • 2% from Italy/Greece 
  • <1% from the Iberian peninsula 

These results appear to underestimate the German contribution to my DNA mix. I’m not sure why. 

    My genetic ancestry as reported by AncestryDNA on 22 July 2017. The orange  region is the genetic community “Munster Irish” which AncestryDNA calculates I “possibly” belong to. I will make that the subject of a separate blog post. (Click on image to enlarge).

    MyHeritage also provides an ethnicity estimate. I uploaded the same data I had submitted to AncestryDNA to MyHeritage. The result: 100% European:

    • North and West Europe 80.1% 
      • English 73% 
      • Irish, Scottish, Welsh 7.1% 
    • East Europe 13.5% 
      • East European 11% 
      • Baltic 2.5% 
    • South Europe 6.4% 
      •  Italian 6.4% 
    Ethnicity estimate from MyHeritage retrieved 22 July 2017

    AncestryDNA and MyHeritage draw different conclusions from the same data. They agree I am 100% European, but differ considerably in the regional proportions.

    I don’t think these ethnicity estimates are well defined. Where does ‘southern’ Europe start? What does ‘Baltic’ mean? And how reliable are the estimates? Where does the 6% Italian come from? Were some of my English forebears descended from the Roman invaders? What’s the connection between ancient Rome and modern Italy?

    To me there’s nothing very interesting about the ethnicity results and there’s certainly nothing in them at this time to guide my research.

    Further reading

    • AncestryDNA have provided a white paper on ethnicity testing. It is dated October 2013. It talks about reference panels based on 3,000 samples from “individuals alive today who can trace their ancestry to a single geographic location.” https://www.ancestry.com.au/cs/dna-help/ethnicity/whitepaper
    • MyHeritage also provide information about how they calculate the ethnicity estimate: http://helpcenter.myheritage.com/DNA/Ethnicity-Estimate/. MyHeritage compares my DNA with the DNA of living people around the globe whose genetic ethnicity is known and refers to these people as the Founder Populations. MyHeritage claims that they have sampled the DNA of thousands of people and have a data set of more than 100 ethnicities and the ability to show ancestral roots with far greater resolution than any other DNA service.
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