Ancestry Composition, Origins, Ethnicity Estimates…Oh My

I normally look at ancestry composition, DNA origins and ethnicity estimates as a guessing game. More for entertainment than for specific work in genealogy and that is mainly because you can get some dramatically different results depending on the company you test with and the version of the estimates you’re using. As testing companies add more samples the estimates should get more precise, but it’s also kind of like weather forecasting. There is science in there but sometimes you get thrown for a loop and get things you don’t expect.

The biggest issue for companies I think has been sample size. As I recall, autosomal DNA testing in France is illegal. French citizens have tested, but it is not widely advertised so it is difficult to call it out and you may see overlaps with Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands trying to get some French DNA on the radar.

I tried to look back at earlier estimates here in my diary and found this post from 2011 that used my 23 and me test results (which had a disappointing ancestry breakdown): https://wanderingtrees.com/2011/08/20/genome-analysis/

That post contains one of my favorite estimates because Mr. McDonald identified Middle Eastern and African segments that were unexpected and ended up coming from my mom’s side of the family. He described me as “English or British with significant input from the continent”.

One of my first DNA relative contacts at 23 and me was from Morocco so African DNA seemed to make sense although I couldn’t really explain it. 23 and Me has periodically picked and then dropped similar populations from their estimates over the years.

I also used 23 and Me and to an extent Ancestry DNA’s origins for my aunt Cheryl to ponder a large amount of Irish DNA she carried when compared to her half-brother. It was a large percentage of her DNA and it seemed to be more important because of that large size. As it turned out her paternal grandmother was from Ireland.

The estimates can be useful but it’s hard to know how much weight to give them and they seem to break down beyond the big-ticket items.

I thought I already had a nice post about the differences I see at these companies, but I seem to have misplaced it, so here is my 2021 version.

Ancestry DNA Origins

Here is a look at my ethnicity estimates from Ancestry DNA circa 2015:

ancestry DNA Origins ethnicity estimates in 2015. 50% Great Britain, 37% Europe West, 6% Ireland, 3% Italy and Greece, less than 1% Iberian, Europe East, Scandinavia and West Asia.

Here is my Ancestry DNA Ethnicity Estimate in 2019:

Ancestry DNA Ethnicity Estimate 2019.

That 2019 estimate image may be hard to read. So I’ll repeat it here:

  • England, Wales & Northwestern Europe 70%
  • Germanic Europe 11%
  • Ireland and Scotland 9%
  • Sweden 3%
  • France 3%
  • Portugal 2%
  • Norway 2%

After an update in 2020 my ethnicity estimates at Ancestry DNA have changed again.

Ancestry DNA ethnicity estimates for 2020.

Again, the image may be hard to read so I’ll list them here:

  • England and Northwestern Europe 44%
  • Scotland 28%
  • Sweden 11%
  • Germanic Europe 10%
  • Ireland 5%
  • Wales 2%

At Ancestry DNA I seem to drop southern and eastern European influences for Scandinavian influences and a more specific breakdown of the British Isles, now peeling off Scotland and Wales as independent entities. In each iteration, over the years it has been hard to hang my hat on anything other than that I am European by hundreds of ways. I’m not sure why Sweden, but I do have Scandinavians in my family tree along with Germans, Scots, English, Irish and Welsh. Of note, they don’t seem to recognize any West Asian, Middle Eastern, or African influence in this round.

For reference here are the results of a friend of mine from Britain (with strong Irish roots as well), you can see how specific his results are to regions in Great Britain and Ireland:

Ethnicity Estimate of a British citizen 45% Ireland with a break down by county, 38% England and Northwester Europe with a breakdown of locations in England, 11% Scotland and 6% Wales.
ethnicity estimate of a British friend

I post his results to show that Ancestry seems to be working pretty hard to be precise and have some pretty narrow assessments when the playing field is likely also narrow and fairly recent. With an American like me who has some late 1800’s British Isles, German, and French immigrant ancestors jumbled in with a ton of intermixed colonials 400 years ago, it’s got to be really hard to get specific by regions within European countries. I imagine I look like a North American European toe in a sea of other North American European toes. If you look back at my 2011 analysis, using Dodecad, the group I’m most like is “white people from Utah”.

Where I really like Ancestry DNA’s analysis is the part below the ethnicity in Communities. Northeastern States settlers, New England and the Great Lakes, New York and Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana settlers. It’s less about ethnicity and more about migration. Is this map wrong? All my evidence says no. To me, it feels like an attempt to be as precise with my more recent history as they can be. The overview presents several genetic matches in my family with our shared roots in these movements and there is a sliding scale that actually taps your family tree to show these migrations with your genetic relatives highlighted along with your documented ancestors.

ancestry communities showing large populations from the East coast to the great lakes with separate population circles for New York settlers, Pennsylvania and New England.

Family Tree DNA My Origins

My Family Tree DNA ethnicity circa 2015:

FTDNA Ethnicity 97% European, 59% Western Europe, 19% Scandinavia, 19% British Isles, 3% Middle Eastern

Of note, FTDNA has me as 19% Scandinavian in 2015 as compared to less than 1% Scandinavian at Ancestry DNA that same year. They do broadly categorize 3% of my DNA as Middle Eastern.

Here is an updated FTDNA estimate in 2020:

FTDNA ethnicity estimate 2020.

That image may be hard to read so I’ll list them here:

  • Europe 100%
  • England, Wales and Scotland 55%
  • Scandinavia 29%
  • Central Europe 13%
  • Sardinia less than 2%
  • Magyar less than 2%

Like my results at ancestry, I seem to become more Scandinavian over time although I can’t say that I’ve found more Scandinavians in my family tree. I cannot account for the extremely high amount of Scandinavian they attribute to me. It seems like it might be a stand-in for some unknown quantity. At Family Tree DNA specifically, I seem to have traded in my middle eastern for Sardinian and Hungarian (Magyar).

Are they be wrong? Being generous, I could suspect that where they are veering away from my family tree and ethnicity estimates at other companies is where their Scandinavia bubble overlaps Scotland and Germany/Denmark. I could possibly make a case that there are underlying Scandinavian markers in populations that saw Scandinavian settlement in England, Ireland, Scotland…etc, but I can’t say that that is the case with their findings. It is difficult to ignore a group that makes up 30% of my DNA in their estimation, but I’m not sure where it’s coming from or why.

23 and Me Ancestry Composition

My ancestry composition at 23 and me circa 2015:

23 and me ancestry composition 99% European, 23% British and Irish, less than 1% Scandinavian, 60% Northwestern European, less than 1% southern european, 14% broadly european, less than one percent sub-saharan African.

Of note to me 23 and me recognized some African segments along with southern european influence, which you could say that Ancestry DNA also picked up on in 2015. 23 and me and Ancestry also seem to agree that I have very little Scandinavian DNA in 2015, while FTDNA ranks it pretty high. I don’t recall finding these results abnormal given the outside analysis I’d had in 2011.

My ancestry composition in 2019:

23 and me Ancestry Composition 2019

I’m rounding these values because I’m lazy, but it’s good to note that 23 and Me gives decimal points in their percentages.

  • Northwestern European 95%
    • British and Irish 50%
    • French and German 20%
    • Scandinavian less than 2%
    • Broadly NW Europe 23%
  • Southern European 2%
  • Eastern European less than 1%
  • Broadly European less than 2%

In 2019, 23 and Me did have a breakdown of likely location matches in Britain and Ireland as well as France/Germany. They show more Scandinavian than previously but not to the extent that Ancestry.com does in 2019 or to the extreme of FTDNA. My African DNA was no longer included.

The 2020 update to Ancestry Composition.

23 and me 2020 Ancestry Composition Update

Of note for 2020, my West Asian/Middle Eastern/North African DNA is back. I’m rounding these values where they do not.

  • Northwestern European 98%
    • British & Irish 57%
    • French & German 36%
    • Scandinavian less than 1%
    • Broadly NW European 5%
  • Western Asian & North African less than 2%
    • North African less than 1%
    • Arab Egyptian Levantine less than 1%
    • Broadly Western Asian & North African less than 1%

Broad Brush Strokes

In 2011, my ethnicity results from 23 and me were 100% European and so it was a little surprising to get contacts from Morocco and later contacts from genetic relatives who are Roma. My 2011 Analysis with Mr. McDonald identifying African and Middle Eastern DNA along with those contacts have left me wondering about a Roma/North and West African influence on my mother’s side of the family. I have no proof of a connection but it continues to roll around on the periphery for me.

I assume there is something there in my ancestry that is throwing these estimators for a loop as a small percentage of my DNA continues to be assigned to eastern and southern locations that you can’t really find in my family tree.

That is the take away again for me of the last decade of ethnicity estimations. I know there is some DNA in there that is hard to pin down and companies either display it or ignore it. It’s real, but as I learned in 2011 likely impossible to pin down genealogically as well given that Europeans in the U.S. and people who could pass for Europeans in the U.S. would not want to advertise their non-European heritage. I’d have to say that this minor amount of DNA is probably the most “interesting” DNA I have and has a great or terrible story attached to it that I’ll never know.

The other take away is that I’m still mostly British Isles with continental Europeans bulking up the mix and possibly some Scandinavian influence. I would also say that my closest groups and most meaningful matches are North American Europeans (“white people from Utah” all over again). I shouldn’t get too wrapped up in the percentages other than to be skeptical of wild fluctuations and maybe to question the vast amount of Scandinavian DNA that FTDNA sees in my results.

A decade in, things are getting more precise as far as locational DNA at these companies, which is pretty neat.

3 Comments

  1. Hello Michael; I’m not sure how to contact you. My family are dated back to Elmers. Hosea elmer in NY state. Tracing back further is difficult but I believe the Hartford CT connection is what we trace back to. I see you did testing? I am very curious how to pursue, as my family and I are trying to explore the Elmer side.

  2. I have a a tree on ancestry; would love to discuss! Have reaver to Caleb and Samuel Edward, and believe I have found the original edwards father and mother in England. Hope to talk soon!

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