Jul 052017
 

Discovering my Ethnicity via autosomal DNA testing

Taking myself and my sister as a pseudo case-study, I thought it might be interesting to compare the ethnicity estimates obtained through autosomal DNA testing at three different companies.  Note: This is not a detailed comparison of all the DNA-companies and all the features they offer.  Rather, I’ll only compare the origin or ethnicity profiles of three DNA tests.

Ancestry.com’s autosomal DNA Ethnicity Estimate

When I first received (back in 2014, I think) my Ancestry.com results, I had a mixed reaction: “Hmmm….” and “Oh wow, now I can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.”

My ethnicity estimate from Ancestry.com

The “Hmmm…” came because I’ve been tracing my roots for a while (not including the 20 years my aunt spent before I started) and I’ve yet to find an Irish ancestor.  In fact, those ancestors I’ve traced back over the pond, all come from England and Scotland.  My major brick wall is John Wilkinson (born 1803 in Virginia, married to Nancy). The good folks at the Irish Genealogical Society have told me that he’s not likely to have been an Irishman.

Regardless, John and Nancy Wilkinson wouldn’t account for much of that 37% of Irishness. As my 3x great-grandparents, either one of them would only account for 3.3% of my DNA makeup.[1]

Over the last couple of years, Ancestry.com and genetic genealogy bloggers have started publishing answers to my mysterious Irish DNA conundrum. In We are all Irish according to Ancestry.com, Laurence A. Moran suggests that it’s perhaps more meaningful to think of Ancestry’s “Irish” ethnicity as “Celtic.” Ancestry.com’s AncestryDNA – The Irish Connection explains that “Irish” component of their ethnicity estimates simply means that the user shares genetic ancestry with individuals in their Irish reference panel, who possess “deep roots in Ireland going back several generations.”

In other words, an estimate is just that. An informed projection based on comparing DNA with other modern-day people. As Judy G. Russell explains in Those percentages, revisited, “Nobody is out there running around, digging up 500- or 1,000-year-old bones, extracting DNA for us to compare our own DNA to.”

Ancestry.com also points out that the map for Ireland ethnicity overlaps other close-by locations, such as Scotland. That’s a legitimate point. Irish genealogy specialists are quick to point out, that depending where you cross, Scotland and Ireland are only separated by 20 to 50 miles of water.

Ancestry.com’s DNA Result Enhancements

For a while, that was all the information Ancestry.com had for me.  But, to give full credit where credit is due, they keep improving the data their test results provide.  At the end of March 2017, they rolled out Genetic Communities which give greater insight into their ethnicity estimates.

Ancestry.com's ethnicity estimates of by way of genetic communitiesBecause I’m still in the process of understanding them myself, delving deeply in to them are beyond the scope of this post. That said, it is striking how much more information these genetic communities give than their standard pie-chart. I’m sure I’ll spend many happy hours delving into these communities, as well as my DNA-circles.  These are groups of DNA cousins that have identified common ancestors.  (You do need to upload a family tree for this to work.) Curiously, all seven of my DNA-circles stem from my mother’s side of the family.

Family Tree Autosomal DNA “Origins”

I decided to do a little more testing and cousin baiting through Family Tree DNA. Driven more by spontaneity than scientific method, I decided to gift this test kit to my sister, who, in theory, shares 50% of my DNA.  I thought using her spittle might widen the cousin-catching net.

It has. Because each company has their own database of potential matches, her DNA test has yielded different DNA-cousins than Ancestry.com’s matches.

Ethnicity Estimates or Origins per Family Tree DNA

While their “Origins Profile” of 93% British Isles is vague enough not to be confusing, it is, um, well, vague.  (I should note that their “ancient origins” profile, something else beyond the scope of this post, is pretty cool.)

Living Autosomal DNA Ethnicity Estimates

Several fellow genealogists encouraged me to try testing at Living-DNA, a lesser-known (at least in my neck of the woods) company which promises greater origin detail for those of us with European ancestry. Read more about the company Roberta Estes’ LivingDNA Product Review.

Opening my results, I wasn’t a bit surprised to see 92.8% European. (However, the 6+% of Asian DNA did surprise me.)

Living DNA European Ethnicity Estimates Overview

Living DNA European Ethnicity Estimate Overview

No big revelations, until I kept clicking on the little plus sign. Pay dirt. Living DNA lived up to their promise of a more detailed ethnicity estimate.

Detailed British Isles Ethnicity Estimate per Living DNA

Detailed British Isles Ethnicity Estimates per Living DNA

Though I’ve yet to compare the places my known ancestors lived with these results. However, glancing over them and remembering the Ancestral places I had on my 2016 UK visit bucket list, I see a lot of correlation.

However, the comparison raises questions as well. While Ancestry puts my Scandinavian DNA at 24%, LivingDNA reports 6%. Hmmm.

The Take-Aways

  1. The better you understand the technology and protocols each testing company uses, the more meaningful your results will be.
  2. Like everything else in family history, you’ll want multiple sources. And, one source will often lead you to the next. For instance, it wasn’t until I knew that approximately 90% of my DNA origins were from the Europe that I realized that testing at Living DNA was a logical next step.
  3. Depending on your purposes and what you already know about your ancestry, one test might be preferable for you.  In other words, don’t choose which test you take based on price alone. (I found Roberta Estes’ Which DNA Test is Best helpful. Nanalyze’s AncestryDNA vs 23andMe vs FamilyTreeDNA vs Living DNA is also interesting and entertaining.)
  4. Uploading your family tree will greatly increase your odds of finding DNA cousins, and with Ancestry.com, the more information you upload, the better your chances of identifying DNA-circles.
  5. DNA testing lets the genie out of the bottle in a multitude of ways. It can be a lot like Lay’s potato chips. The more you learn about genetic genealogy, the more you’ll understand from these tests.  You can’t learn just one fact. Genetic genealogy is a fascinating field that will draw you in. You’ll definitely want to look into other tools like GedMatch.com.
  6. I’m not 37% Irish.

[1] Degrees of Relations and the Number of Genes Share, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com~laetoli/degree.html