Updated AncestryDNA Ethnicity Estimates or How To Feel Less Interesting

AncestryDNA have updated their data sets, resulting in changes to many DNA test ethnicity results. I tentatively log in to find out just how much duller i’ve become…

I remember unceremoniously dribbling into my little tube thing back in 2015, and encouraging my mother to do the same. We were both amused by the idea of being DNA tested, and finding out whether we might be Scandinavian.

When the results came back about 6 weeks later, we were pleased, and I took great delight in mocking my mother – a Daily Mail reader – that she was part Eastern European, and therefore every time she bought a copy of that rag, she was in fact hurting herself!

AncestryDNA 'Ethnicity Estimate' results and map.
My AncestryDNA ‘Ethnicity Estimate’ results and map in 2015.

Over the next year, I also coaxed my father in 2016, my mother’s sister, my father’s sister in 2017 whilst she was visiting from the USA, and eventually cornered my sister and via team pressure from my parents, she did the dribble for our sakes in May 2018.

My Father's AncestryDNA Ethnicity result in Lego
My Father’s AncestryDNA Ethnicity result.

This gave me 6 sets of DNA results, but between the 5th and the 6th set, Ancestry updated it’s result data. This meant that for 5 of us, the DNA ‘Ethnicity’ of us all was about to get far “less interesting”.

Less interesting?

Obviously, refining techniques in the galloping field of science is ultimately a wonderful thing. It’s the right thing to review how the tests are carried out and seek improvements to scientific accuracy.

It’s also ethical to update the test results when the accuracy is improved, but in doing so, for my family, it’s made us far less geo-genetically diverse.

AncestryDNA test results chart
The five original sets of DNA estimates, and my sister’s later set after the earlier 2018 update.

Now, as I type, AncestryDNA have updated their data again. In doing so, it squeezes further on the final percentages of interesting little origins hiding in the DNA of my father and my paternal aunt, and removes some of the impossible results that my sister had been assigned – Caucasus and Native American – that none of us (who are definitely all related to her) showed!

AncestryDNA 'ethnicity' split after the September 2018 update.
AncestryDNA ‘ethnicity’ split after the September 2018 update.

I’ve gone from being 61% “Great Britain” in 2015, to being 100% “England, Wales & Northern Europe” in 2018. I’ve very sadly lost my Scandinavian and Irish genes, although my father and his sister have kept theirs respectively.

Regional Data

In what AncestryDNA give as ‘Migrations’, most of my family are listed as ‘East Anglia & Essex’. My mother and sister include ‘East Midlands’. Aside from Essex (tsk!), the rest fits perfectly with the paper trail.

Meanwhile, my results over at LivingDNA, where I uploaded my AncestryDNA test data to back in January 2017, give me a repeat of some of the regions. Their estimate is that I am 95.7% Great Britain and Ireland, and 4.3% showing up as Scandinavia on a map. This GB part sees East Anglia (where about 90% of my paper-trailed entire family history is from) leading the origins way at 53.9%, and South Central England (which covers Somerset and Devon) showing up as 15.4%.

LivingDNA Cautious Region Map of UK
My LivingDNA regional mapping has similarities with AncestryDNA claims.

Interestingly, the Somerset and Devon area, is where my Burnell, Babbage, and Evans families are based, and the Burnell and Babbage families repeatedly provide me with AncestryDNA matches. Interestingly, LivingDNA show me Ireland and in the wider view, Norway are covered – matching what I used to see from AncestryDNA, but what I still see in my father and his sister’s results today.

Dr Karl Kennedy and DNA Tests

The genetic data pool is getting bigger as AncestryDNA and LivingDNA break into new audiences.

AncestryDNA have regularly boasted about the X millionth ancestry tester, and in the last fortnight, they’ve had heavy product placement in the Australian soap Neighbours, and are currently running a long-lost half-sister plot line between veteran character Dr Karl Kennedy, and Magda Szubanski’s guest character Jemima. Magda of course, was subject to a brilliant episode of the Australian version of Who Do You Think You Are? (recommend you watch it!).

The different companies are still battling out the price war – with kits appearing in more UK High Street shops, and of course now Amazon.

Data scientists, like the scientists back in the DNA testing lab, are constantly evolving their methods, ethics, and techniques, to bring a clearer and truer picture to what we are.

I have one kit left, and I have some ideas who I could ask, but top of the list is my grandfather’s cousin, who is genetically closer to my Giddings and Tingey families than any of those tested so far. She’d also be the first person I’ve tested to have a different parent line, so I’d need to watch out for false leads.

Whilst I’m sad to have lost my fantasy ancestral tour list, and my parents have lost their over-dinner conversation opportunities, we should celebrate the science that strives to bring us truth.

I think I’ll cope with being less Scandinavian, and less Irish.

After all, I’m still exactly who I was before I dribbled in 2015.

Taking an autosomal DNA test with AncestryDNA (Part Two)

The Ancestry DNA results are in for my mother and I… but what do you get, and how can they be interpreted?

It’s been a few patient weeks since I did my AncestryDNA test but the email has come through. The results of the AncestryDNA tests for my mother and I have arrived.

Excitedly I clicked on my name first to see what it would reveal.

When you get your results you’re presented with a kind of ‘dashboard’. This includes your name and a brief summary of your Ethnicity Estimate and your DNA Matches.

Able to see the top three results in this dashboard view, I clicked through to view the complete geographic/ethnicity estimate map and results.

AncestryDNA 'Ethnicity Estimate' results  and map.
My AncestryDNA ‘Ethnicity Estimate’ results and map.

With little surprise, Great Britain appeared at the top. Although DNA runs through us all from our very evolution, my family history research (which is a nanosecond snapshot by comparison) has given me a set of documented ancestors who have never strayed outside of England.

Of course, documents lie but DNA doesn’t, but in both cases – it’s all in the interpretation.

After Great Britain, coming in second and as a complete surprise was my 18% Irish genes. So far, I’ve found no Irish ancestors, and only 1-2 Irish relatives. I can’t even put my finger on a few possible Irish surnames… but, they appear to be in the mix somewhere.

In third place, with a nice 11% is my highly anticipated (and hoped for) Scandinavian DNA.   Having been surprised by the Irish DNA, I’d have expected this or Europe West to have turned up as second.

These three are then followed by what Ancestry calls ‘Trace Regions’. They explain that these are small traces of ethnicity, but that they may be unreliable. They’ve included them just in case.

For me, I’m amused by being 4% Italian/Greek, 3% Finn and Northwest Russian, but surprisingly a lowly 3% Western European.

Setting contexts

What is useful, and acts almost as a caveat to the percentage and map, is the potted history of the region when you click on its name. When reading this, you realise that for someone with 61% Great Britain score (the average Great Briton has 60%, so i only just scraped in), seeing Scandinavian in my DNA is absolutely no surprise. Also, seeing Irish and Scandinavian together is no surprise either, and that’s down to the trade and settlement of the Vikings who held around 1/3rd of England by the late 800s. Vikings of course made their way to Ireland too, so it would be unsurprising for both Scandinavian and Irish DNA to turn up.

Reassuringly, Ancestry’s test had spotted that there was a parent/child relationship between myself and my mother’s DNA.

Comparing DNA with my mother

When you look at my mother’s DNA results in comparison, you get a hint of the 50% of the DNA that I didn’t inherit, and a hint at what DNA may well be lurking in my father.

My mother's AncestryDNA ethnicity estimate
My mother’s AncestryDNA results reveal she’s more European than me.

For my mother, her ‘Ethnicity Estimate’ pitches her as 8% more than the average Great Briton, at 68%.

Then, what is my lowest estimated score (of 1%), my mother has as second – she’s 13% Western European. That’s roughly the percentage that I’d have expected to have seen in my result, given ancestral surnames of the likes of the German sounding Moden and Swiss sounding Gothard surnames in her tree.

With delight, I revealed her Scandinavian roots too (she’s a big Vikings fan, and we share a Viking-sounding Yarrow ancestral surname). Her percent is less than mine, so maybe this hints at some Scandinavian DNA in my father too?

It’s not until you reach her ‘Trace Regions’ that Irish DNA turns up – and for her it’s just 3%, whereas mine was 18%. Maybe this also suggests that there’s Irish DNA in my father.

Also amongst my mother’s Trace Regions is 5% Iberian Peninsula, and our shared Finland/Northwest Russa DNA (at 2%).

I’d guess that when looking at geography – for someone with an estimate so high of Western Europe, then seeing the Iberian Peninsula is no surprise. The Fin and Russian ethnicity traces may well be echoes through our Scandinavian DNA too.

Finally, my mother’s Trace Regions end with what has made me chuckle. She’s 1% Eastern European.  She’s a Daily Mail reader, and I continually mock-plead with her to stop reading that ‘newspaper’… which is packed with shock stories and hatred for people from Ukraine, Poland and other Eastern European countries. Hopefully that 1% will serve as another reason she should stop buying it!!

So, what can I do with this new-found knowledge?

This was my questioning right from the out-set. You get a set of data that spans right back through human life – far too far back into history for you to research. At it’s top level, and for those who aren’t really interested in family history, this is a kind of ‘genetic tourism’ or ‘family tree tourism’. Dr Adam Rutherford‘s recent radio feature on The Business of Genetic Ancestry kind of puts it nicely.

AncestryDNA sold this autosomal DNA testing concept to me when they showed what they’d do next with the data – and that’s to use it alongside all the other users who get their test results, and use it to suggest DNA matches to you. It was this point at Who Do You Think You Are? Live that I decided to pay up.

That AncestryDNA dashboard shows you some of those matches, each with a rating of how confident they are at the matches.. and then it’s over to you to reach out to them and explore that connection through Ancestry.

AncestryDNA matches
AncestryDNA shows you who has varying degree of DNA matches with your results.

I’ve already begun reaching out to a few – and it was reassuring to see matches with people I’ve already linked to through good old fashioned family history research, and also a number of people who are strangers but carry some of my obscurer family surnames too.

Ancestry, I’m impressed. All I need to do now, is think of who best to test next. My father? My sister? The oldest blood relative I can find?