Tuesday 17 September 2013

My updated ethnicity results from AncestryDNA - a British perspective

AncestryDNA announced last week that they were starting to roll out a free update to their ethnicity results. I noticed today that my updated results were now available. The beta version of AncestryDNA's ethnicity results was widely criticised. Many American customers found that they had much higher percentages of Scandinavian ancestry than expected. As one of the few British customers in the AncestryDNA database I was surprised to find that many of my American friends and genetic cousins had significantly higher percentages of "British" ancestry than me. AncestryDNA also failed to provide any background information on the reference populations used, thus rendering the results essentially meaningless. The new ethnicity results are a slight improvement but, as with all these admixture analyses, still have a long way to go before they can provide any useful information.

When you sign into your Ancestry account you are first of all presented with your old ethnicity results. If you have access to the new ethnicity results you will see a big orange label to click on. As can be seen, my original results from AncestryDNA were 58% Central European, 28% British Isles, 13% European and 4% uncertain.
According to my family history research all my documented ancestors as far back as I can trace them are from the British Isles and predominantly from England. I know the names and birth places of 15 of my 16 great-great-grandparents and they are all English. In this generation I have one illegitimate line which has prevented me from finding out the name of the remaining ancestor. The birthplaces of these 15 great-great-grandparents are: Burrington, Devon; Bristol (2); Thornbury, Gloucestershire; Clapham, London; Colchester, Essex; Sandon, Hertfordshire; Limehouse, London; Bermondsey, London; Merriott, Somerset; Sydenham, Kent; Sydmonton, Hampshire; Kintbury, Berkshire; Westminster, London; Sherston, Wiltshire.

I know the names of 27 of my 32 great-great-great-grandparents, but I only know the birth places of 21 of these ancestors. All of my known ancestors in this generation are again from the British Isles. These are the birth places where known: Ashreigney, Devon; Mariansleigh, Devon; Thornbury, Gloucestershire; Bristol; Great Yeldham, Essex; Preston, Hertfordshire; Sandon, Hertfordshire; Scotland (place not known); Hackney, London; Laverstoke, Hampshire; County Kerry, Ireland; Merriott, Somerset; Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire; Shoreditch, London; Ecchinswell, Hampshire; Welford, Berkshire; Kintbury, Berkshire; Salford, Bedfordshire; Holborn, London; Leighterton, Gloucestershire; Purton, Wiltshire.

The new Ethnicity Estimate 2.0 from AncestryDNA divides the population clusters into 26 global regions. Europe is subdivided into the following regions: Great Britain, Ireland, West Europe, Iberian Peninsula, Finnish/Northern Russia, Italy/Greece, Scandinavia, Europe East and European Jewish. My updated ethnicity percentages from AncestryDNA can be seen below. The percentages are as follows: Europe West 47%, Great Britain 21%, Ireland 20%, Iberian Peninsula 8%, Finnish/Northern Russia 2%, Italy/Greece <1%, Scandinavia <1%.
Ancestry provide somewhat contradictory information on the number of SNPs used for the ethnicity inferences. In their introductory help pages they state that they have increased the number of comparison points (markers) used to determine ethnicity from 30,000 to 300,000. Elsewhere they tell us that they are using "100,000 highly informative SNPs". Your DNA is now analysed more than 40 times to come up with the best estimate and a personalised range. The screenshot below shows the range of results for my "Great Britain" admixture which varied from a low of 0% to a high of 49% in the 40 runs through my DNA. The midpoint of 21% was picked as the best estimate. My results were then compared with "natives" from the region. A "typical native" of Great Britain supposedly has 60% admixture from Great Britain.
Ancestry explain that what they call the "Great Britain region" is "more admixed than most other regions". They provide examples from their reference populations showing the range of results found with percentages varying from 41% to 100% (see the screenshot below). My 21% from Great Britain obviously makes me a very untypical native! However, the only other British person I know who has tested with AncestryDNA has actually come out even less "British" than me with just 10% admixture from Great Britain and 12% from Ireland. In contrast the American genetic genealogy blogger Blaine Bettinger has reported that his Ancestry DNA results show that 55% of his admixture is from Great Britain and 7% is from Ireland. Another American blogger, Judy Russell, who writes the popular Legal Genealogist blog, now finds that, according to AncestryDNA, 49% of her admixture is from Great Britain. I note, however, that the reference population for the "Great Britain region" consists of a mere 195 samples, which is nowhere near adequate to represent the genetic diversity of a population of over 61 million. Ancestry also have a reference population of just 154 people to represent the people of Ireland, and just 416 samples to represent the "Europe West" region which encompasses France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Low Countries, the Czech Republic and northern Italy.
Ancestry also show the percentages from other regions that were found in their Great Britain reference samples:
Ancestry have now provided more details about the reference populations used for their analysis, and have provided a detailed White Paper explaining the methodology behind the calculations. They explain that the reference panel was compiled from "a set of 4,245 DNA samples collected from people whose genealogy suggests they are native to one region". The reference panel candidates included "over 800 HGDP samples, over 1,500 samples from the proprietary AncestryDNA reference collection, and over 1,800 AncestryDNA customers who have explicitly consented to be included in the reference panel". These 4,245 samples were whittled down to provide a final reference panel of 3,000 samples. The 195 samples from Great Britain were reduced to just 111 samples in this process, and the number of samples from Ireland was cut from 154 to 138.

It is not explicitly stated but I presume that the proprietary reference collection is the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation database which Ancestry acquired in March 2012. The participants in the SMGF database provided their samples for a non-commercial research project and not for use by a large profit-making company. If the SMGF samples were re-analysed by AncestryDNA then they would be ethically obliged to get consent from the participants for the re-use of their data. It is not clear if this has actually happened.

Almost half of the samples used in the AncestryDNA reference panel were provided by AncestryDNA customers. I presume that these are customers who signed the consent form to participate in AncestryDNA's Human Genetic Diversity Project. As I have written previously, I decided not to participate in this project as I could find no published information to describe what the project entailed. I was also concerned at the somewhat deceptive way in which the consent form was muddled up with the standard terms and conditions, potentially allowing people to join the "project" without providing their informed consent. The AncestryDNA test is currently only on sale in the US. I am one of only a handful people outside the US who ordered the test in the beta-testing phase before Ancestry stopped shipping kits overseas. Therefore almost half the so-called reference samples provided for the AncestryDNA test are provided by Americans. This will inevitably introduce biases into the reference samples as the people who emigrated to America will not necessarily constitute a random sample of the population of Europe. For example, disproportionate numbers of people emigrated to America from Ireland. This bias no doubt explains why, in the few results seen so far, British people are coming out with much lower percentages from the "Great Britain region" than their American counterparts. Americans of British origin will no doubt be a good proxy for other Americans of British origin but it makes no sense to use British Americans as a reference population for "native" British people. Ancestry do also make it clear in their White Paper that they had difficulty differentiating the population of Great Britain from the rest of Western Europe. Samples from Great Britain were being "mis-assigned a significant amount of Western European ethnicity" and vice versa. My unexpectedly high Irish percentage is also presumably an artefact of the biased sampling process.

The use of an all-American reference population of AncestryDNA customers also explains the decision to lump England, Scotland and Wales together into one large "Great Britain region", and to mix the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland together into one "Ireland" region. It would have been much more interesting to split the British Isles up into the four constituent countries, but Ancestry clearly did not have sufficient samples with detailed genealogies from each country to do this, again because the reference samples were mostly from America rather than the British Isles. This once again calls into question Ancestry's decision to market their DNA test exclusively in the US. As most Americans are very interested in finding out more about their ancestry in Europe you would have thought it would be in Ancestry's interests to make their test available in other countries. This would have the added benefit of bringing in many more customers with four grandparents all born in the same country who could be used to provide more representative reference samples. If the AncestryDNA test is ever launched in other countries there is now going to be very little incentive for non-Americans to test as they will be overwhelmed with large numbers of distant cousins in America with little chance of ever finding the connection and no tools to filter out these large numbers of matches.

Ancestry do not provide detailed information about the timeframe which is covered by the new ethnicity estimates though they do explain that the results are provided as an "estimate of the ancient historical origins" of their customers' DNA. They add that "While this information is less relevant for genealogical research relating to the last five to ten generations, it may reveal intriguing clues about the distant history of one’s ancestors."

Even though my admixture results from the new Ethnicity Estimate 2.0 are no better than the estimates from the old beta test, Ancestry have at least responded to the criticisms and have now given details of the reference populations used and have provided us with a commendably detailed technical White Paper, though I cannot understand why such basic features were not included right from the outset.  It seems to me that AncestryDNA would have been better off investing their time and energy in providing much-needed matching segment data for their customers rather than tinkering with their "ethnicity" results. These admixture tests are still very much in their infancy and they currently have very little practical application for family history purposes. If you want to have some fun with your DNA results you can get alternative "readings" from the many people who provide a free analysis service. For further details see the ISOGG Wiki page on admixture analyses. In the meantime, if you wish to know your "ethnicity" you should carry on researching your family tree in the traditional way using the paper-based records.

© 2013 Debbie Kennett


Your Genetic Genealogist said...

Hi Debbie,

I haven't had a chance to blog about the new AncestryDNA feature since returning from the conference in DC, but to address two of your points with information offered in the conference call held on Thursday with a few bloggers:
1.AncestryDNA is using the Sorenson samples in this new ethnicity feature.
2.They intentionally declined to state a time frame since they feel that it is virtually impossible to accurately do so using reference samples from present day populations (at least at this point in the science). After listening to the genetic academics this past week, I am inclined to agree with them there.

Great coverage! Thanks for the British perspective.

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks CeCe for the clarification. I hadn't realised that it would be so difficult to establish a timeframe. I hope the academics will eventually be able to provide us with an explanation as to why it is so difficult to do so.

Unknown said...

Debbie -

Helpful blog. You might be amused that my latest Ancestry.com estimates are 69% British, 10% Scandinavian, 9% Eastern European and 8% Italian/Greek - with change. Earlier, I was 57% Central European, 27% Scandinavian and 16% Eastern European. From my family history calculations I know that I'm roughly half British and half German, knowing the identities and birthplaces of 30 of my 32 ggg-grandparents. Charles Acree

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks Charles for sharing your results. It would be amusing if it were not for the fact that so many people take these results very seriously. It's a good job the British government doesn't accept DNA test results as part of a passport application!

Geolover said...

Debbie, I am glad to see your very timely emphasis on the very limited comparison-database.

As you point out, ethnic estimates in most instances are very premature, particularly when phrased in terms of boundaries of modern geopolitical states.

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks Geolover for your kind comments. There is an interesting timeline map of Europe here which to my mind demonstrates the futility of trying to assign national labels to DNA groups:


Anonymous said...

Hi Debbie, I have tried dabbling in genealogy before but couldn't find some Polish/Jewish people in my tree that moved to America (I am in the UK) what with the name changes, little porkies and the Polish record office burning down etc I gave up, I went on Ancestry today and saw their ad and I am very tempted, but from the sounds of it, it is not very accurate... but do you think it would be worth it to me as I would love it if I found some cousins just from the social point of view? Do you know anyone who has actually found a 'new' relative this way? sorry to crash your comments! regards Soleika.

Debbie Kennett said...

Hi Soleika

It would not be worth your while doing the AncestryDNA test. They only sell their kits in the USA anyway.

I suggest you take the Family Finder test with Family Tree DNA which will cost you just £60 at current exchange rates. There are lots of Jewish projects at FTDNA and in fact the company's owners are Jewish. You can find a list of Jewish projects on JewishGen and you can order through them:


You might also to read my blog post on autosomal DNA testing which provides some background information:


The Family Finder test give you matches with your genetic cousins from all over the world so you could end up matching cousins in America or Poland.

The Family Finder test includes a Population Finder component which gives you your "ethnicity" percentages and this tool is due to be updated in the near future.

You might also like to consider the 23andMe test, though they've currently suspended their health reports. They have a larger database than FTDNA but their customers tend to be less interested in genealogy and in making contact. If you want to test with both companies to have your DNA in two different "ponds" then you should test first with 23andMe and then do the transfer to FTDNA:


If you only want to do one test then FTDNA is the best option.

If you're in London you might like to come along to WDYTYA where you can get help and advice on DNA testing from the ISOGG stand:


Anonymous said...

Thankyou very much for your reply, it is very helpful and much appreciated.Soleika

Debbie Kennett said...


It's a pleasure. I've just realised that the 23andMe transfers to FTDNA will no longer work. FTDNA have just introduced a new chip and I understand that FTDNA can't accept transfers for tests done on the new chip. The 23andMe test is still worth doing, and especially if they restore the health reports which I'm sure they will in due course once they've satisfied the FDA.

Anonymous said...

Ancestry has offices all over...but their headquarters are in Utah. Utah has the highest percentage of English ancestry of all the U.S. states. I wonder if that has anything to do with the results being high from Americans? I know this test has been advertised in Utah, and by word of mouth here (I live in Utah), so maybe that's a reason for many Americans having the results you've mentioned.

Also, I'm curious about this test...with so much knowledge out there on haplogroups and their origins, is that not taken into account? If it is...then tracking back your ancestors, even 20 generations, wouldn't give you insight into what haplogroups you're a part of...as the haplogroups could be originated 20,000 years ago.

BTW...I have VERY strong British ancestry. My G-Grandmother came to the U.S. (Idaho) in 1901 from Lancashire (Heywood)...this is on my mother's side. My father's lineage goes directly through the British isles, and has a line directly to Edward the I, King of England (my 19th G-Grandfather).

I bet, in certain parts of Lancashire, I have far more British DNA than the residents...as I've read that many parts of full of newer immigrants to the British Isles. :)

Debbie Kennett said...

Ancestry is using information from customers to inform the analysis and as 99.9% of their database are in America they are comparing people against British Americans not British people. Ancestry are also using the SMGF database and that included disproportionate numbers of people from Utah. That data could well have skewed the dataset. With all these admixture tests we can expect to see improvements as more reference populations are added and the algorithms improve.

AncestryDNA is only looking at autosomal DNA. The haplogroups come from Y-DNA and mtDNA testing, and so are not relevant for autosomal DNA.

Unknown said...

I have 2 sets of gg grandparents and ggg grandparents who migrated from England to Utah in the 1800's after converting to Mormonism in England. So yes I have a higher percent of British DNA.

Debbie Kennett said...

Terraskane, Did your British ancestors intermarry when they arrived in the US? That probably explains why some Americans have these high percentages of "British" ancestry.

Anonymous said...

Quite bizarre to see Greece coupled with Italy in any ancestry DNA search! In both history and culture Greece is a southern Balkan country and many Greeks, particularly in Greek Macedonia, have origins in various parts of Anatolia or the South Caucasus region! I'm not sure whose idea it was to couple Greece with Italy in this way, maybe someone whose views of Greece are entirely formed by holidays in the med rather than historical and cultural awareness.

Debbie Kennett said...

It's completely daft to combine Greece and Italy in one. Anyone who's been on holiday to either country would probably realise that. I suspect whoever did this is in America and has probably never travelled to Europe.

Paula said...

I'm British, recently married an American and so took an autosomal DNA test with Ancestry. In contrast to your experience I thought that my results seemed quite accurate. I came out as 65% Great Britain, 19% West Europe, 7% Scandinavia, 4% Ireland and other trace elements that mostly matched my mum's results when she took a test with Family Tree DNA.

My only disappointment is that I haven't found any common ancestors with any of my matches or my mum's on Family Tree DNA.


Debbie Kennett said...

Paula, Thanks for sharing your results. It's interesting that your results align much more closely with your family history than mine. With autosomal DNA it's a question of patience. FTDNA do actively promote their company in the UK and come to WDYTYA Live each year. They will be at the Scottish version of WDYTYA at the end of the month. It's going to take a while to reach critical mass but now that the cost of the tests has come down so much the database does seem to be growing quite quickly. It might be worth you testing at 23andMe too if you've not already done so.

Paula said...


I appreciate your reply and thoughts. I read that 23andMe was often used by people interested in the health side of things rather than family history, but will consider it further now you've suggested it. I had been thinking of getting a Mitochondrial DNA test next, in the hope I might have more luck with matches there. Thanks for letting me know about FTDNA being at the WDYTYA events, I'll try to be patient while the database grows.

Debbie Kennett said...

Paula, Many people did tend to test with 23andMe primarily for the health reports though those have now been temporarily withdrawn while they try and get FDA clearance. However, 23andMe do have a massive database, albeit very US-centric, so you could find people there who've not tested elsewhere.

If you want to do an mtDNA test then it's best to do the full mtDNA sequence test with Family Tree DNA. They have the monopoly on mtDNA with the largest mtDNA database. They're also the only ones who let you use mtDNA for matching purposes. It's best to hold out for a sale. There's usually one in the summer and again at Christmas.

Paula said...

Thanks so much for your advice Debbie!

John Thomas said...

Dear Debbie Kennett,
Apparently, according to the now disabled 23andMe 'countries of ancestry feature' I share 6 centimorgans with you.
I don't have a single drop of English blood in my body. All of my ancestors lived in continental Europe since the year dot.
Anyway, I like to think of our connection as something dating back to the Dark Ages, possibly the expansion of Steppe/Corded Ware groups.
That said, I wish you all the best - even if our connection was countless untraceable generations ago. I just wanted to let you know.

Love & Peace.

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks for letting me know about our very distant connection. If I could trace my ancestry back far enough I'm sure I would have many ancestors from Continental Europe. Some of my surnames are Norman. I did have an old Relative Finder match with a Russian even though I have no known Russian ancestry. It just goes to show how closely we are all related even if we can't document the relationships.

CarolAST said...

As an American with high British ancestry according to AncestryDNA (72%), I wasn't surprised because my mother was born in England, while one side of my father's family was Scottish and the other reportedly half Irish and half Sami (from Norway or Sweden). AncestryDNA said the rest was 10% Europe West, 9% Scandinavia, 5% Ireland, 3% Finland/Northern Russia, and <1% Iberian Peninsula.

However, with the same data, Family Tree came up with 81% Scandinavia, 13% British Isles, and 7% Southern Europe. Maybe the Sami broke their algorithms or something. DNA Tribes doesn't even have this tribe.

Debbie Kennett said...

Carol, You shouldn't take the country level predictions too seriously. Each company is using a different mix of reference populations but none of them are able to give accurate ancestry proportions at the country level and they may never be able to do so because our ancestry is just too complicated and we're all so inter-related.

CarolAST said...

The country level predictions from Ancestry are actually fairly good. My known ancestry is from the fringes, not continental Europe where everyone is inter-related and it's hard to tell Germans from Swiss, etc. The Iberian is unexpected, and the Tree also found Southern Europe. However, I do have a middle name that could be Sardinian. Duh, is this called a clue?

vi said...

I don't understand how Ancestry could report that I have trace Italian/Greece, but gedmatch and ftdna show about 17% Southern Europe Italy and there are some dna matches to Italians. However, I can't find common ancestors on any of the family trees that I've found on any of the sites. I didn't pay to look on ancestry trees though.

Debbie Kennett said...

Vi You shouldn't take the country level reports too seriously. They are based on a limited range of reference populations, and each company uses a different database. The percentages can vary wildly between companies. Both AncestryDNA and FTDNA have said that they will be updating their admixture reports this year. I've heard that Ancestry's new reports are already being rolled out to some people in beta testing. The important part of your AncestryDNA test is your list of matches. If you are getting a substantial number of matches with people of Italian origin then you will very likely have some Italian ancestry. Most of the matches we get are with quite distant cousins, and it is quite normal not to be able to find the genealogical connection with the vast of your majority of your matches. I've still only confirmed three genealogical relationships with my matches across all three companies. You should focus on the closest cousin matches and any that share a sizeable amount of DNA with you.

Unknown said...

As I've only just had my results I've still to get my head around it all.
Can anyone help me with this, it's all so confusing.💐

I am 55% British and 28% Irish. Can anyone tell me if that means my ancestors started out in Ireland and then moved to Britain.
My family tree that I have goes back about to my great, great,great,great,great granddad with no Irish connection. So I'm thinking I'm Irish first and foremost.
Thank you

Debbie Kennett said...


You shouldn't take the country percentages literally. Having 28% "Irish" doesn't mean that you have lots of Irish ancestors. Most English people with little or no Irish ancestry are coming out with high percentages of "Irish". The problem is that the British and Irish are genetically very similar and with the AncestryDNA test it's not possible to distinguish between the two. The main reason for taking the Ancestry is to have access to your matches with your genetic cousins. You should focus on contacting your matches and exchanging genealogical information with them.

Best wishes


Unknown said...

Ironically, Ancestry DNA says I am only 2% Italian/Greek and 2% Caucuses region (West Asian). However, GEDmatch has me at 26% Mediterranean and 9.5% West Asian. The GEDmatch results are far more accurate. I have recent ancestry from southern Italy. Southern Italy was attacked many times by the Ottomans.... this explains why my Mediterranean ancestry also has a very measurable amount of West Asian.

At only 2% Italian/Greek as Ancestry DNA says, that would be like my only Italian relative would have been a great great great grandfather... and that simply isn't so.

Ancestry DNA says it is an "ethnicity estimate", where are GEDmatch simply breaks down the chromosome and is the real science of where those traits come from...

Unknown said...

The Ancestry results have recently been updated again and are proving more confusing than ever. My English/Western European results have always been high at 85%, the rest made up of Scots/Irish and Norwegian. However this time others are getting a 'Germanic Europe' results, I haven't. I checked my 'cousin matches' and half had none but the other half were between 2% and 8%.
I live in Northwest England so I was a bit confused to have no 'Germanic Dna', neither Germany nor Denmark is showing on my DNA map either but Norway is and so is Northern Switzerland...both considered to have 'Germanic populations'. Interestingly my MtDNA haplogroup is J2a1 which is linked to the Alpine region.
I then came across an Ancestry Q & A segment, I don't know who wrote it, whether it was someone connected to Ancestry or not, I didn't take a lot of notice but I was amazed by the 'answer' that Ancestry's 'Germanic doesn't include Anglo Saxons'. I twigged that it meant modern German Ancestry, as per immigration to the U.S. That's a very confusing for a British person who doesn't look into it further.
I am quite surprised it is showing on my Ancestry map when they can't pick out 'Anglo Saxon' yet.
Now to my husbands...half Ashkenazi, oddly that seems easy for them to identify but where on earth does someone who's ancestors come from Lancashire get virtually no English DNA? He has a touch of Welsh and Portugese but the rest is Scotland and Wales. I went back about 7 generations and his maternal grandmother was a Moffatt (ironic) but his DNA map was showing Eastern Highlands. Irish was South Eastern Irish. Now there is a lot of Irish and Scots Ancestry in Britain generally but it was a surprise to see he had so little English, especially as his grandparent had a 'Lancashire surname'. I did wonder if it was just a sign of West Atlantic route. Strange that we have heritage in the same country but our results are so different...discounting the Ashkenazi of course. My mainland Europe map was North Eastern quarter of France, Holland, Belgium plus the other bits I mentioned. You think you know who you are but I find the picture very confusing to be honest.

Debbie Kennett said...

The "ethnicity" percentages are based on comparisons with modern populations.

I wrote an article last year for Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine which explains how these percentages are calculated:


You might also find of interest the presentation I did at Family Tree Live in 2019 where I go into a more detailed explanation of the workings of these tests: