“Ethnicity” Estimates from DNA testing

IMPORTANT: This article was written in 2015. If you would like to read a more up-to-date version of this article please visit my post:
Ethnicity Estimates and Britishness – 2017 Edition

Last week I received my DNA results from ancestry.com. This means I’ve now tested with the “Big 3” DNA testing companies, namely Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe. For fun I thought it would be worth comparing these results. I had been thinking about doing this for a while, and as luck would have it another blogger, Debbie Kennett, recently worked through her British ancestors and also ploughed through the information provided by the testing companies. It’s worth reading her summary in conjunction with this post.

To start I want to state my own biases. Culturally I consider myself British. I assume I’m ethnically British, mostly English. In addition I believe that the assumption made in the Peoples of the British Isles project, that anyone with four British grandparents located within 50 miles of each other probably represents a group of people that would have lived in that part of Britain for a much longer period. (I’m planning another blog post which will look at this idea in more detail).

My Ancestors

It’s probably easiest to look at my 16 great-great-grandparents, in part because I’ve already prepared a map showing where they were born. (To make a map like the one shown below please read the walk-through guide here). To put it in context my gg-grandparents were all born between 1811 and 1832, just as Britain was in the throws of the Industrial Revolution.

As you can see they fit into 3 clusters, namely North Yorkshire/Tees Valley (10 people), East Anglia (4 people) and finally a Northern Ireland group (2 people). The Northern Ireland cluster is important in that it represents, I believe, mostly Scots-Irish ancestry. My gg-grandfather was a Stewart, his wife’s surname is unknown. I have a Stewart second-cousin from this line who has tested as part of the Stewart Surname Project and is identified as part of the Sir John of Bonkyll grouping. I assume my Stewart ancestors came across to Northern Ireland from Scotland as part of the Plantation of Ulster. I do not know enough about the history of Ulster to accurately comment, but I assume there was only limited mixing between the Protestant Scots and the Catholic Irish.

The other groups mostly lived in rural villages, and my ancestors were for the most part illiterate “Ag Labs” (Agricultural Labourers). The only group that may have had more exposure to recent immigrant groups, or foreigners were based in Darlington. At the time Darlington was a port and centre for light industry, such as cotton-weaving and leather tanning. Having said that, if I look back to the generation before, the parents of both people born in Darlington had actually moved to Darlington from Aycliffe, one of the outlying villages.

Ethnicity Estimates

OK, enough of the pre-amble, here are my three ethnicity estimates.


My ethnicity according to ancestry.com (as at 18th May 2015)

My ethnicity according to ancestry.com (as at 18th May 2015)

It’s really worth actually diving into the Ancestry estimates a bit further. For one thing Ancestry runs their tests 40 times and then gives you an average results over the tests. If you click on each regional component e.g. Britain you will get both a maximum and minimum percentage, as well as the average figures. Here are my results in more detail.

Region Ancestry Estimate Minimum Maximum
British 59% 26% 89%
Europe West 17% 0% 44%
Ireland 11% 0% 25%
Scandinavia 7% 0% 22%
Iberian Peninsula 4% 0% 11%
Italy/Greece <1% 0% 4%
Caucasus <1% 0% 3%

It’s worth pointing out that the only region with a non-zero minimum percentage is the British Region.

If you click on each region it will show you how close you compare to their “native” reference sample. This is how I compare to a British “native”.

I'm almost typically British.

I’m almost typically British.

Finally there is a chart which shows what other ethnicities are found among the “native British” reference group. It’s important to understand here that they are show how many of the reference group have an identified ethnicity not how much. Here’s the chart they provide for their native British sample population. Note there are 4 significant other ethnicities identified (Ireland / Europe West / Scandinavia / Iberian Peninsula). These correspond with my 4 “secondary” ethnicities.

Other regions commonly seen in people native to the Great Britain region

Other regions commonly seen in people native to the Great Britain region

I would recommend viewing the 6 minute video “Breaking Down the Science Behind Your Ethnicity Results” that Ancestry put up on their blog about how they calculate their ethnicity estimates.

In addition there are a couple of good blog posts from Ancestry. These review both the Scandinavian and Irish ethnicities found in many British people.

Family Tree DNA (ftDNA)

[Update 19-May-2015] This is the most interesting of the results. When FamilyTreeDNA first launched their myOrigins feature I assumed their analysis was quite broadly based, rather like 23andMe, where they grouped their ethnicity into Northern and Southern European groups. My results, which showed me as 70% W&C Europe and 30% Scandinavian, did seem a bit like a “back of an envelope” type calculation. After publication of this article I discovered that ftDNA actually have a specific “British” ethnicity, but according to ftDNA I’m 0% British. This may sound daft, and probably does reflect on the low sample size of the ftDNA British sample (39 people). On the flip side it may be that my ethnicity does reflect ancestors in eastern England that have had relatively little mixing with the rest of the British population. After all I have very few matches from my yDNA results and the genetically closest trace their paternal lines back to continental Europe (Denmark and Switzerland).

My ethnicity according to FamilyTreeDNA (as at 18th May 2015)

My ethnicity according to FamilyTreeDNA (as at 18th May 2015)

[Update 24-July-2015] Recently I received the test results back for my brother. Since both our parents would also be considered British you should expect that our ethnicities would be similar, so his 32% British seems surprisingly high. This could be explained by the different genes he inherited, but probably reflects the inherent problems of separating out British ethnicity from the relatively similar “Western and Central Europe” and “Scandinavian” ethnicities. Below is a chart comparing my brother’s and my ethnicity.

Family Tree DNA ethnicity estimates from my brother and myself.

Family Tree DNA ethnicity estimates from my brother and myself. (%)

23 and Me

I’m showing 23andMe’s “Speculative” analysis (51% confidence levels). They also provide a Conservative (90% confidence level) and a Standard (75% confidence level) analysis. You can read about their methodology here. With my results the Standard and Conservative analysis reduce the detailed ethnicities (e.g. “British & Irish” ) and remove the “Southern European” components.

My ethnicity according to 23andMe (as at 18th May 2015)

My ethnicity according to 23andMe (as at 18th May 2015)


[Update/re-written 19-May-2015 + 09-June-2015] I think the ethnicity estimates don’t tell me anything I don’t know from my conventional genealogical research. I’m considered ethnically mostly British Isles, or at the very least European. It looks like my ethnicity results on ancestry.com correspond quite closely with their profile of a “native” Brit (average 59% British vs 60% for a “native” Brit). The fact that Ancestry give such a detailed breakdown of my results is another plus for them.

The FamilyTreeDNA analysis shows some fuzzy results and would benefit from further research…

Overall, I guess one of the biggest problems is that the British themselves are a mix of immigrants. If you look at the work of the Peoples of the British Isles project you will see that the British can be broken down into mixes of other populations, so for example whilst my 7% Scandinavian (from ancestry.com) could be one gg-grandparent, however it could as easily be a composite measure from virtually all my ancestors, many of whom lived on the eastern side of the British Isles and closest to any Scandinavian or Northern European invaders.

The other good thing, as far as the analysis goes, is that I’m not showing any unexpected ethnic identities. Please don’t mis-understand, I would love to have them, but so far nothing in my conventional genealogical research suggests any.

Finally, if you have found this post interesting and would like to understand more about the ethnic origins of the British, then you should read  my post on the results of the People of the British Isles Project:


[Update Notes 19-May-2015]

 Since first publishing this post it’s been pointed out that the FamilyTreeDNA analysis was considerably different from the other two. I’ve therefore made changes to the article to reflect this. Thanks to Debbie Kennett and Robert Gabel from the ISOGG Facebook group for their comments. Along the way I’ve also done some other minor changes to clarify my writing.

[Update Notes 02-June-2015]

I’ve expanded the ancestry.com results to show their minimum/maximum percentage estimates and their comparison with their typical “native” British.

[Update Notes 09-June-2015]

Addition review of the ethnicity breakdowns provided by ancestry.com.

This entry was posted in 23andMe, ancestry.com, FamilyTreeDNA, Genetic Genealogy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to “Ethnicity” Estimates from DNA testing

  1. Amber G says:

    Hi, I’m 67% British according to ancestry.com’s DNA (I’m an American)…anyway, how far back in time do DNA results go? Does this mean I’m from ancient people who were there before the Normans, before the Romans, etc, like the Celts or something? (I’m also 9% Irish, separate from British Isles)…I see you say there may be a mix from other people, but I thought I read DNA results can reflect as far back as 10,000 years…confuses me…

    • Hi Amber, thanks for the question (or questions) and congratulations on your British heritage !. Let me try and give you some answers:

      1. The 67% shows you are similar to the ancestryDNA reference panel of 111 modern “British” people. How ancestry selected these people can be read here: http://c.mfcreative.com/mars/landing/dna/science/wp-ancestrydna-ethnicity.pdf
      2. Assuming Ancestry got their reference panel selected correctly, then these people, and yourself, are typical of the genetic heritage of Britain, which is mostly a mix of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and lesser amounts of Scandinavians (Vikings). The Normans really only seem to have represented a ruling over-class, so the rest of the Brits have had over 1200 years to mix genes, so you are a mix of all of the above.
      3. Apologies if it’s a bit flippant, but everyone is from some ancient people, it just depends which.
      4. The best place to understand the overall genetic make-up of us Brits is “The People of the British Isles” Project (POBI). My blog on it is here: https://learnalittleeveryday.wordpress.com/2015/04/17/people-of-the-british-isles-pobi-project-a-short-genetic-summary/
      5. As ancestry say in their FAQ, they don’t do “the Y-chromosome or mitochondrial DNA tests, which have a 10,000 to 50,000 year time focus”. (see http://dna.ancestry.co.uk/legal/faq#about-4). If you are interested in this type of research you can also join the National Geographic’s GENOgraphic project (https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/)

      Given your results, and that your American, I’m guessing that basically most of your ancestors came to the US from the British Isles, does that fit in with your family history ?

      Hopefully this helps you (and apologies for the long reading list I’ve given you). If you have further questions feel free to contact me via hungrybuffalo@gmail.com

      • Amber G says:

        Wow, thanks for the quick response and all the info! I’m ready to follow those links this morning! Yes, many of my ancestors came to the early colonies from Britain, some as early as 1635. So it does fit in with my family tree so far. It’s interesting that they only used 111 people for their comparison panel. How do those people know how far back their heritage goes? For example, I know SEVERAL people whose families have firm stories of their recent Native American ancestors, and their DNA shows no such thing. Family histories are often wrong! Your answer also helps me with another question I had about my DNA results. I know for a fact that I am 25% Polish, that branch having immigrated here between 1907 and 1913. However, the DNA only shows that I’m 13% Eastern European. That means that further back than I can trace, my ancestors were moving around all over the place. (I have very little Western European DNA.) Anyway, thanks for the congrats, I think of the ancient people of the British isles as mystical and awesome, and close to the earth and the spiritual world, in a way like our Native Americans, and I’m looking forward to learning more about them. Keep writing! ~Amber

      • Hi Amber,

        glad the last information was of use. Going through your questions:

        1. Sample size (111 people) and their heritage?
        i. To be honest, I’ve no idea if a sample size is large enough – you probably need to be a population statistician to answer that. Having said that a relatively small sample of a large population will normally give you a good approximation to the whole population, so I’m guessing it’s OK. At least it should be better than the 39 individuals that FTDNA use for their British sample.
        ii. Regarding the reference panel heritage; The short answer is that they check that the samples’ grandparents are born in the same region. As the white paper says “knowing where your grandparents are born is often a sufficient proxy for much deeper ancestry. In the recent past, it was much more difficult and thus less common for people to migrate large distances” If I look at my grand-parents; all four of them had grand-parents born in Britain and only one of them had grandparents who were not born locally to where they were born. Actually, for British samples we probably have one of the safest research paths in the world. Brits are lucky to have Civil Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths (BMDs) going back to 1837, plus publicly available 10-yearly censuses from 1841 to 1911 and church records of BMDs going back way further. On top of this Gt. Britain has been lucky enough not to have had any invasions, civil disturbances or revolutionary governments that may result in records getting destroyed or people displaced. (This is basically why I assume that my “ethnicity” is almost certainly 100% British)
        2. The curse of Native American ancestors?
        The myth of the “Indian Princess” seems to occur quiet a bit with American genealogists. I guess everybody has a wish that they have someone special among their ancestors. My (German) wife was totally disappointed there is no evidence of Jewish ancestors among her forebearers.
        3. Your Polish ancestor percentages?
        The reality is that ethnicity estimates are only guesstimates at the moment. The difference between the theoretical 25% Polish and the 13% estimated could mean something or nothing. The ethnicity percentages are useful only when they show you something totally unexpected. Until they can be proved more reliable enjoy the results but trust your own research more !

        Hope this helps.

        PS. With the Ancestry ethnicity results they very nicely give you both an estimated percentage range (e.g. 0% to 25%) and an extensive write-up on each ethnicity. It’s worth reading the sections of the write-up marked “Genetic Diversity in the xxx Region” and “Other regions commonly seen in people native to the xxx region“. This may help explain why your Polish ethnicity is lower than expected.

  2. Pingback: Shaking the Tea Leaves – one Brit’s Ancestry.com DNA Testing | learnalittleeveryday

  3. Jacob says:

    We have basically the same MyOrigins results. Mine are 71% Western and Central Europe and 29% Scandinavian.

    My known ancestry is about 1/4 German, 1/8 Irish, 1/8 Scottish, with the rest English.

    However, our AncestryDNA results are very different. I get 51% Europe West and 24% Ireland.

    • Hi Jacob, thanks for sharing your results. It seems you, like myself, haven’t really useful info from MyOrigins. With the English it’s always going to be hard to identify as they are typically a mix of other Western Europeans. The Irish is no surprise, given both the general genetic similarity of the Irish with the rest of the Isles and your Scottish heritage.

  4. June Weber says:

    I want to trace my ancestry. I am a member of DAR and have gone back to 1729, all born here, America. I want to know where my ancestors , both parents, came from. Which company would you suggest? Many DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution ) members use Family Tree.

    Thank you in advance.

    • Hi June, I’m not sure I can answer your question. If you have reached back as far as 1729 you are doing well. My experience researching British ancestors is that parish registers only go back to the start of the eighteenth century, and those that do are not necessarily well recorded. I suspect that you may get best results by working with other DAR members who may know about our lines. Sorry

  5. Hi Philip
    Thanks very much for your interesting analysis. I am a New Zealander with British ancestry. My wife is German with Danish origins. Could you please comment on the best DNA source for Germans. I’ve found searching her family tree to be quite difficult compared to my Kiwi and British heritage. I’m about to purchase a kit for both of us, and assume Ancestry the best due to the numbers of samples in their database?

    • Hi Russell,

      I must admit I’m not an expert on German DNA testing, but since my wife is German let me at least mention my experiences. Overall DNA testing hasn’t really taken off. I think this is, in part at least, due to the relatively fragmented nature of the German genealogy research. For a long time ancestry didn’t even market into the German market and (IIRC) the ancestry.de page just redirected to ancestry.com. 23andMe still only work in English and don’t seem to be marketing to Germany. The only company that seems interested in the German market is FamilyTreeeDNA. They will ship tests here and even have a DACH reseller iGENEA (see https://www.igenea.com/de/home). The only genealogy researcher to contact my wife came through iGENEA.

      Having said all that, I suspect that you will generate most matches with US testers with German heritage, and on that score Ancestry will be more useful to you. Other than that you should upload your wife’s results to GEDmatch (when GEDmatch have fixed their upload of ancestry v2 tests). My wife’s GEDmatch number is M055620.

      One last source for you to look at is the “German Language Area DNA Research Project” group on Facebook, it’s not as active as many, but at least it’s a starting point.

      Liebe Gruße aus Frankfurt und viele Glück,

  6. Pingback: Ethnicity Estimates and Britishness – 2017 Edition | learnalittleeveryday

  7. Patrick Sullivan says:

    Hi all. Just had my ethnicity estimate back from MyHeritage and the percentages are…. Europe 100%, broken down to 100% North and West Europe, broken down to 100% Irish, Scottish and Welsh. 4 of my great grandparents were from Somerset in England so am I guessing correctly that these 4 people’s ancestry were of the other 3 celtic nations? Thanks Patrick.

    • Hi, sorry for the delay in replying. I must admit I’m never sure how accurate any of the ethnicity estimates are, however getting 100% Irish, Scottish & Welsh seems unusual. I’m not sure of the local history of the Somerset area – it’s English but close to the Welsh border, so it may have been that your g-grandparents moved from Wales in search of work. If you haven’t read it, then you may want to have a look at this more recent post I did comparing my ethnicity results across the different test companies:


      If you are interested and given that you appear to have strong ethnicity results from the British Isles you may want to think about the test from LivingDNA.com test which breaks down the UK into 21 regions. My results got updated last Monday and come closest to my known paper-trail family history.

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