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Once more unto the breach

It just doesn’t seem to matter.

23-1No matter how many times The Legal Genealogist says that the ethnicity estimates part of autosomal DNA tests are not a whole lot more than cocktail party conversation,1 that’s what so many people keep coming back to:

• “My daughter is adopted from China, but all agree she doesn’t look Chinese, but rather Southeast Asian, perhaps Vietnamese or Filipino. Is there any chance a DNA test could distinguish on this level?”

• “Which (test) is best for finding Native American roots?”

• “what dna will tell you if you are asian irish black french?”

• “I know my mothers ethnicity however my father was adopted and we do not speak so I have no way of knowing what I am from his side. I am not necessarily interested in finding relatives, I just would like to know what I am and what my future children are.”

• “family lore states that I have a large percentage of native American in my family line on both sides so which test do I take for that?”

• “Which test would you rec to start the process of finding a little information on my heritage? I’m not looking for long lost relatives just information on my ethnicity. My children are curious as well.”

• “I am looking to see where my ancestor came from. Health issues would be a plus, but not necessary. I come from a very diverse and mixed ancestry, I am hoping to really narrow it down. Which would you advise would be the best testing for that.”

• “I want to figure out if I’m of Native American decent, and how much percent. My family looks and believes we are, but hit a brick wall when searching our ancestry. Which DNA test will be best for me? I would like to use it for school purposes, if I end up getting positive results.”

Like anyone else who ever writes about DNA, I could go on and on and on.

Folks, really.

Really.

Really.

You can’t rely on DNA tests to give you exact percentages of your ethnic origins beyond the continental level (European, versus African, versus Asian).

But if you must — if you understand that it’s just for fun (and it is fun, I don’t deny that) — if you’re willing to accept that there’s a huge amount of the unknown in these estimates — then here’s the answer generally to the “what test should I take for ethnicity purposes” question.

1. For science. You’re not really serious about putting the percentages into your family tree, you just want to know a little more than you do now, and you’re willing to help the serious science folks learn more about ethnic origins. Then test with the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project.

This is a $179.95 kit (on sale) from National Geographic, it’ll look at YDNA markers (if you’re male), mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) markers for both men and women and autosomal DNA for both men and women to gather information and give you results on very deep human origins.

It will not give you matches to close cousins. It won’t be particlarly useful for genealogical research. But, if you provide your background data along with your DNA, it will help the scientists put together as good a picture as we may be able to compile of the ethnic origins of indigenous and traditional peoples of the world.2

2. For unknown parentage research. If you’re trying to identify an unknown parent or gather as much information as you can about your heritage without the benefit of parental data, you can still get some valuable information from the ethnicity estimates, as long as you keep in mind that they’re estimates, not take-to-the-bank numbers. And the company with the best overall estimates right now still seems to be 23andMe.

The autosomal DNA test from 23andMe isn’t the cheapest, by any means: on sale it can be had for $149 (that’s what shows up on the wesbite right now) and full price has been as high as $199.

But here’s the kicker. The default setting for the new 23andMe ethnicity reporting is called speculative, and only has a 50% confidence rating. Meaning that there’s a very good chance that what’s being shown is … um … cocktail party conversation. If you want to be more certain that the percentage information is real — that you really have that African or that Native American ancestry the report says you have, you need to change the setting to a more conservative reporting level.

To do that, in the Ancestry Composition report, the first thing you do is switch from Summary to Scientific Details in the options at the top of the report page. Then scroll down until you see the slider that’s captioned “You can interact with these confidence levels to better understand your genealogy.”

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Move that slider way over to 80 or 90 percent on the left:

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If that ethnicity du jour stays in the mix even at a conservative reporting level, then and only then can you be pretty sure that it’s really part of your ethnic origin.

Beyond these two, I really can’t recommend any DNA test for ethnicity. Really. Even these, to some degree are — have I mentioned this before? — cocktail party conversation. We have to keep in mind what these admixture tests do: they take the DNA of living people — us, the test takers — and they compare it to the DNA of other living people — people whose parents and grandparents and, sometimes, even great grandparents all come from one geographic area. Then they try to extrapolate backwards into time.

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.

So coming up with these percentages in these tests requires this fundamental assumption: that the DNA of the reference populations — those groups whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents and more all come from the same area — is likely to reflect what we might see if we could test the DNA of people who lived in that area hundreds and thousands of years ago.

In other words, these percentages are:

• estimates,

• estimates based on comparisons not to actual historical populations but rather to small groups of people living today, and

• estimates based purely on the statistical odds that those small groups tell us something meaningful about past populations.

DNA testing is a wonderful tool. It can connect us with cousins we’d have never found otherwise to help us reconstruct our family histories.

But in terms of “am I Native American?” “what tribe did I come from in Africa?” “am I 25% Irish?” No. No, no, no. That’s the absolute weakest aspect of DNA testing.

They’re called estimates for a reason.

But… if you must … pay the price and do it for science at National Geographic. Do it at 23andMe.

And don’t complain when it doesn’t prove what it can’t prove.


SOURCES

  1. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Admixture: not soup yet,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 May 2014 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 13 Aug 2016). See also ibid., “Those percentages, revisted,” posted 1 May 2016, and “Those pesky percentages,” posted 27 Oct 2013.
  2. See “About, The Genographic Project,” National Geographic (https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/ : accessed 13 Aug 2016).
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