“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,–
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”
–Macbeth (IV, i, 14-15)
There are times when The Legal Genealogist is convinced that the DNA testing companies are channeling their inner MacBeths.
And the most recent ethnicity update from MyHeritage DNA is most surely one of those times.
My father’s family was German. He was born there, his parents were born there, his ancestry can be traced there on both sides for roughly 400 years, thanks to civil registration and church books.
My mother’s side is more of a mix, but the components are the various areas of the British Isles and a wee bit of Huguenot French. Period. No evidence whatsoever of anything more. And most of those branches have been in North America since the mid-to-late 1600s. Five of her siblings have results at MyHeritage, and they average 86% English (range 73.1%-97.9%) at MyHeritage.
So I always expect that the ethnicity estimates a testing company would dish up for my siblings and for me would be somewhere in the vicinity of 50% British Isles or thereabouts, mostly English, and 50% western and eastern Europe or thereabouts, mostly German.
And what do we get instead in this latest MyHeritage update? Among five full-blood siblings, we get — just as some examples:
Eye of newt. South Asian 1.0%.
Toe of frog. Finnish 1.2%.
Wool of bat. Ashkenazi Jewish 2.0%.
Tongue of dog. East European 4.6%.
Adder’s fork. Greek and South Italian 6.6%.
Blind-worm’s sting. Balkan 20.4%.
Lizard’s leg. Iberian 18.6%.
And howlet’s wing. Scandinavian 66.9%.
Now the East European and the Balkan, I’m going along with. My German grandfather was born in what used to be East Germany and it’s entirely possible that his ancestry would have included folks from the east.
But as much as I would dearly love to believe we have some of the color and verve suggested by these other results, … um … no.
First off, that astoundingly high percentage of Scandinavian — ranging among the five of us from a low of 26.2% to a high of 66.9% and averaging 53.2% — is just plain bonkers.
I understand that it’s essentially impossible to distinguish between — say — Danish DNA on one hand and northwestern Germany on the other. And it’s almost as hard to distinguish between northwestern German and southeastern English.
But to lump it all in as Scandinavian for four of us, and as North and West European for the fifth? With very little English for any of us, when our mother’s siblings are all showing huge chunks of English? I mean, I get it: the Vikings raided the British Isles and the DNA all looks pretty much the same. But if you can distinguish English for my mother’s generation, you all of a sudden can’t for mine? We’re all Scandinavian? Well, except for that one sister, who apparently is a changeling and did get the North and West European we’d expect.
And what’s up with the Iberian? Seriously? I would have said — jokingly — that maybe it’s the Spanish Armada folks swimming ashore in the British Isles, but not one of my mother’s five siblings has a drop of Iberian, so this clearly isn’t from my mother’s side. So somehow my German-for-hundreds-of-years father’s side has produced as much as 18.6% Iberian?
There’s a reason why these are called ethnicity estimates by the testing companies. I have to keep reminding myself to remember what these numbers are: the only way to get these percentages is by comparing the test results of folks like you and me — alive today — to the test results of other people who are alive today (and not to the actual DNA of our ancient ancestors!!). Because of that, it’s all a numbers game based on one fundamental assumption: that people who live in an area today (say, modern Englishmen and -women) and who have all four of their grandparents born in that area are typical of the genetic signature of that population generations ago.
And each company has its own reference populations of those living people to compare our results to, and so it comes up with its own estimate as to what the comparisons mean. Looking just at my results, and just at the Scandinavian estimates, I am
60.9% correction: 66.9% Scandinavian at MyHeritage, 14% at Ancestry, 11% at Family Tree DNA, 5.4% at 23andMe, and 0% at Living DNA. That’s some range of outcomes…
The numbers are terrific at the continental level: Europe versus Africa versus Asia. But they are still more than a little problematic at the regional or country level.
Eye of newt, and toe of frog…
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Eye of newt, and toe of frog,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 6 Sep 2020).