Estimates! They’re only estimates!
Yes, The Legal Genealogist got the same update in the admixture estimates at Ancestry as everyone else this week.
Yes, my estimates changed.
No, I’m not going to lose my mind over the fact that I now have no Swedish, compared to 7% last time around. Or 16% Norwegian, compared to 7% last time around. (It appears that the Swedes all morphed into Norwegians in this round of changes.)
Just as I’m not going to do any kind of a happy dance that my Germanic Europe percentage is continuing to climb — it was 20% last time, and it’s up to 32% this time. (My father was born in Germany and his ancestry can be documented back about 300-400 years in most lines on both sides.)
And it’s only going to make me giggle that my full-blood sister — who was 25% German last time — is only 12% in this iteration of the admixture estimates. Or that maybe some of my Swedes went over to her results, since she’s up to 17% Swedish this time, compared to 13%.
And on and on.
We go through this Every Single Time any of the companies changes any of the estimates.
Can we all finally just agree that — seriously — these are just estimates? Maybe a little better than they were, for some of us, and maybe a little worse for others. But estimates — informed scientific guesses — nonetheless.
Most folks agree that they’re better than they were when the first estimates came out more than a decade ago.
Maybe we don’t quite have to take them with an entire salt lick,1 but we still have to understand that we have to take them with a whole bunch of grains of salt.
Even here in 2020,2 we have got to stop thinking of these numbers as take-them-to-the-bank-snapshots-of-our-ancestors. The DNA testing companies call these estimates, and they do it for a reason.
The reality here hasn’t changed one bit since admixture results were first reported: these estimates are pretty darned good at the continental level, distinguishing between Europe, Asia and Africa, just to name three continents, in their estimates. Once they get below the continental level, to a regional or even country level, all of them start to run into issues: country boundaries have changed; entire populations have moved; people from one area have invaded and intermarried with people from another.
So every time we see a new set of estimates, let’s remind ourselves just what — exactly — these admixture estimates 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, let’s keep in mind, every time, that these percentages are:
• 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.
These limitations are true of all of the testing companies. My own results are — literally and figuratively — all over the map. I’m German with some companies, not German at all with another. My personal reported Scandinavian ancestry ranges from a low of 0% — literally none — with one company all the way up to 66.9% with another.
So… why am I mostly amused rather than upset about all this?
Because the admixture estimates aren’t really the heart of the value of doing DNA testing. Yes, I get the desire to link to specific ancestral origins, particularly for those whose origins were stolen from them in the Middle Passage. But the real value today and for the foreseeable future in doing this kind of DNA testing is in the matching — helping us connect to cousins who may have family Bibles or photographs or documents or stories to help us move forward in reconstructing our family histories.
Despite the advances, the bottom line remains: We need to educate our friends and our families, our DNA cousins, as to the limits of what these percentages can show — and to show them all the other things DNA testing really can help with.
So let’s repeat for the record here — everyone who’s ever taken a DNA test that provides admixture estimate percentages, repeat after me:
“It’s not soup yet.”3
Take the estimates with at least these grains of salt — and let’s all move forward and work on those cousin matches.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “In 2020, still not soup…,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 13 Sep 2020).
- A salt lick, for the city slickers, is “a place to which animals go to lick naturally occurring salt deposits; a block of salt or salt preparation provided, as in a pasture, for cattle, horses, etc.” Dictionary.com (https://www.dictionary.com : accessed 13 Sep 2020), “Salt lick.” ↩
- Okay, maybe especially here in 2020! What a year… ↩
- For those too young to remember the reference, the Lipton Soup Company had a string of ads in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The mother in the ad would begin preparing Lipton soup, a child would ask, over and over, “is it soup yet?” and the mother would answer “not yet” over and over until finally she’d say, “It’s soup!” So “not soup yet” means “not finished” or “not ready.” ↩