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About those new percentages…

Repeat after The Legal Genealogist: they’re just estimates.

Say it again: they’re just estimates.

One more time: they’re just estimates.

Yes, I got my new estimated admixture estimates from Ancestry on Friday..

Yes, I think they’re hilarious. I mean, seriously, how closely related would you think these two people could be?

One is very German, with 30% Germanic Europe. The other is registering 7%. One has a whole dollop of Eastern Europe & Russia. The other has none. Wales in one set of results, not in the other. France and Benin & Togo in one set of results, and none in the other.

Yes, of course, these are full blood siblings. My sister on the left and me on the right, to be precise.

And no, I’m not going to tear my hair out over them, any more than I did last year,1 or the year before,2 all the way back to the first time I ever described these as cocktail party conversation pieces.3

Because they are estimates.

Folks, seriously, 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.

Moreover, the labels being stuck on these results are fuzzy. Seriously fuzzy. Get more Scottish and less English this time, or vice versa? Take a look at the map: “Scotland” includes a great big chunk of the northern English counties. Did your “Germanic Europe” go up or down? The map again shows that essentially all of the western part of my sister’s “Eastern Europe and Russia” region overlaps with the eastern part of my “Germanic Europe.” And parts of Switzerland are lumped in, on the map, with “England & Northwest Europe.” The eastern part of “Norway” overlaps the western part of “Sweden & Denmark.” And so on and so on…

That’s why — quite frankly — I don’t care a whole lot about these “new and improved” estimates. We should know by now 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,
• 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.

And I don’t care a whole lot about these 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 — the connections to cousins who may have family Bibles or photographs or documents or stories to help us move forward in reconstructing our family histories.

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.”4

Now let’s get to work on those cousin matches.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Not soup in 2021 either,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 19 Sep 2021).

SOURCES

  1. Judy G. Russell, “In 2020, still not soup…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 13 Sep 2020 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 19 Sep 2021).
  2. And still not soup…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Jan 2019.
  3. Those pesky percentages,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Oct 2013.
  4. 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.”
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