To Believe or Not to Believe Ethnicity Estimates. That is the Question?

This is the question we all ask about how reliable are ethnicity estimates of the DNA testing companies?

The growth in DNA testing, and thank goodness for us adopted people, is due in large part to people who want to know their ethnicity.  They saw the ad that showed this guy who always thought he was X and in fact he turned out to be Y. So he had to change his clothes to now match his new ethnicity. And so they tested.

From my research humans moved around and mated with at least Neanderthal and possibly the Denisovans and who knows who else. For the most part unless your group was cut off from any outside influences on an island or jungle that no one could easily access you are a mixture of stuff . (Stuff is a technical Genetic Genealogy term).

Although modern humans are now the only human lineage left alive, others not only lived alongside modern humans, but even interbred with them, leaving behind DNA in the modern human genome. Such lineages not only included the Neanderthals, the closest extinct relatives of modern humans, but also the mysterious Denisovans, known only from molars and a finger bone unearthed in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. [Denisovan Gallery: Tracing the Genetics of Human Ancestors](1)

(1)Neanderthals Weren’t Humans’ Only Mating Partners. Meet the Denisovans.

Denisovan Cave
Devisovan Cave credit: Shutterstock

First I am no expert in this area.  I am just an average adopted Sarah trying to figure all of this stuff out to 1. To find biological matches and 2. Am I really Irish? English? or ? just like a lot of people.

Below are my ethnicity results from the 5 companies where I have tested.  I have only included the top  % from each group.  The two companies that do Mitochondrial DNA both agree that my HaploGroup is U5 and my Subclade is U5a1b1e.

French & German              30.1%         23&Me

Great Britain & Ireland    72.8%         Living DNA

North & West Europe       65.6%          MyHeritage

West & Central Europe    50.0%         FamilyTree DNA

Germanic Europe             31.0%          Ancestry

Ok so I am European for the most part, this is what all this testing tells me.

Blaine Bettinger a well know and respected Genetic Genealogist and DNA aficionado in discussing this issue, if I understand him correctly, says the tests are good and identifying what continent you come from.

I have found my bio parents and on my paternal side my grand parents were Transylvanian Saxon (ethnic Germans) from the Transylvanian region of Romania.

On my maternal side my grand parents were French Canadian and Irish/English.

Each testing company uses different reference populations and ethnicity breakdowns, so ethnicity results will vary by company. As an example for Eastern European Genealogy from this May 2018 article from Family Tree the reference populations companies use to determine this group were as follows:

  • 23andMe: Southern European, Eastern European, and Ashkenazi Jewish
  • AncestryDNA: Eastern European, European Jewish, and Finnish and Russian (see our January/February 2018 issue for information on place clues in your AncestryDNA “DNA Story”)
  • Family Tree DNA: Sephardic Jewish, Ashkenazi Jewish, Finland, West and Central Europe, Southeast Europe, and East Europe
  • Living DNA: Northeast Europe and the Baltics, Southeast Europe, Germanic, and Western Russia
  • MyHeritage DNA: Ashkenazi Jewish, Balkan, Baltic, East European, and Finnish(2)

(2)How to Overcome Obstacles in Eastern European Genealogy

So bottom line from my view point is that we are not there yet.
The testing companies can’t tell you that you are from the County Galway in Ireland or the Highlands of Scotland or if you should be wearing a kilt or lederhosen.
This doesn’t mean that we won’t be there soon, but don’t go changing your wardrobe yet.
Also enjoy all cultures and try them on for size. You might want to adopt a few.


  1. What is “Mitochondrial DNA”? What does “HaploGroup is U5 and my Subclade is U5a1b1e” even mean?

    1. Mitochondrial DNA is the small circular chromosome found inside mitochondria. These organelles found in cells have often been called the powerhouse of the cell. The mitochondria, and thus mitochondrial DNA, are passed only from mother to offspring through the egg cell.
      A haplogroup is a genetic population group of people who share a common ancestor on the patriline or the matriline. Haplogroups are assigned letters of the alphabet, and refinements consist of additional number and letter combinations.
      In genetics, subclade is a term used to describe a subgroup of a subgenus or haplogroup. It is commonly used today in describing genealogical DNA tests of human mitochondrial DNA haplogroups and human Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups.

  2. So here is your Saxon lesson for the day (spelled phonetically) as best as I can recall. Dunta hut sulaca frahsa. “That the dog should eat you up”. LOL. Those Saxons crack me up. Courtesy of Grandma Rose.

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