Can Your DNA Tell You Your Ancestry?

The Romanov family tree. Via Wikimedia.

The Romanov family tree. Via Wikimedia.

For those of us living in the United States there’s a cottage industry for ancestry determination. For a fee, websites like ancestry.com or familytree.com claim to research your family history. I have long been fascinated by these advertisements. I always thought it unlikely that a website could accurately track down my family tree without physically researching it. Still, it is possible that they could have a vast database of computerized immigration records. Recently, there have been advertisements purporting the use of DNA testing to tell you your “true” ancestry. DNA testing, unlike a family tree, is a well developed science. Is this feasible? Can your DNA tell you your ancestry? If so how? Since DNA is in the realm of science, I think taking a look at it skeptically is worthwhile.

America is almost exclusively a nation of immigrants. And from an even broader skeptical viewpoint, ties to any real estate are really just a question of squatters’ semantics, meaning that if you go back far enough we all originated from the same area of the world.We are pretty sure that at some point in the distant past there was less than 18,000 humans in Europe, Africa and Asia. That “bottleneck” in history probably means that we are all more closely related than anyone really realizes. Our genetics is a road map that extends back through time to the earliest forms of life. It is arbitrary to select one time out of that genetic history and mark that as your heritage.

Nonetheless, people like to have a sense of continuity about their past, and share a cultural heritage. Because the US is relatively young as a nation, I think we have an overdeveloped sense of heritage. While heritage for Americans is just as important as it to other nationalities, the average US citizen has a relatively short family history, and they tend to identify with the families country of origin, using hyphenated labels like Irish-American, African-American, Italian-American, etc.

As perplexing as it is to some visitors to the United States, Americans’ tendency to hyphenate their nationality is typically a way of talking about their cultural heritage. Yet the term nationality is often used. A good example of this is my own foolish thinking when I was a young man, and some amusement I probably provided to a customs official in Great Britain 20 years ago, when I was 18 years old, on a class trip to London. The security measures for customs and the airlines were very different at the time. On final approach we were handed applications for a tourist visa to Great Britain. One of the card’s questions concerned nationality and I put “Portuguese” as my response. It sounds ridiculous to someone outside of the US, but when my family talked about nationality we were Portuguese. Both sides of my family immigrated to the US about 70 years ago, from the Azores, and some of my family members only spoke Portuguese. So it seemed reasonable to me at the time to give that answer. As you may have guessed the customs agent in Heathrow airport sighed, looked at me, and asked some questions that confused me at first, then soon made me feel silly. He asked “What language do you speak?” to which I answered “English.” Then he asked “Where is your passport from?” My answer (becoming more confused) was “The United States.” He then proceeded to say “Just so you know, you’re an Amer-ri-can, not Portuguese.” I was very embarrassed. Today I find the whole episode amusing, and a good example of how insular thinking can affect your perception. For those of you outside the US, it is a good example of how confusing ancestry and heritage can be in American culture.

Traditional Bavarian folk dancing in Munich. Via Wikimedia.

Can a DNA test clear up questions you may have about your heritage? If so how? In television advertisements, these companies show a person who talks about his family’s German ancestry, how devout he was towards his family traditions including lederhosen dancing (Schuhplattler). But when he learns that his DNA indicates his ancestry is Scottish rather than German, he eagerly replaces his lederhosen with a Scottish tartan kilt.

Bagpipers on Saint Peter Street, French Quarter, New Orleans. Via Wikimedia.

There are many problems here for me. I am certain that this is a stylized advertisement—not an actual person. But family traditions like lederhosen dancing exist apart from a DNA test. Culture is learned and has nothing to do with your genetics. The whole idea that someone can learn who they really are through genetics is, in my opinion, nonsense. I find the whole idea that DNA markers are a superior method to determine ancestry slightly racist, similar to the idea that “blood” is paramount. Furthermore, I agree with a 2007 article in the journal Scienceabout ancestry DNA testing, in which the authors write:

“Because race has such profound social, political and economic consequences, we should be wary of allowing the concept to be redefined in a way that obscures its historical roots and disconnects from its cultural and socioeconomic context. The article recommends that the American Society of Human Genetics and other genetic and anthropological associations develop policy statements that make clear the limitations and potential dangers of genetic ancestry testing. Among the potentially problematic byproducts of widespread genetic ancestry testing: questionable claims of membership to Native American tribes for financial or other benefits; patients asking doctors to take ancestry tests into consideration when making medical decisions; and skewed census data due to people changing ethnicity on government forms. Moreover, many Americans are emotionally invested in finding an ancestral homeland, and thus vulnerable to a test that can produce mixed results at best and false leads at worse. ‘This search for a homeland is particularly poignant for African Americans, who hope to recapture a history stolen by slavery.'”

All of the major companies advertising this form of ancestry-related DNA testing use autosomal DNA tests. The companies don’t exactly promote the accuracy of the test, but tend to give the impression that it is the path to your true heritage. It takes a little searching, but you can find a disclosure that accurately shows the companies’ beliefs about the usefulness of their tests. For example, ancestry.com writes:

“Your AncestryDNA™ results include information about your ethnicity across 26 regions/ethnicities and identifies potential relatives through DNA matching to others who have taken the AncestryDNA test. Your results are a great starting point for more family history research, ‪and it can also be a way to dig even deeper into the research you’ve already done.”

That is a far less rosy answer than the advertising leads you to believe. Admixture DNA testing is a valid test—not a sham—but the results are complicated and very limited. It examines non-sex chromosomes inherited from both parents and identifies chromosomes that contain DNA segments from all ancestors. To a limited extent, this test can track the geographical movements of ancestors by examining single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), some of which influence traits such as skin color and resistance to regional diseases. Using that information there are patterns of human genetic diversity which could be weakly correlated with racial and ethnic categories. Those are, in turn, partially correlated with geography. However the same SNPs may be found among several populations around the world, and thus can produce false leads. The companies use the ancestry markers to show genetic differences between what are assumed to be four biologically distinct populations: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and Native Americans.

Even the language shows some major flaws for this type of test—i.e. weakly correlated, partially correlated, and assumed-distinct populations. And this isn’t the only problem in using these tests for discovering ancestry. The results rely on a database of samples to correlate these findings. You need a comparison to a known DNA marker to know that your genetic markers are associated with a certain region. Genetic matching depends largely on the number of samples in a company’s database. The researchers published in Science wrote:

“Even databases with 10,000 to 20,000 samples may fail to capture the full array of human genetic diversity in a particular population or region.

The team also pointed out that research into this type of testing has shown inherent flaws, with the writers noting:

“Dark-skinned East Africans might be omitted from the AIMS reference panel of ‘Africans’ because they exhibit different gene variants.”

This means that a certain sizable African populations (the most genetically diverse region on the planet) may not fit in the African marker group, despite being from Africa, appearing to share the same outward traits as other Africans in the database, and having a shared cultural heritage. Such a risk of failure makes this test dubious.

Others have have rolled out mitochondrial DNA testing, which is more problematic. Because such tests analyze less than 1 percent of a person’s genome, they will miss most of a person’s relatives. If you take a mitochondrial DNA test, you learn something about your mother’s ancestry. It leaves out completely your father’s ancestry. Plus, if you go back as little as 10 generations, that test is telling you something about only one ancestor out of more than a thousand from that part of your family tree.

Overall DNA tests fail because they cannot account for recent migrations of peoples from their ancient homelands. Present-day patterns of residence are rarely identical to what existed in the past, and social groups have changed over time, in both name and composition. The relation between genetic and cultural heritage is unbelievably murky given current world wide mixing of populations. And, as noted before, these tests don’t actually tell you anything about who you are. If you’re adopted by an Italian family, raised from birth as Italian, and will die believing you’re Italian, how does a DNA test change that? What right does a DNA test have to steal your legacy and tell your great, great, great grandchildren that they are in fact Swedish? None at all. Ancestry is a legacy, not a bloodline.

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Disclaimer: This post is my personal opinion, it is not a substitute for medical care. It is for informational purposes only. The information on Skeptoid blog is not intended nor recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your own physician or other qualified health care professional regarding any medical questions or conditions. This post does not reflect the opinion of my partners, professional affiliates, or academic affiliations. I have no financial conflicts of interest to disclose.

About Stephen Propatier

Stephen Propatier is a board certified acute care nurse practitioner specializing in spine and sports medicine. He is a member of the Society for Science Based Medicine.
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115 Responses to Can Your DNA Tell You Your Ancestry?

  1. Morgan says:

    It’s a genetics test. The right one is very accurate. Nobody should take these tests as indications of ancestry. The marketing of that one particular company is definitely misleading. I thinkost people will understand that they are simply getting a test to see what percentage of genes from particular races make them up. I believe it’s an awesome tool.

    Why not talk about how many Americans look like they are simply of European DNA, while in reality they have some west African DNA from the very recent slave days?? Too controversial for you? That would have been far more enlightening.

    • Morgan says:

      I guess talking touching on the likelihood that 40 percent of “white” Americans go have ancestry going back over 200 years in America have some west African DNA/ancestry mixed in, would not fit into being a skeptic of DNA tests for racial heritage, on a skeptic website. Then again, you never really said anything that shadows any real doubt that these test are accurate. The tests are pretty damn accurate for what they actually do.

    • Frederick says:

      I don’t think that would be controversial at all. Although it doesn’t make them any more African or any less white/American, culturally. If you look white, were raised white, and people treat you like you’re white, that means you’re white, even if you have a black grandparent.

      Genetics tests are only as accurate as their sample size, and they don’t take into account whether your ancestors may have migrated to another area of the world. If you had a German ancestor that grew up in Britain and never spoke a word of German, the test wouldn’t know that. All it would tell you is that you had a German ancestor. If your DNA has a marker from an Indonesian ancestor, but the company testing it didn’t have that marker in their database, they wouldn’t be able to tell you about that Indonesian ancestor.

      If I have a west African marker in my DNA, it doesn’t mean I identify with other people with those markers, or with people who currently live in west Africa. It just means at some point in my family tree, someone with that marker passed it down to me.

    • Morgan
      Accuracy for this is from a certain perspective.
      As far as your comment about west African DNA.
      I believe I made my point clear that I think racial definitions based on bloodlines are essentially an arbitrary human definition. They are based on physical characteristics and not really significant to me. We are all one race in my opinion. West African DNA is not a scientific discussion and outside the roll of scientific skepticism. The science question is “can a DNA test tell you specifically that you belong to an arbitrarily named racial group based on geography.” My opinion is that it cannot.

    • On Quirks&Quarks (CBC radio science news show) they reported on a school project in an elementary school in England: Students would give a DNA sample and their fathers would give DNA samples so the students could be shown how parentage and DNA are related. BUT out of about 30 students (all that were involved) ,5 or 6 had a DNA mis-match. They did NOT tell the students which ones they were. One genetics researcher ‘s comment was that genealogies based on family trees may have to taken with more than a grain of salt on the paternity side especially for a tree of many generations.On another note :In 2008 and 2012, the American press called Barack Obama an African-American at much as they could,but never called his opponent a European-American.

    • Paok says:

      Bolches y tibios yarboclos

  2. Fortunately we’ve not been exposed to this AncestryDNA ad in the UK, but I agree with you about the misleading marketing. However, the admixture component of the test is for most people not the primary reason for testing. Autosomal DNA tests are primarily cousin-finding tests used by genealogists to find matches with genetic cousins, and this is something that they potentially can do very well, especially as the matching databases are now getting very large. A DNA test on its own is not very informative but DNA testing when used in combination with genealogical evidence can be a very powerful tool. You might be interested in the blog post I wrote for Sense About Science on “Sense about genealogical DNA testing” which explains the genealogical applications of DNA testing:

    http://www.senseaboutscience.org/blog.php/41/sense-about-genealogical-dna-testing

    We have an article on the UCL website about understanding genetic ancestry which provides further information:

    https://www.ucl.ac.uk/mace-lab/debunking/understanding-testing

    As a minor point the other company you mention in your article are Family Tree DNA (https://www.familytreedna.com) not Familytree.com.

  3. IIIIIIIII dunno!

    As a full-blooded mongrel I regard the matter of very limited interest. (I never have taken any genealogical or genetic tests, but listening to some of my mother’s gossip about family one day, I casually picked up about six nationalities in my recent ancestry, some of them, such as several nations of southern and eastern Europe, are themselves of such mixed heritage that each of them practically guaranteed several independent lines of origin.
    Heaven knows how many a real investigation would turn up; and my wife added a couple to the brew for the benefit of our children! )
    The problem is largely a question of what meaningful questions the tests could answer, irrespective of minor details of how few children can be confident of their fathers. (STARTLINGLY few, to go by recent surveys! Fortunately I have long adhered to the view that there is no such thing as an illegitimate child, only debatably illegitimate parents at most.)

    The most interesting aspect is not what anyone’s nationality is (even a glance through any informative historical atlas will show boundaries and states shifting across the face of the Earth like oil paints on a water surface, more often than not without taking the populations with them.)
    And being able to trace the background of people even notionally in reliable detail would not be of practical interest to the modern genealogiphile. It certainly could be of great historical interest and greater zoogeographical and evolutionary interest
    (Whatever happened to the Australopithecines and Homo floresiensis?
    What the bleep happened to give us 46 chromosomes?
    What was the sequence of diaspora from Africa via the middle East and possibly by sea?
    Why are the Native Americans so shy about the provenance of Kennewick man?
    And so on.)
    But whether my parentage derived from Portugal, France, Italy, Poland, Iraq, England, Pakistan or Israel — how could that matter; most of those didn’t even exist as countries one millennium ago, let alone with anything like the current boundaries.

    Given such inconvenient factual considerations , the genes can say hardly anything about your ancestral nationality, no matter what they say about your biological origins!

    • Chissie says:

      We have are own history. Not sum made up sceem to sell ur blood that can b giving or sold to sold to sum other race.. White people always trying to make $ .. An if people are that nieve to believe u.. I say good luck on ur scam…

      • Gail M Feldman says:

        you do not need to give blood for these dna tests, just a bit of saliva that no one can (or would want to) sell. it’s not a scam. it’s just not what some people expect it to be. it is what it is, no more and no less. and by the way, what is this “white people always” crap? you want to lump everyone together based on skin color? does this sound familiar at all? it’s just garbage.

        g

    • Normandie Kent says:

      ” Why are the Native American’s shy about the providence of Kenniwick Man? ” Why do you think they are “shy” ? They have no reason to be shy at all. Especially since June 2015, it was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt , Kenniwick Man was , in fact , Of Native American Heritage and ancestral to the Colville, Nez Perze, Yakima, Umatilla , the very same native people who from the start claimed him as an ancestor. He was also closely related to all other Native Americans. Maybe they already know their ancestral homeland, and who their ancestors are, and maybe they are not , unlike most Americans, a insecure race of people .

  4. C Turner says:

    It is possible that what we have here is a failure of the general population to understand the physical science (molecular biology) and social science (cultural anthropology) at use and then attempting to apply pop-cultural understanding to much more specific scientific terminology. We do indeed need to fault the test provider’s marketing method but that doesn’t negate the sciences. The science is well accepted and understood – it’s the resulting misunderstanding of the science that we should be concerned about.

    The example of “what is your nationality” is a very good one. The informed genetic genealogist studying results from one of these atDNA tests understands that nationality, ethnicity, culture, ancestral origin, social genealogy (as distinct from physical genealogy), and the like aren’t the same. The informed genetic genealogist also understands the limitations of admixture results that come from trying to group populations of such a diverse species as humans who have migrated globally for 10’s of thousands of years. Those most interested in migration patterns over time aren’t all that concerned though with the sociocultural implication of such classification (such as noting that Americans who have ancestry here over 200 years probably have a percentage of SubSaharan African) as that’s a study issue for the sociologists and historians. What these sorts of tests tell us, with reasonably accurate precision, is the geographic source at specific times of history (and sometimes prehistory) of characteristics we each carry within our DNA. Some of those characteristics can be linked to classifications we humans ascribe to each other. [whether creating those classifications such as race is valid isn’t a fault of the tests, that’s a social question]

    To conflate culture and ethnicity though with geographic origin (as does Ancestry.com in the commercial cited in your essay here) is patently false. As you note, culture and socioethnicity are learned and transferred. That they are learned and passed from generation-to-generation doesn’t invalidate what can be learned from the science though. The two, while very often closely related, are not mutually and exclusively dependent. Consider: all Germans do not dance in lederhosen nor do all Scots wear a kilt and play bagpipes.

    We Americans are mostly all mutts in the sense that we are a very highly admixed population. Even using a four-group model (European, Asian, African, Native American) of world populations, few would return a result of 100% of any one. Extended those world populations beyond four into the subpopulations of each of those and we could predict that none would come back 100% of any one. We tend to identify though with the culture we were taught and it likely is one of those our ancestry represents. Remember, if we go back only six generations, there are 64 fourth-great-grandparents there who could have influenced or even directed the culture our present family embraces.

    So the fault here is not the the testing itself is invalid. The fault is that the marketing of cultural identity as a function of ancestral origin is invalid and, perhaps, seriously racist in nature. The example used in the cited Ancestry.com commercial of learning that the test participant’s ancestral migration points to Scotland and not Germany is a valid example because it happens with regularity – with the frequency of non-paternity event in the population added to the frequency of exaggerated or falsified family tradition. It should have led the participant to then ask not what his cultural identity is though (as the commercial does) but instead when, where, and why that mismatch in social and physical genealogy occurred. The fault here is not an invalidity of the testing itself but in a misinterpretation of how the results can be used best.

    A very high percentage of those active in genetic genealogy are only remotely interested in these recent ancestry origin findings though – most are more interested in confirming or refuting the social genealogy they’ve recorded by comparing the DNA of other participants. By comparing my atDNA to that of my second cousin, it becomes possible to confirm (or deny) that we are indeed factually (as opposed to socially) second cousins. We then also confirm (or deny) the great-grandparents. atDNA testing allows us to do this out to about 200 years. It’s much more complex than, “you’re from Ireland.”

    mtDNA has an incredible utility amongst genetic genealogists as does yDNA – it can confirm relation in absolute terms. The purpose of that sort of testing is not to determine recent ancestral origin and few market it for that purpose. It is also useful in deep (10’s of thousands of years) ancestral origin study.

  5. Ray Jones says:

    I completely agree with you about the limitations of DNA genealogy tests with respect to the ethnicity predictions. For people who are serious about genetic genealogy, the rule of thumb is to treat ethnicity predictions as a tool that can be useful at the broad population level (e.g., showing that someone has ancestors from Africa, Western Europe, Asia, etc.). The example from the commercial of using the test results to show German versus Scottish is not something that you would ever hear from a serious genetic genealogist. This commercial is something that the Ancestry.com marketing team put together.

    The key point is that DNA genealogy is another tool for genealogists and can be used in conjunction with traditional archival research. For example, if a person is an adoptee and has no knowledge of their birth parents, the ethnicity percentages can be quite helpful in providing clues for identifying possible ancestors. Ce Ce Moore is a genetic genealogist who specializes in using DNA to help adoptees learn their family history. Her blog has some amazing examples – several of which involved the use of the ethnicity percentages as clues for tracking down unknown ancestors:

    http://www.yourgeneticgenealogist.com/

    DNA genealogy is also useful for a person like myself who has the Jones surname in my tree. My tree is currently “stuck” on John Jones, who was born somewhere in Virginia in 1806, despite several years of searching a large volume of archival records. I have DNA tests of my father and several close and distant Jones cousins. With DNA testing, we are able to identify the specific DNA segments that we have in common (i.e. if three or more of us each have the same DNA segment – this is strong evidence that this came from our Jones line or one of the lines connected to it). We then can check to see if other testers share these same DNA segments. As such, we have identified several other people who are somehow connected to our Jones line – which makes it interesting to try and piece together records to explore and verify the connection.

    So – bottom line – I agree with you about the limitations of specific ethnicity predictions, but DNA testing is a powerful tool for genealogy that can be used to further genealogy research.

    • I am not deriding it’s usefulness as a total picture for a persons heritage. I am just saying that a DNA test cannot tell you your heritage. Furthermore it is deceptive to say that a test told me that I am Scottish when I thought I was German.

      • Ray Jones says:

        Again – I am not disputing your point about the limitations of the ethnicity predictions. As I said, serious genetic genealogists only use the ethnicity predictions as clues for additional research. There is widespread agreement among genetic genealogists that country-level ethnicity percentages are not valid. Here is a recent post that goes into this point in great detail:

        http://dna-explained.com/2015/08/19/ethnicity-testing-and-results/

        Also – I’m not sure why you keep fixating on the Scottish/German commercial. It’s a mindless commercial from Ancestry’s marketing department that has nothing to do with the actual study of genetic genealogy. You’re ignoring a legitimate field of study and harping on a silly commercial.

        • Ray
          The point of the post, which I am sorry you did not get, was that the commercial is deceptive and the science does not support the advertising. I am not contesting the validity of the scientific test. Which I did indicate was valid.

          • Ray Jones says:

            And – the point of my reply – which you apparently did not get, is that the commercial is a red herring. You’re treating something that the Ancestry marketing department drummed up as if it is the gold standard used throughout genetic genealogy.

            It would be like slamming film-making because 20th Century Fox released “Dude Where’s My Car?”

          • Eljay says:

            It seems that most agree Ancestry.com needs to get a grip on themselves and come back to reality and that the science is being abused by marketing dumbo’s, as a very amateur genealogist i have found it helpful to locate geographical areas of interest for my paper trail searches that most would agree end around 1066 if we are lucky, i am not concerned with race, if we all came out of Africa as most believe then we are all one race and differences are due to mutations caused by environment, or some of us really did come from Mars, personally my journey has revived my interest not only in History but also in the journey forward, what will become of mankind, i find the philosophical possibilities just as interesting as the science, most of which i don’t understand but i am catching on, i do find it interesting that when we look at “all of life” we see the same events, developments if you like occurring in many different parts of the planet at around about the same time, so why not so with Humans or are we really that special and have failed to embrace how fortunate we are.

          • @ ray Jones
            I am really not sure what your saying Ray? You response was a little confusing? Are you saying that the commercial is irrelevant to the discussion about using DNA for ancestry because it is a obvious lie? Or are you saying that marketing is an exaggeration of reality, which I agree with. So I am really not sure what your issue is with the post. Why would deceptive marketing practices be OK? It is not like the commercial comes out and clearly says that the scenario that they propose is not possible based upon a genealogy study. Or are you trying to say that the genetic studies are in fact accurate depictions of a persons genealogy, which it is, but that doesn’t lead you to ancestry or heritage. I would say 20th century fox never marketed “dude where my car” as a tour de force drama. Which is the point. namely that they are marketing their DNA services as a definitive answer, ancestry commercial is the most egregious and ubiquitous but hardly the only one.
            “family tree-Our DNA tests can help you find family, break through brick walls and trace your lineage through time. We are the only company with a comprehensive testing suite that can take you on this journey.”
            “23andme-Mike used 23andMe in his search for ancestral connections to Europe and Africa and in the process he found a connection that links his story that the story of all mankind.”
            So again I am not sure what your objection is. The point is of the post is the consumer promise-which is misleading and impossible.
            That’s the problem with a BGA DNA test, the truth is not so clear cut in tests of this nature. The truth is based on a probability. Any newly introduced population can change things dramatically. The reason is that a BGA test is attempting to infer information from DNA that DNA doesn’t define. An ancestor’s original location can be any where. DNA simply doesn’t reflect or store that type of information. From the frequency (or concentration) of those DNA markers in each population, we are making an inference which could be right or wrong. If a child is born in say Atlanta, Georgia, that geographical location and information will not be stored in the child’s DNA.

            One of the biggest misconceptions out there, is that a BGA or Admixture Test, can pinpoint the exact tribe or small population someone is from. As one can clearly see, this is not necessarily true. DNA alone simply cannot do this as it’s advertised. This is one of the reasons, the scientific community as a whole has not embraced BGA tests.

        • Cerdric Hardwicke says:

          That is because it is silly for the person to assume they were Scottish and not German based on the ambiguous results of such a test. I just saw another commercial from the same company where the person claims they were only 16% Italian and mostly Eastern European.This test will not be able to determine a person is 16% of anything. Many DNA markers overlap All European countries. Bogus. Will not tell you specifically you are of any ethnic group. It is just going to tell you where people are TODAY that have the same DNA markers as you,and that is also very limited since the database does not include everyone.

  6. puzzled says:

    This long article I find to be quite disappointing because there are several issues being conflated and the result will be misleading.

    First, the author writes:

    “For a fee, websites like ancestry.com or familytree.com claim to research your family history. I have long been fascinated by these advertisements. I always thought it unlikely that a website could accurately track down my family tree without physically researching it. Still, it is possible that they could have a vast database of computerized immigration records. “

    This seems quite dismissive and ignorant of the current state of internet-based genealogy. There are now a considerable number of record sets available online, all around the world, offered by various organizations including for-profit companies like ancestry.com .

    As for DNA: The article no where addresses the uses of DNA in genealogy that are not based on “ethnicity” testing. Here I am using the more traditional term “ethnicity” for what apparently the author labels “ancestry”. A great deal can be learned by using DNA for the purposes of genealogy that has nothing to do with ethnicity estimations.

    Additionally, the problem faced by consumers today is that there is a considerable range of quality and services offered by DNA testing companies, and to try and lump them all together as a monolithic offering is unfair to those companies which try to do a better job than others.

    And the real problem with ethnicity testing has nothing to do with science but everything to do with society and the concept of identity, and the need for humans to label themselves and others. This problem existed before DNA testing.

    Anecdotally, my own DNA tests that I manage have proved useful for family history research. I don’t pay a great deal of attention to ethnicity estimations for my tests as I am more interested in genealogy, but the results given to me by both 23andMe and AncestryDNA to seem to fit reasonably well with the researched pedigrees.

    Finally, quoting a now 8 year old article from Science means the author has not kept up with the recent literature in biogeography and applications of genomics to recent human ancestry.

    If the author or Skeptoid want to provide a real service to the consumer, then a better approach would be to do a comprehensive review of the market and the research literature, point out the differences between what exists today, the positives and negatives of what is offered, and find real-world examples of consumer experiences.

    • Ok I’ll bite.
      Please feel free to post the new data research that supports improvement over the state of science 8 years ago that has made up for the deficits in accuracy that I listed.
      That quote was a regional database for one ethic geographic location 10-20k (IE: Scottish), are you saying that the database has over 1 mil of each category or how improving the accuracy of the DNA test makes up for the mathematical database issue? I am confused.
      I look forward to the new information/research.

      For a more recent example some leading geneticists in August 2015.
      “Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at UCL said: “On a long trudge through history – two parents, four great-grandparents, and so on – very soon everyone runs out of ancestors and has to share them.
      “As a result, almost every Briton is a descendant of Viking hordes, Roman legions, Africa n migrants, Indian Brahmins, or anyone else they fancy.”
      His colleague Prof Mark Thomas said: “These claims are usually planted by the companies that provide these so-called tests and are not backed up by published scientific research. This is business, and the business is genetic astrology.”

  7. The DNA tests at genealogy sites are a jumping off point, and have actually, helped some people (including adoptees) find lost or unknown relations. Ancestry. MyHeritage, FamilySearch, and various other sites in the US and abroad also do contain census, birth, marriage, and death records from around the world, as well as military, church, and other documents. The indexes aren’t perfect, but scanned images of many of the original docs can be found. There are lots of blogs and lists (Cyndi’s List comes to mind) and even Facebook groups to help newbies navigate all the possibilities. But for someone who really wants to know about their family history, these sites are a great place to start.

  8. Eljay says:

    Those of us in the rest of the world outside the great FREE democracy that is the USA have a saying.. (Only in America) your understanding of DNA testing appears to be limited and it would seem paramount that you yourself undergo DNA testing for genealogy as a research project, when you understand it fully i think we would all like to see you write another column on the subject, and by the way a sample group of 10-20,000 is not even close to the reality, try starting at 1,000,000, yes there are small start up companies or specialist companies with smaller groups that concentrate mostly on medical research, however they do have access to the DNA of the millions who have tested and approved the use of their DNA for specific purposes so long as their privacy is guaranteed and there is also the cross matching company gedmatch.com that has contributors from 4 of the major genealogy projects, also most of us fully understand that in some instances the results must be seen as general and not specific, still it serves as an awesome tool to help us trace our own ancestral path to the greatest degree only to one point in time 1066 when the use of surnames became common, unless of course you are connected to a long line of royalty where more information is available, it’s quite probable that you along with millions of us are genetically related to Charlamaigne, Ghengis Kahn, Nial of the Nine Hostages etc, so get of your butt, go do a comprehensive DNA test including atDNA and write a diarised column of your journey, don’t be like those nutters who take a line from the bible and impose a moral obligation that is not in context with the paragraph from which it was taken.

  9. DEWDDS says:

    The answer is: it depends. The service used certainly is important, but also comparison between multiple services is useful. The idea of verifying a find by independent means is essential here. So for example, I identified sub Saharan African ancestry in my own DNA (~2%) and confirmed the results via other genetic testing services. Also I had two brothers and my mom tested to verify the hypothesis (the original story was the all too common family tale of ‘Native American princess’ in the past) and it held true. Ancestry.com gave a reliable paper link trail to this African ancestor, so I think I covered all the necessary bases to seal this as fact in my own ancestral links.

    Teasing out differences between closely related genetic groups can be more challenging though, since the overlaps can muddle the picture. A guy with a German surname, but mostly British connections may well have DNA that looks like a typical Englander. Intermarriage between European groups, especially in the Americas, can easily explain these anomalies. Oddly enough, while possessing a German surname, my autosomal DNA is mostly British Isles and my Y-haplogroup is typical of Western Slavic males. Add in the smattering of African ancestry and a patina of Native American blood and that makes me quintessential American.

  10. Michelle Maani says:

    I am interested in genetic testing for (one of) my children (why pay for 2?). I married an Iranian who has relatives with very Mongol features, although he looks rather typically Persian. His mother was dark-skinned and his father light-skinned. Since Persia is one of those cross-road regions of the world (are there any that aren’t, anymore?) I would imagine that it’s possible to have Arab ancestry too. And then on my side of the family, we have traced our ancestry to Ireland, Scotland, France, and Belgium. That’s all European and I don’t think that there is that much difference between the different Euro-caucasoid groups. My father claims Native American ancestry, though he has not a clue what tribe that is. A grandmother from the South raises the possibility of some African ancestry. So my kids are a real mish-mash. And then I wonder if there is anyway that a DNA test can really tell any of this anyhow. $200 or more down the drain? No wonder every female black celebrity is told she his related to an African princess.

    • Eljay says:

      Michelle we all have African ancestors at some point in time, that is where we all came from in the beginning, unless of course some of us are the last of the Martians who destroyed their planet through greed and war and had to move somewhere else, Nationhood is a political lie designed to make some of us feel superior to others it’s the very essence of racism.
      A DNA test will show the percentage of African, Asian, Indian and Aboriginal dna that you have inherited over time or i should say what is left from your earlier ancestors through your particular haplogroup, for example broadly speaking i am 97% European and 3% African and my test can be broken down even further to show which modern country borders my haplogroup probably lived in, traveled over and in which my ancestors bred and passed on new dna to their children,.
      I can see from the migration map that my particular haplogroup moved out of the great rift valley in Africa and followed an inland route through to West Asia, the middle East, the Russian Steppes, Poland, Germany, France Denmark and Switzerland, Ireland, England and Scotland, the USA and on to Australia, at which point in time my ancestors where in any of these places and for how long they stayed could be a case for a solid argument, i am considering the possibility of Land Rights claims at this very moment, gee i hope my court action doesn’t cause you to lose your home 🙂

      • Michelle M says:

        Of course we all have African ancestry that dates to early hominids. I am not talking about that. I’m talking about far more recent African ancestry. And reading some of my family history, I’m pretty sure that holds. I have a relative who married one of his father’s slaves. The marriage was declared legally invalid and his daughters were declared bastards by the courts so his brothers could take his property. Only his son (a bastard with a white woman) was given a portion of his inheritance.

    • I have heard of the Cherokee Princess by both White and Black Americans. I haven’t heard of the African Princess…yet!

  11. Sultana says:

    I have a 23 marker DNA test of my DNA and I would like to know how I use it to find out what nationality I am as my mother was adopted. Any suggestion. The test are very accurate

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Well, you can’t use DNA to determine nationality. Nations are very, very recent human inventions, which have been around far too short a time for them to have any impact on DNA. Furthermore, they came into existence in an era with increased human movement across the globe, meaning that the DNA from various groups has mixed more and more at the same time that nations have developed and formalized. As far as I know, you can tell very broadly what portions of your ancestry derive from what continents, based on traits that concentrated in different populations tens of thousands of years ago as people spread across the globe. But that part of DNA testing is not (and probably can’t be) very precise. I just heard a thing about this on NPR or something recently, but I can’t find it.

      • Eljay says:

        Spot on Noah, what DNA will tell us is that we are all related and nationhood is more a matter of historic circumstance and politics, both of which are circumspect, however if you must, you must and the only way to do this is via a paper trail this might bring you some relief, Dna can be tracked out of Africa and across the globe, you can follow your particular haplogroup out of Africa into the Middle East and across Europe probably through Russia and on to the new world, if you must have an absolute Nationality you must pick a specific point in time to find a probable identity, if we go back 40,000+ years hey guess what, we are all African, only problem though is it wasn’t called Africa then, it was possibly Pangea and previous to that Gondwana there was another probable super continent at that time but it wasn’t inhabited by humans until much later it was called Laurasia, it’s a complicated question to ask and the answer can only be defined by a specific point in time and even then it’s still a bit of a guess, anyone telling you different is having you on, it’s better to identify with your haplogroup rather than with a nationality, unless you are trying to limit a search area for your ancestry and if your R1b, or K good luck with that !

  12. Bossa.ahmed says:

    I want to do research about the DNA molecule.

  13. Gary Shaver says:

    Just as a matter of clarification. On the part of the author and a few commenters, there seems to be a lack of proper differentiating between nationality and ethnicity. Your nationality is, without question, the country in which you are a passport-holder. Your ethnicity is your cultural background. No matter how Portuguese your ethnicity, you will never have Portuguese as a nationality unless you become a citizen of Portugal (a Portuguese national). For instance, here in Canada we occasionally call Quebecois: French-Canadians. French as in their ethnicity, and Canadian as in the nationality.

    • I totally agree Gary. In the US cultural heritage is really what we mean when we say nationality. This stems from first generation immigrants naturalized or not often refereed to themselves or others by their country of origin. For them it was relatively accurate but that practice continued with the subsequent generations as it became a source of pride and cultural unity rather than the sometimes derisive use. It became an american cultural practice as inaccurate as it is. Like use of the word ironic or sarcastic, the misuse has become the meaning colloquially.

  14. Hola MI nombre es lord blackburn
    I consider my self cuban and puerto rican but people think I’m black even though on my mother side my grand pa her was born in havana but his father is puerto rican and Thai and his mother is cuban, but his brothers were born in Italy
    And my grandma was born in ponce puerto Rico and her mother is puerto rican but her father is french,meanwhile on my father’s side my grandfather is half puerto rican and Cuban but he was born in uraguey puerto Rico meanwhile my grandmother was born in San Juan and her mother was born in San Juan but her father was a native American from Canada so I’m just asking for a response and asking what does that make me I would be really great full for some answers thanks.

    • Your human technically homosapien. Anything you call yourself otherwise is culture not science

    • I reckon it makes you YOU — “Lord Blackburn”.
      What else should it make you?
      Certainly nothing in that makes you Cuban, not the genetics nor even the nationalities of your relatives; what makes you Cuban is your passport or birth certificate or the like.
      And let’s see anyone trace your passport in your DNA!

  15. Debora says:

    I have a friend thinks he’s 30 different nationality’s because of his ansysters. Is it possible

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Some of it depends on the laws of various countries. Some countries grant automatic citizenship if you can show that you have ancestors from their territory. But I don’t know anything more specific than that. You’d have to contact the various countries he thinks he can claim nationality.

    • C Turner says:

      Your friend has confused “nationality” with “ethnicity”, “culture”, and “ancestral origin”

      It is entirely possible that your friend’s ancestors come from 30 different nations. Those ancestors were likely citizens of those nations and therefor could rightly claim that nationality. You friend can’t claim that same nationality as his ancestors though – that’s not how governments work. Nationality defines which country you have citizenship within and to which you owe allegiance. Most people have one – some have two. It’s up to a country whether you’re their citizen though, not up to your DNA. Countries make laws that grant citizenship and nationality.

      Ethnicity isn’t assigned by nations. Ethnicity is either ascribed by others onto you or adopted by yourself as yours – or a combination of both. Cultures are embedded into ethnicity and are passed from our family but are also learned and adopted. It’s possible for someone to be multi-cultural and polyethnic. In fact, most of the groups we call “an ethnic group” are multi-cultural themselves, a result of amalgamation of families over time.

      Ancestral origin is simply where your ancestors came from. And here is where many who aren’t involved in the science and social science surrounding all of this get very confused. Each generation you travel back in time, you double the number of direct ancestors you have. 2 parents, 4 grand parents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great-great grand parents… …sixteen thousand (yes, thousand) 12th great grandparents. All of whom contributed to your DNA and all of whom are your ancestor. Many of whom were of nationality (and probably culture, ethnicity, religion, etc.) different from what the individual experiences today. Some, though, transferred their culture and ethnicity to the next generations intact.

      Some also transferred their physical attributes intact down hundreds (maybe even thousands) of years but most up in that tree didn’t. Some of those attributes from your sixteen-thousand ancient grandparents have been lost to time. [example: you can’t fully have inherited grandpa’s big ears AND grandma’s small ears at the same time] That’s how recombination of DNA works. It makes them no less your ancestor though. Even so, you’re not their nationality unless the country in question says you are. But you might share their ethnicity or culture in addition to the ancestral origins.

    • Michelle says:

      There is no genetic marker for nationality. There are genes that are more common in certain regions of the world. Any genetic test that tells you that you are “Italian,” for example, is plain lying. Nations don’t last, I’ve seen many rise and fall in my own lifetime. People travel and cross borders. Wars make borders change. Nationality cannot be claimed from a DNA test or even an ancestry search, nationality is your citizenship. An ancestry search can reveal the nationality of some of your ancestors. A DNA test cannot, it can only reveal the region that they came from if there is enough genetic commonality in that region. Some countries have been run over and invaded so many times that their genetic makeup is all over the place. My sister is big into ancestry and has traced ours back to Ireland and Scotland. But there is also an English connection she cannot quite make, and a Native American ancestor whose tribe she cannot identify. That is just on my father’s side. On my mother’s side there is a pretty strong link to Flemish families, but even then, one of them has a name that indicates his ancestors came from England. DNA cannot reveal these national origins, it can only state Northern European. I doubt it can even specify the tribe that my Native American ancestor came from…and that was only a few generations ago. People in America who could “pass as white” did because it was advantageous to them, and did not claim their more melanin-endowed ancestors.

      • Most Native Americans even if they looked white, did not pass into “whiteness”. But retained their Tribal Status. If they did pass for white, that would mean they gave up their clan, Tribal Identity, that’s why the majority never would.

  16. Jaime Espinola says:

    American is anyone that is from the continent of America. Bet they from America’s North (North America) or America’s South (South America). As oppose to U.S. American. Which is an American from the United States, or Anglo Anglo American which is an American from the Anglo-Saxon region of the American continent. A Latin American is an American from the Latin region of America, hence Latin America. The same goes for North American, Central Americans, South American etc.. Americans from the respective regions North, Central and South of the continent of America (North, Central, and South America).

    It has nothing to do with being from the United States. Which is just one of many countries in the continent OF America.

    Bunch of self centered arrogant twits.

    Authentic America:
    loc.gov/resource/g3290.ar305500/

    • “…from the continent of America”?
      What does that mean? (Apart from the question of which continent you mean anyway? For my part I am “from” Afreurasia.)
      By that definition *I* am American (I have come from America ooohhh four or five times now. I’d say it makes me four or five times as American as a LOT of “Americans” that have never been out of their birth states — or countries.)
      Hmmm… I even have come from Australia. And Britain. Maybe I should make a bid for World Domination… Hmmmmm…

    • Michelle Maani says:

      Jaime, it is ridiculous to try to change common parlance to fit your point of view. People from the United States of America are called Americans like people from the United Stated of Mexico are called Mexicans. It would be silly to to call either one of them United Statesians. People all over the planet call citizens of the United States of America “Americans.” When referring to continental origins, they use the terms “North American” or “South American,” since the actual names of the continents are “North America” and “South America.” Latin America is a linguistic and cultural name, and is not a name referring to actual physical origins. A person from the southern part of North America could call him or herself “Latin American.” But couldn’t someone for Quebec also?

      • Peter Dingwall says:

        Michelle – be careful what you call silly, here in Costa Rica we use the term ‘Estadounidenses’. Literally translated, that is ‘United Statesians’. People all over the planet use terms like ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘red’ , ‘yellow’ to describe skin colour; yet no one can lay their hand on a paper of one of those colours and truthfully say their skin is of that colour. Being silly is what we humans do so well, and frequently. For what it’s worth, I’m a Newfie, as I was born on the island of Newfoundland.

    • USA was never the Anglo American Part of the Country! You are forgetting the Native Americans, the African Americans, the Jews, the Moors, and the Indians and the Canary Islanders ect. It was Native American before any Anglo Saxon set foot on the American soil!

  17. Stephen D Echard says:

    Ancestry does not have a a test that delineates Scots or German. I has a British category and a Western European one. This ad came out of a contest for getting in a TV commercial. Unless its Asian or Sub Saharan oe European that’s about as far as they can delineate a ethnic influence.
    a Brother and a sister can get completely different DNA origins lets say Pat gets 70 percent British 30 percent western Europe, Sis gets 25% Brit, 40 percent Scandinavian etc
    It helps a lot with genealogy, that’s it real purpose. If you don’t know whether Great Grandpa was an adopted Jones or not and you find your genetically related to a bunch of Jones’s from the same town,thats where it helps.

    • Agreed Stephen
      Although it is necessary to point out that the mixing of European populations, the mis-identification of whole groups such as the African populations not testing as African plus the association with geographic locations is relatively arbitrary. Meaning it may offer a bit of evidence that is completely false and therefore not helpful in my opinion. Probably is is most useful in identifying native american genealogy since they were separate for the longest period of time.

  18. Zach says:

    This would make a good Skeptoid episode.

  19. Ronnie Reaves says:

    I believe a young female child may be the daughter of an estranged son. I have no acess to the son so I cannot get his DNA. I do not know for sure if I am father of estranged son but there is strong evidence i am from statements made to me by biological mother of,son. Is it possible to determine whether I may be the grandfather of female child. I have two male sons who I know to be my biological sons. I also have access to the biological mother of the estranged son. Is it possible to determine whether I am grandfather. What type of test should I take.

    • That is a difficult question since I am not a geneticist. First blush a mitochodrial DNA analysis should give you the information that you desire but this is not my specialty and a few steps away from the research here.

    • CoachTMBSC says:

      Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) will not answer that question since it passes only from mother to her children, you didn’t contribute any mtDNA to your descendants. yDNA also will not answer the question because females don’t have yDNA – yDNA will, however, unequivocally answer the question about the purported son if you can get a sample from him because yDNA passes unchanged (mutations not withstanding) from father-to-son.

      Autosomal DNA (atDNA) will determine the the relationship degree between grandfather and granddaughter. This is the test available via 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and FamilyTreeDNA. A positive (supported) result would return that the two people in question share about 25% (1700cm more-or-less) atDNA overall. It’s not a “proof” because Uncle-Niece or half-siblings also share about 25% atDNA. Given support that the relation can’t be Uncle-Niece or half-siblings, grandfather-granddaughter would be considered factual. The easiest test with a young child is the FamilyTreeDNA because they use a cheek swab and not a saliva collection.

      Testing their mothers won’t answer the question of paternity and, generally speaking, maternity is rarely the testing question. The only accurate way to prove biological relatedness is to test the parties in question, testing others simply proves (though may support) a specific relationship or non-relationship. For example: if an atDNA test demonstrates that this child is not your granddaughter, that is not proof that the son in question is not your son – because it ‘may’ be the case that he is not her father but ‘may’ still be your son. The only way to support relatedness is to test the actual subjects under question.

      In genetic genealogy parlance, you are asking about a prospective historical “Non Paternity Event (NPE)” – keep in mind that this sort of testing is not generally admissible in courts. If you need legal/forensic testing with ability to stand in court then you need to get in touch with an attorney who does family law. If you are interested primarily in the socio-biological aspects then a qualified genetic genealogist will be able to guide you. You also need permission of the guardian of that minor child.

      [THIS is the sort of question these dna tests are for. They excel at this genealogical task. Identifying socially constructed assignment to ethnic groups is not the highest and best use.]

    • James says:

      What are you some stalker? You don’t know if you fathered the son, you don’t know if the son fathered the daughter. Likely with the grand total of don’t knows you’re related somewhere but it is highly unlikely your grandfather & granddaughter.

      Even if you are what are you going to do – show up at the doorstep and hey I’m “grandpappy”.

  20. Edwin says:

    I am sorry but ancestry is bloodline. There are many indications to the same starting with knowing about potential health issues and risks of a particular group one may or may not be aware they are part of in the first place.

    I also do not believe current DNA testing is 100% reliable on a number of points yet I do see a lot of people making a lot of money off it.

  21. Natasha says:

    Even the fact fact that I have ancestry from java, Britain, dutch and perhaps Khoi/San. And that’s been drentched down to 1/4 of everything…. Me for one, I would really like to find out where my gene pool is predominant? I’m so mixed my head is spinning and wherever I go, people surely ask me! What are u? I don’t know….. If there is a test I would like to take it? Me- volunteering for a race test, cos this is what apartheid left me with. I have no grandparents to tell the truth, they where forces to lie, this is a matter of truth and reconciliation! There is many people like me, we don’t know our heritage. This was with held as per regulations.

  22. Natasha says:

    Pls give me a lead?

    • Kristen says:

      I just received my results from AncestryDNA.. I was pretty disappointed. My name is Scandinavian (first) and German (last) soooo.. where do you think my ethnicity showed up? Scandinavia and western Europe..Did Ancestry just look up my name and think someone knew something they didn’t? Weird to my whole family. There are no family stories, names, historical data, etc. to say anyone in my heritage came from Scandinavia.. Are they going all the way back to when Vikings came to the British Isles? I guess I wanted something closer, more current..not 1000 years ago. I knew my mother’s family came from the British Isles. My father was adopted and most definitely was from the middle east. I inherited a medical issue that originates there…I guess I was extremely disappointed to find that only 5% would have been considered from the Caucuses.. (we thought Jordan) But this was disappointing. I guess it comes from a place of wishing you had someone to identify with. I don’t identify with “American” that isn’t enough for me. I guess I was looking for an ethnic group to “belong” to. Craziness is.. my name has NOTHING to do with my ethnicity because my parents just liked the name.. ? Does anyone know if any companies that can capture more recent heritage data.. Like directly from you parents?

    • Natasha, your best bet is not to worry about it. South Africa is one of the melting pot regions, with varied strong origins of radically different indigenous strains, far Eastern imports, North, West and East European lines, Near eastern strains, and a strong peppering from every ocean-going country on Earth.
      And then there is the problem that in reputable, notionally monogamous cultures, figures of something like 30-40% of incorrect parentages are common.
      GRANDparents??? A heck of a lot of folks don’t even realise who their PARENTS are! There is a big fuss in the news down here because a girl got stolen from the hospital when she was born, and now with her foster-mother in jail for the theft nearly 20 years ago, she wants to stay with the foster-father.
      Your heritage?
      What is that?
      What is my heritage?
      MY heritage isn’t my parents, it is my upbringing, what my society and I made of me.
      If you have the money and the obsession to check on as many threads as they can trace genetically, I can’t stop you, but as a friendly (and fellow-national) tip, I can tell you that you are a South African.
      And stuff Apartheid.
      And look yourself in the eye.
      With approval.
      Cheers,
      Jon

  23. Megan says:

    I used ancestrydna and thought it was really helpful. I don’t know my biological father but i almost definitely look more like him and the test helped me know why. I feel like it’s best when used with other admixture tests though. AncestryDNA didn’t pick up on the mediterranean which is over 30-40%. It was still really helpful though, especially when combined with Gedmatch. It worked best for west europe and iberian ancestry so it’s probably not the best if your ancestry is mediterranean or west asia.

  24. Bibiana says:

    I do not feel that knowing our origins can steal our heritage. We are both what we were created AND what we were raised. I feel knowing both can add richness to life rather than unhappiness or confusion.

  25. Kristen says:

    I just received my results from AncestryDNA.. I was pretty disappointed. My name is Scandinavian (first) and German (last) soooo.. where do you think my ethnicity showed up? Scandinavia and western Europe..Did Ancestry just look up my name and think someone knew something they didn’t? Weird to my whole family. There are no family stories, names, historical data, etc. to say anyone in my heritage came from Scandinavia.. Are they going all the way back to when Vikings came to the British Isles? I guess I wanted something closer, more current..not 1000 years ago. I knew my mother’s family came from the British Isles. My father was adopted and most definitely was from the middle east. I inherited a medical issue that originates there…I guess I was extremely disappointed to find that only 5% would have been considered from the Caucuses.. (we thought Jordan) But this was disappointing. I guess it comes from a place of wishing you had someone to identify with. I don’t identify with “American” that isn’t enough for me. I guess I was looking for an ethnic group to “belong” to. Craziness is.. my name has NOTHING to do with my ethnicity because my parents just liked the name.. ? Does anyone know if any companies that can capture more recent heritage data.. Like directly from you parents?

  26. Winnifred Evans says:

    DNA is confusing!
    My mother in law claims to have NA Indian in her ancestry through her father’s line. I have been unable to prove this with conventional family tree research methods. If my daughter were be be tested, what would be the best test for her to have and would this provide any information about her Grandmother’s ethnicity.
    Thank you

    • Kristen says:

      This would not show up in my opinion. The amount of DNA present in that is probably too small to be measured (no matter what the ads say). You might (if you know the tribal ancestry) go back to them to see what kind of record keeping they have. Not sure if they will show that, because birth and death records during this time in America are very hit-and-miss based on the state in which you are looking. Some states didn’t record that data until after the civil war.

    • James says:

      As someone who has legitimate aboriginal ancestry, within the last 100 years thanks, let me tell you… your ancestry is probably so utterly small and so far back in history no one cares.

    • Cynthia McLaglen says:

      You can only receive your mother’s Haplogroup if you are a female, and cannot trace your father’s one unless you have a male relative who is willing to have a DNA test. I found my father’s Haplogroup (who had passed), by asking an Uncle’s Grand child,- a cousin of mine if he would take the test. Through this test I was able to find out all my passed Uncles’ Haplogroups and my Grand Fathers and Great Grandfathers. If you are female you inherit your mothers Haplogroup and of course Grandmother Great Grandmother will be the same Haplogroup etc etc.

  27. Dan says:

    The long-winded explanations on nationality vs. ethnicity on this thread are great. I don’t know how you guys have the patience to deal with such dummies! Why bother!?

    • Kristen says:

      I’m sorry you think we are such “dummies” some of us are searching for something.. Some of us have no family, no stories, no religion, and no “culture” other than hamburgers and apple pie to identify with. Please bear with us as we try to find somewhere to belong!

  28. Cymantha says:

    PLEASE HELP!!
    My dad never knew who his dad was cause his mum didnt know herself i think she was raped or something and since they have now past away i feel im never gonna know what nationality i really am its not that i want to know who the man was that did it just feel that untill i am able to have a answer what natio i am i will feel better im not sure if u can understand where im coming from but its something i just need to know so please is there any way i can find this out or any test i can do

    • Cymantha
      Ancestry is culture and what we are taught. Bloodline in my opinion is irrelevant. Even this genetic testing is at best an educated guess that excludes anomalies such as a Spaniard who lived in Austria and learned Austrian traditions. I’m not sure what your a looking for personally, but I tend to take the realistic view of things. My cultural heritage is what I learned from my family and those that didn’t live to make it to my life each exist a bit in what my surviving relatives taught me. My blood line is irrelevant, a quality of humans marking time. Because literally if we go back far enough we all originated at a choke point of about 10000 humans in Africa. Any other way of looking at your family tree is like throwing a dart at a board. It is what you target.

    • Kristen says:

      Please don’t count on any of these tests to give “nationality” type of information this will not happen. These tests go back way to far to figure any of this out.. I wish I had read this type of information prior to getting my test. It told me nothing of value.

    • James says:

      Really? You’re likely American and like most Americans a “mongrel”. As for your desperate need well what do you look like? White, black, asian, mid-eastern or purple spotted people eater?

      Your nationality princess is the country you are born in. Your ethnicity is what you are after. But most DNA “ethnicity” results are just utter garbage. Start asking your DNA relatives you’d probably learn more.

  29. kathleen Bendl says:

    Sorry, but I Totally disagree with this writer. I am having a DNA test done right now because I do not know the heritage of my Mom’s side. To say being adopted by Italians makes you Italian is ignorant. This article was aubviously written by a honky. If that same Italian family adopted a little African boy with skin black as nite. Would people still try to say oh yeah, He’s definitely Italian. Yeah sure the kid would pick up the Italian culture etc. But probably not be accepted as quickly or passed off as quickly as an italian as that of a white euro kid. My point is, knowing your genetic ancestry is very important to someone who has no idea what it is. Me. Who was my grandma ? Am I part native on grandma’s side ? That is incredibly important for me to know. Because then at least I can begin to understand my feelings of why I feel the way I do about things. Why my family has certain traits. Etc. My culture, my heritage, MY Identity. Incredibly important ! Maybe to someone like this writer who already knew his identity and is white, he can say it is not important. But then I’d say he’s a bit of an idiot. And not the kind of person who needed a DNA in the first place to begin with.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      It’s a bit uncharitable to call him an idiot and assume stuff about his life and body. If you want a DNA test, go for it. No one is going to stop you. The point of this essay is that they have limitations and it might be good to keep that in mind. It may not clarify exactly what you want, or it may give misleading results, and maybe it’s less informative about your past than who your family were as people. But you should definitely pursue it if you want! Maybe you’ll learn something cool. And be more cool to the author; no one’s trying to stop you from buying one of these tests. Just give you more information on which to make that decision.

    • Spencer says:

      But that’s exactly the point – ONLY YOU can figure out your identity, not these scientists supposedly deriving something from your genes. You are who you are, with your own unique experiences in your own unique context. If you discover native ancestry, so what, if you weren’t raised among native cultures? Your culture is what you grew up with and live day to day – your body harbors no secrets about your “culture.” To suggest otherwise is racist in the classical manner, when people used to examine skulls and whatnot. You are YOU, the person you wake up as every day, and not what some scientist working for a for-profit company that you pay to collect data on your genes says you are.

    • James says:

      Obviously miss feel sorry for yourself princess you don’t know much about Italians. There’s some Italians, particularly southern & Sicilians, who get remarkably dark. My uncle is half Italian. Racist fools in Flordia years ago went on and on how they had to empathise he was “white” because in his summer born tan he was more than passable as someone who was half Black.

      Personally, I think the only idiot is you. He isn’t saying don’t get a DNA test. He is saying take the results with some salt. As someone who knows my ancestry going back centuries I have to say not a single ethnic DNA test has been accurate or even remotely accurate. Many people who know their ancestry quite well will tell you the same — such is a waste of money.

      But there’s a saying of how people have more money than brains and I think it applies quite well to you. Instead of wasting money for the ethnicity why not ask the people potentially related to you through your mother identified by DNA what they know of their ethnicity. Probably be 150 times more accurate than an ethnicity test where the reference populations are ALL at the grandparent level and most reference populations are FUDGED.

    • So if you somehow find out you have a smidgin of Native American DNA , what then? Is that going to make you happy ? Is it going to tell you what tribe it comes from? And if, and that’s a big if, are those same natives going to accept you as family, when you know nothing about them or their culture. Somehow I think they won’t have anything to do with another wannabe. And you will be just as confused and miserable as you are now.

  30. Spencer says:

    The idea, quoted in the Nature article above, that “‘This search for a homeland is particularly poignant for African Americans, who hope to recapture a history stolen by slavery.'” (given in quotes within the block quote), hides the unfortunate fact, not mentioned in this article or by any subsequent commentator, that the phenomenon of spurious genetic ancestry testing is largely a product of Israeli-funded Y-DNA haplotype studies intended to demonstrate the literal biological kinship between all Jews worldwide (a position long considered ludicrous by historians outside of the Israeli educational establishment). Though it’s an extremely controversial topic in print (see popular books in recent years like “The Geneaological Science” published by University of Chicago Press, which is partly a defense of the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People,” a book which was largely dismissed by appealing to these genetic studies by people who clearly haven’t read the book, which addresses their speciousness), online the virulent attacks against the idea that these studies don’t prove that today’s Jews literally descend from ancient Judaeans far outweighs any mention of the controversy. The popularity of these genetic ancestry projects is very much a political issue. I write this comment as an individual born into the Jewish faith, but this is the kind of talk that gets people labeled “self-hating.”

  31. Cynthia McLaglen says:

    Many people on this site are confusing Nationality with What your roots are. If we came from a man and a woman long ago that were fully human, say the first two which both the Bible and the major Genome projects recognise as Adam and Eve, they eventually populate the place they live in with Fully Modern Humans to the detriment of those who are not. Eventually the place they live in is slightly cramped. They will be Hunter Gatherers and their cousins decided to live in the next valley. This separation goes on for a long time until many of the people in the original African place have lost touch with their cousins and they do not realise that the cousins in the Valley also split and so many hundreds and eventually tens of thousands of years have passed, and they are no longer aware that their cousins have gone an awful long way away, and have split many times. They are still related though, through a link in the genome called a Haplogroup. Every few thousand years or so a part of the link changes and this is called a mutation. The Genome Project was set up to unravel the WHOLE OF THE HUMAN GENOME. It was thought at the time that it would take many decades to understand every part of this Genome, but because of the invention of computers the time to do this took much less time, and 2.85,billion units of the helix of the the human genome are now understood. After this, samples were taken from people all over the world, to initially understand which people were prone to certain diseases, so that doctors could spot them early and treat them. Some parts of the unit were involved with lungs and other parts with eyes or parts of the brain, and yet other part link us together.
    What is a Haplogroup. It isdefined by genetic markers and mutations found in Y chromosomes which are found in males, and in Mitochondrial or mtDNA which are found in Females and Males. Thus a women inherits only her mothers HAPLOGROUP DNA & she will also inherit from both parents bodily characteristic, such as eye colour which might come out as a mixture, ot hair colour, or the way the child’s live3r might function. Each of those 2.85 billion units of A,T,C, & G WHICH LINK THE DOUBLT HELIX TOGETHER GOVERN EVERY LITTLE PART OF OUR BODY.
    The Haplogroup, link the members of a Haplogroup, back to the markers first appearance, in the groups most recent common ancestor. Haplogroups often have a geographic relation. So, my Haplogroup which is in my mother and sister and grandmother and so on for about 22.000 years, had a mutation before it. and that Haplogroup is given a different number and name. This “MOTHER” Haplogroup alsao has a mother my Haplogroup “Grand mother” and so on. Gepgraphically, scientists can map where this particular Haplogroup is on the map, and mine go back to India where most Europeans came from. The oldest one in India is called L3 “Manju” who was most probably a black skinned lady who inherited her looks from her “OUT OF AFRICA EVE” Mother, who for many generations made her way from the Horn of Africa to India. Before that she would have been L2, and then L1. Eve is no longer there in Africa but her direct ancestors are. African art the most diverse people in the world. India has the second most diverse people in the world. Just learn a little more by going on the Internet to The Bradshaw Foundation and look at the Interactive Map and the whole story, its written one as well, and any events like the Toba Volcano, and a time scale at the bottom of the map, will show you the whole story as we know it so far. Thank you.

  32. Cynthia McLaglen says:

    A Yorkshireman called Mr Rebus, always thought of himself as an Englishman and Yorkshireman. and so he was, culturally, for 2000 years. But he got a surprise when his Haplogroup was found to be African. How could he be an African when he knew that his family had been farming here for well over 2000 years before the Hadrian’s Wall was built? In this case it could only make sense that one of the many men on Hadrian’s wall,- a Roman Officer, a Gladiator, or Soldier, was an African, and that he had relations with a local lass. Her child would have been half African and if this child was a boy he would inevitably inherit his father Haplogroup “A”. This boy was probably, (but we will never know the whole story, and can only surmise), be taken in by the lass’s family and brought up by them. As each generation passed, the boy’s descendants became more English looking and over two thousand years later his descendant was this surprised farmer! The Haplogroup never changed because it was always inherited by a boy child. The truth is that ALL of our ancestor’s were black Africans, but most of our stories out of Africa took a different path. They came out of Africa via The Gulf of Grief and slowly hugged the beaches of Yemen where the beach, which was 300foot lower down than today had beautiful fresh water falls coming out of the rock, where they still run today, but under the sea, and told to Geoffrey Rose, an archaeologist who spoke to local fishermen in the Indian Ocean and near the Red Sea, about the streams all along the coast up to where the Persian Gulf is today, but it was not a gulf but a lush Valley and beautiful trees, plants, and birds with a lake or two and a river which flowed out to what is now called the Indian Ocean. The people from Africa crossed and kept going until they reached India. This took some years or even decades to do, and they tended to keep to the beaches as it was less dangerous. There were Lions, Tigers, Bears and many manner of Reptiles, including Snakes and big Lizards and Small. Many of these people descendants still live nearer to the sea in India. Others sped on and gradually occupied the whole country. Other went on to the Andaman Islands and into Burma and the Indonesian Island and on to the Torres Straits. They made dugout canoes and paddles to Australia. That was the first longest journey and discovery for mankind of another country over a sea, because most of the countries so far mentioned were all joined up together, because of the low stand of the sea at that time. This was caused by one of the Ice Ages that have occurred over the last 450,000 years.

  33. MimiR says:

    Your response is stunning ignorant of what an autosomal DNA test does and what it’s for.

    The mitochondrial, Y-phenotype, and autosomal DNA tests are three different tests with three different purposes. The first two can trace very specific lines of your ancestry back to fairly narrow regions of the world. The last is the most helpful to genealogists, however. It can help identify the birth parents of people adopted within 5 centuries. It can discredit or approve speculative genealogies. It can break through dead ends to help you reconnect a line.

    While it can give you a kind of, sort of look at the probably locations from which your ancestors came, anyone with even a glancing knowledge knows that it’s possible to have as little as 0% of your grandparents’ actual DNA. A woman’s son’s children or a father’s daughter’s children can have nothing of that grandparent at all. It’s so unlikely as to be almost unheard of, but it’s possible. This means that your DNA admixture is NOT an accurate reflection of the origins of your ancestors, by percentage, even if they can accurately say that certain DNA sequences come strictly from certain regions (and they can’t with total accuracy).

    Learn a bit about genetics and genealogy before making such a silly post. The ads will be to capture the attention of stupid laypeople through oversimplification. You should be better than that.

  34. MimiR says:

    Note: I meant birth parents of people adopted within five GENERATIONS. Too bad the usefulness doesn’t extend to centuries!

  35. Maddie says:

    I had my Ancestry DNA done and it was spot on. It confirmed an old strange family story.

    In addition we need to remember… no tests will ever be perfect.. HOWEVER, most people have been nomadic, most land areas have been conquered by other Nations ( i.e. Intermarriage or rape ). Orphans have been taken into families over decades, changing expected DNA results. People in all generations have had sex outside of marriage resulting with pregnancies.
    These and many other factors affect our expected results. ( i.e., an Irish friend had a son with a Mongolian Spot — This resulted from an adoption in the 1800’s of an orphaned American Indian girl into her family line. This will be a surprise in someone’s family tree in the future.)

    So, just go with it. As tests add more DNA in the future, and the science becomes more “accurate”, I would expect our results to be further tweaked.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Well, mordern nation states just haven’t been around very long. There’s no genetic markers for German because nothing called Germany existed until the last 200 years. And that place never had a stable interbreeding population with concentrations of certain traits over generations. DNA testing will never have something like that. The best we can go is learn about the ancient origins of our DNA, our recent family history, and our genetic predisposition to diseases, etc.

      I think the writer was most interested in making sure people are considerate about what they learn from a DNA test, and don’t misunderstand what they’re shelling out for or the results. A friend of mine did a DNA test to find out if she had Irish or German ancestry. Sure enough, those kinds of things were not part of the results. But she did discover some interesting stuff about herself, which is always cool.

  36. Auftschen says:

    The issue of racial and ethnic labeling is a complex matter because it involves in politics in many countries as well. However, I strongly believe that people really need to retain a sense of the group that they belong to in order to boost their self-confidence. Therefore, the racial and ethnic labeling contains both positive and negative meanings behind it.

  37. Hubert Rochon says:

    I am totally aware that DNA analysis has nothing to do with my cultural heritage. I am Québécois which is a category that does not exist in their DNA analysis. I am not looking for my identity but I am curious to know what I am made of considering that the percentage of DNA does not necessarily correspond to the percentage of ancestors. I agree with you though that if someone is looking for his identity, they are barking up the wrong tree ! ,

  38. Mary says:

    I have a simple question. Everybody’s disputing has caused quit a bit of confusion. But my question is last year I was required by a ” pain management physician ” to submit to a DNA mouth swab ( where the actually scrub sides of check (?) ). It was because I was to have a major surgery, and yes I understand in part the medical-Medicinal part. Plus it ruled out/confirmed medication/chemicals present in my system ( it was to rule out whether I had been honest in my current medication(s) & expose whether any ” illicit ” ones were were present or not, which they weren’t ) I understand this part, but there was a lot of other information which included ethnic but I’m not sure whether it was to show that certain groups were prone to certain reaction, even addiction risks based solely by ethnic or was my ethnicity ( see the confusion)
    It was multiple pages, my medical was clear, but I did NOT understand the ” culture/ethnicity ” part..
    Was it saying I was that particular groups or generalized ? Because I’m bicultural/ethnicity and it was as if a whole part of me was left out.
    I’ve never felt the need to have any ancestry DNA test but after that stunner..I’m questioning myself, and who I am. There’s no parental left, the family connection is strained so there’s no way to ask.. But it was quite upsetting. And it all began as a test for medical reasons prior to surgery.. I’ve been sad since..kind of lost even..

  39. Mary says:

    Please if you can explain those types of testing..it wasn’t a simple swab, I felt as if they scrubbed my inner cheeks..thank you

  40. Eileen Carlson says:

    Hello this article is a little disappointing because I was adopted and was hoping to find answers about who I am and my nationality. I’ve take Ancestry and National Geographic. What do you suggest I do. Eileen

  41. Rob wainwright says:

    DNA testing does NOT perport to steal your culture. It tells you WHERE you are from. It identifies relatives who have had their DNA tested, and tells you how you are related to them.

    Your culture is a bye product of your PLACE of birth or upbringing. I am English. But if I were born in a bedowin tent in the deserts of Arabia o would be a Muslim.

    DNA transcends religion and culture. If you feel threatened by having your genealogy showing a different result to your pre-conceived ideas of identity, then don’t take the test!

  42. Shirley says:

    Keep seeing a commercial stating the person is from “all Nations”. Is that even possible? Have been in genealogy for several years, and had never heard of it until a couple of years ago.

  43. Michelle says:

    Excellent and thorough discussion of this subject thank you!

  44. Rob wainwright says:

    I have taken a DNA test on myheritage. It revealed over 120 cousins dotted all around the world. If I take a mitochondrial DNA test, will that help me identify which of this relatives are from my fathers side? It’s the total mystery surrounding my fathers ancestry that I am particularly interested in.

  45. Naví says:

    Oh dear…. Nationality and Citizenship are different. You were born in the U.S. of A., so therefore you’re a USA National. Even though your bloodlines might be 70%+ Portugese…. maybe we could make a different word for this kind of ‘cultural heritage’?

  46. Katherine says:

    You said “I find the whole idea that DNA markers are a superior method to determine ancestry slightly racist”
    So, I am assuming that you also may believe that scientists from the early 1800s travelling throughout the world determining anthropological lines and linage, also an act of racism? I think you need to grow up.

  47. yussef ibn la ahad says:

    very well written and i like the article but generally it’s “fairly” accurate for example someone with ancestors from subsharian africa won’t have east asia as a majority etc…
    what is more accurate though is to find your close relatives like for 1st cousins, or siblings etc it’s always right, and you don’t know them if you’re adopted (in my case) so its very good for that

    • I agree yussef. Just the commercialism at the time portraying someones family who had celebrated traditions such as lederhosen dance suddenly abandons them in favor of what there genetic test tells them that they should be doing.

  48. BEE says:

    Gosh such a diverse mixture of comments
    so looking forward to the discovery that I might be a princess whether black asian white or other.. i always felt i knew there was something special about me .. where ever you came from brothers and sisters , what matters is we derive from love .. my DNA is in progress , I’m not expecting miracles i was just curious , quite like a story what ever it says..those of you who are disgruntled about whence you came .. it clearly states you may be unhappy about the results in the small print, we can’t all be blue blood .. i don’t really know why I sent my saliva off . its amusing and who knows my long lost sisters may be my neighbours lol i was born white but always felt I should have been black . so what ever comes up I’m excited ..watch this space.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Class and royalty have nothing to do with DNA. Those are just arbitrary social statuses that some people have been able to hang onto far too long. A lot of royal European families were forced to stop intermarrying because their genetic line was packed with hereditary diseases like hemophilia and the like. Blue blood is nonsense social snobbery dressed up in pseudoscience.

      • BEE says:

        after reading a lot of hard hitting negative comments , i wrote in jest Noah Dillion, it wasn’t meant to be a serious attack on royalty or class !!! I obviously am not a comedian and shall return to my day job..

      • BEE says:

        after reading a lot of hard hitting negative points , i wrote in jest Noah Dillion, it wasn’t meant to be a serious attack on royalty or class !!! I obviously am not a comedian and shall return to my day job..

  49. Fran Francis says:

    how can DNA find My Ansestry What if my ansesters never had a recod at all

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Companies that provide this service look at your DNA and compare it to living people across the globe and look for similar genes that are common among, say, people in Northern Europe, or Southeast Asia, or wherever. It’s assumed that people from those places will have genes similar to those of their ancestors and that their ancestors will also be from those places, that people in Northern Europe will have more genes unique to people who have been in Northern Europe for generations. The results are usually pretty general.

      With health stuff, you might find out that you have genes for certain diseases, for instance, similar to other members of your immediate family who may have also shown those illnesses.

  50. David Howard says:

    Almost everyone who takes these tests falls for the advertising and believes that the results will show where their ancestors were from. This is simply not the case. Because of this I believe that the tests are fraudulent, at least as far as the advertising goes. Anybody who takes the test and makes life changing decisions as a result has been sadly misled.

    • Alexandria Nick says:

      Haplogroup georgraphy is pretty well nailed down, so it can give you a pretty decent idea of where you have ancestors from. I have ancestors that lived in the Canary Islands (only a few generations back, so we know they definitely did). But I’ve been curious if they were European Spanish or Berber, given the demographic realities of the Spanish-held, but Berber-populated islands. Spanish and Berber are members of two different haplogroups, so proper testing would reveal if, way back when, my ancestors were roaming around North Africa. Even if the Berber was introduced during the Umayyad Caliphate, all that does is change WHEN my ancestors were North African.

  51. Paul says:

    What I find disappointing is how people seem to see it as immoral for a person to be proud of, and seek to preserve their ethnic or racial lineage, when did this become evil? Race is not man made, it was created by mother nature, and you. Could say ethnicity was also. It’s perfectly natural for people to show interest and love for this.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Race is totally 100% a man made idea. It’s absurd.

      • C Turner says:

        and yet if a forensic anthropologist finds your scattered bones in the woods, half eaten by a pack of dogs, he will be able to tell, without any of your skin, which of the races we humans have “man made” you most fit into. He will be able to tell your “man made” social construct gender too – with just your bones. And if he can extract some DNA he’ll be able to tell who you’re related to and which of the “man made” races they belong to. Silly scientists, what do they know? Surely the SJWs know more than these so called “scientists”…

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