AncestryDNA Revises Ethnicity Estimates

AncestryDNA today (12 September 2018) released updated ethnicity estimates for all customers. Everyone in the AncestryDNA database will see some change in their estimate.

This update represents one of the most significant refinements of AncestryDNA’s ethnicity estimates. Both the reference populations and the ethnicity algorithm underwent significant development.

The size and makeup of the reference populations grew substantially, from ~3,000 reference samples to ~16,000 reference samples (many provided by test takers that consented to participating in AncestryDNA research). The update adds 17 new regions to the ethnicity analysis (from 363 to 380). Many more are needed in areas such as Asia and Africa, of course, but this is a great addition. As well, many regions were redefined or their names were changed to more accurately reflect the region.

In addition to changes in the reference populations, the method by which AncestryDNA calculates ethnicity changed significantly. The algorithm now uses stretches of DNA to perform the calculation instead of individual SNPs.

Here is my own update (click to enlarge), showing the previous estimate (left) and the current estimate (right):

As you can see, my estimate changed significantly at first glance, although upon review the changes are very minor. For example, the region called “England, Wales & Northwestern Europe” with 87% really just combines “Great Britain” (55%) and Europe West (26%). My Native American ancestry remains 3%, and the name changed slightly. My African ancestry solidified at 1%.

And, most importantly, I lost a lot of “noise.” Ethnicity estimates are notoriously noisy, and some algorithms are better than others at smoothing out that noise. This new algorithm appears to be much better at eliminating the noise. Many users are going to be disappointed to lose this noise. However, in all my presentations about ethnicity I emphasize the importance of questioning these small percentages and using multiple calculators/tests to investigate them.

Based on my knowledge of my family history (an incredibly imperfect way to evaluate ethnicity!), the changes I see in my updated ethnicity estimate all make sense.

Here is the evolution of my ethnicity estimate over the past 6 years (click to enlarge), showing the incredible changes that have occurred:

Your ethnicity estimate will continue to change over time, and that’s a good thing. The worst thing that could happen is that there are no more changes. I’ve had many people tell me over the years that these ethnicity estimates will always be terrible and that we’re stuck with what we have. I’m always amazed that genealogists (who in their own lifetimes have seen genealogy go through so many changes!) believe that the current state of DNA and ethnicity estimates is the final word or what we’ll have 5, 10, or 20 years from now. These ethnicity estimates will continue to improve, and it is nearly impossible to predict where the field will go in the future.

Here is another example of an update:

In this example, several regions were lost, several regions were gained, and several regions were combined together and/or their names were changed.

17 Responses

  1. Shirley McDougall 12 September 2018 / 4:41 pm

    Enjoyed reading your account of updates re DNA results. Thank you.

  2. JB 12 September 2018 / 9:04 pm

    In my case, the ethnicity estimate change looked wrong. I was previously identified as 18% Italian (and I have an Italian grandfather whose family dates to 1450 in central Tuscany). In the revision, that disappeared, and was replaced with German and French ancestry. Feels wrong to me.

    • Laura 19 September 2018 / 1:40 pm

      I had a similar result and I’m seeing that happen for many people. My initial estimate of 13% Italian seemed spot-on and it disappeared completely.

  3. ROBERT J KORBACH 13 September 2018 / 9:47 am

    I’m now listed as 63% British Isles but have records back into the 1700’s of coming from 5 distinct regions (e.g., Eifel, Westerwald) in Germany. There is still a fundamental flaw in this methodology of estimating ethnicity.

  4. Robert Kelly Dazet 13 September 2018 / 11:32 am

    Why, oh why is Ancestry DNA messing with the Ethnicity Estimate, instead of giving us useful tools, like a chromosome Browser, Triangulation, shared matches between 5th-8th cousins and 5th-8th cousins! (MyHeritage DNA has much better tools)!
    I really don’t care about an “Estimate”! If genealogy tells me that I’m Ulster Irish, Norwegian, German and French (Pyrenees) how can I have such a large percentage of England/Northwestern Europe? This is a total waste of resources on Ancestry’s part. Instead they should be focusing on making DNA work better as a genealogical tool to help break down brick walls.
    We are talking at-DNA here not Y-DNA or mt-DNA meaning it becomes less accurate after 6 or so generations. In that time frame, I have no ancestors from England. Of course the English had their “Plantation of Ireland Era”, but that is not a likely source of a large percentage of English DNA, nor is the Norman evasion of England or the Germanic Saxons before that.
    Please Ancestry, fix the poor messaging system and give us better DNA tools, like those that MyHeritage DNA has! What a MESS!

    • Robert Kelly Dazet 13 September 2018 / 11:44 am

      A thought: could this large percentage of English, Wales, Northwestern Europe (which is in itself pretty vague) be skewed by the large number of Irish that flooded Scotland and England during the potato famine? Or Germans during the Palatine migration? Just more reasons why ethnicity estimates are a waste of resources as far as genetic genealogy goes.

      Also I should have thanked you, Blaine, for pointing our this big change by Ancestry to us! Thank you!

  5. Robert Ceccon 13 September 2018 / 1:44 pm

    Here’s what perplexes me:

    I have 48% Italian DNA. (This makes sense because both of my father’s parents are from Italy.)

    However, neither of my two children have any Italian DNA.

    Can you explain how this is possible?


    • JVerdant 15 September 2018 / 7:55 pm

      It’s entirely possible that, since each of your children inherit a random 50% of your DNA, they both randomly received it from the 52% of your non-Italian DNA. It’s not the most likely possibility, but a coin can land on heads five times in a row too.

    • JVerdant 15 September 2018 / 8:01 pm

      Forgot to add: This also explains why a lot of people are perplexed they don’t see country x from their genealogy research in their results. If each of your kids inherited a negligible amount of your Italian DNA, none of their children could possibly show it either, despite the fact they can prove they descend from Italians on paper. DNA can inform ancestry but autosomal DNA can’t possibly show traces of all your ancestors, even a few generations back, because it’s being chopped up, reshuffled, and half discarded every generation.

    • Janet Freeman 18 September 2018 / 12:57 pm

      I agree that it seems like they would have some Italian DNA. My new DNA results were 100% Eastern European & Russian. My mom is 96% and my dad is 91%. My daughter is 27% and my son is 33%.

  6. James C Yates 13 September 2018 / 5:20 pm

    The new ethnicity estimate makes much more sense to me that the old one.

  7. chris 15 September 2018 / 4:34 am

    i went from majority scandinavian to majority england, wales & northwestern is this possible?shouldn’t it have just got more specific on the scandinavian?

    • JVerdant 15 September 2018 / 8:05 pm

      Some parts of Scandinavia might have DNA too similar to Northern Europe to allow any reliable distinction. The new update seems to be erring on the side of caution (elimination of low confidence hits etc.) so in your case the Scandinavian DNA might be a portion hard to tell apart from Netherlands etc.

  8. Mike 17 September 2018 / 4:43 am

    It’s interesting that I was just talking to two different friends (both non-related to each other) with majority Irish Ancestry and both had 1% Ivory Coast/ Ghana added to their estimate in this latest update when they had no sub-Saharan African in their old estimate. I’m thinking the algorithm still needs some tweaking.

  9. David 17 September 2018 / 5:02 pm

    My original DNA profile listed me as 72% Western European and only 2 % English. In the new Profile, I am in the new grouping; England, Wales & Northwestern Europe at 80 %. Originally my English Heritage was 2%. My Mother, sister, brother, and cousin showed predominately English Heritage. Myself, my Great Aunt and nephew were predominately Western European. I am no expert with genealogy and DNA technology but when I was teaching school, this would be like giving a student an A on Friday and then amending my criteria by Monday and changing their grade to a C. It would have been nice to know this was coming and that my original DNA in 2012 could change so drastically. To me, this was poorly handled and makes me question whether I should seek out another genealogy site to continue my research. Many, many questions ???????????

  10. Walt 18 September 2018 / 1:03 pm

    My new estimate makes absolutely no sense. They are now listing me as 81% Irish/Scottish/Welch/English and while that ethnicity rings true on my mother’s side, my father’s family came from Cape Verde and lived there for many generations with lines traced only back to Portugal and Italy. And both my children ended up with several ethnicities not present in either my profile or that of my wife.

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