DNA Q&A: The Best Ethnicity Estimates

By Lesley-Anne Simpson Premium

Which DNA companies have the best ethnicity estimates?

Q: Which company has the best ethnicity estimates?

A: First of all, there are three factors that affect the accuracy and usefulness of ethnicity estimates you receive from a testing company, no matter which one you choose. We’ll save the first two (fancy math and timing) for a later discussion. But the most relevant to your question are the reference populations—the people a company is comparing you against.

Reference Populations

These reference populations are made up of regular people living today whose DNA can be used to represent the typical genetic makeup of a particular area. Each person in a reference population had grandparents who all lived within 60 miles of each other in a particular place. But if a testing company doesn’t have a reference population that reflects your ancestral makeup, your results won’t be able to provide detailed, accurate information on where your DNA is from.

For example, Family Tree DNA doesn’t have an ethnicity category specifically for Ireland. So even if you’re 100-percent Irish, you won’t find the term “Irish” in your DNA test results. Rather, you’ll be in the “British Isles” category. That result might not surprise you, but someone with ancestry in Poland probably wouldn’t find “Broadly European” very helpful. That result is technically accurate, but it’s too broad to be interesting or useful.

So, to return to your question:

The best ethnicity estimates will come from the company that has your ancestral population(s) as a reference population.

Each of the major companies provides a complete list of their reference populations. So you can check that list to determine which company may be best for your particular mix of heritage.

DNA Companies’ Areas of Speciality

All of the major companies are going to be good at providing a basic background for those of Western European descent. (Family Tree DNA is a decent baseline.) But some companies also excel in other areas of the world. Here’s a quick rundown of the major companies and their areas of expertise:

  • 23andMe: Eastern European or South/Central American ancestry
  • AncestryDNA: DNA Migrations tools that help researchers determine where their ancestors were in the last 200 years, and what larger movements of people they may have been part of
  • Living DNA: The United Kingdom, with 21 subsets that provide more detailed results there (e.g., 12 percent Northumbershire, 6 percent Devon)
  • MyHeritage DNA: Five Jewish reference populations, plus some other unique populations like Indigenous Amazonian and Inuit

No matter which company you choose, be prepared for changes and updates. Ethnicity estimates are an ongoing area of research.

For more on which test is best, check out our blog series comparing the five major DNA testing companies. In it, genealogist Shannon Combs-Bennett shares her experiences with each of the “big five” services.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Family Tree Magazine.