AncestryDNA Updates Ethnicity Estimates

By Andrew Koch
AncestryDNA updates in September 2018 will change your ethnicity estimates.

AncestryDNA test-takers may be in for a bit of a surprise when they next view their results. Today, AncestryDNA rolled out adjustments to the ethnicity estimates of their 10 million-plus users. Let’s take a look at these AncestryDNA updates and see how they might affect your results.

What changed?

AncestryDNA and the other major testing companies continually tweak their ethnicity estimates as they collect more data and refine their ethnicity matching algorithms. In this case, AncestryDNA did both: It added 13,000 samples to its reference panels in several parts of the world, and also changed its methodology for matching users’ DNA to ethnicities.

The site also adjusted its categories and which parts of the world make them up, allowing for more detail. For example, the two primary ethnicities of “Europe West” (France and “Germanic Europe”) have their own categories, as do Norway and Sweden (which were previously lumped together in “Scandinavian”). AncestryDNA has a page explaining its new ethnicity algorithm and answering some frequently asked questions. There, you can view a map comparing ethnicity estimate regions before and after the update.

All existing AncestryDNA users have access to the updated ethnicity estimates at no extra charge. Note also that this update does not affect DNA matches, DNA Circles and the Migrations groups. Ancestry uses different algorithms to produce these results.

How to view your updates

Simply visit your DNA results page and click Discover Your DNA Story. When I attempted to view my ethnicity estimates, I received a pop-up that updates were available. The site then asked a series of questions about what I expect from ethnicity estimates, plus if my initial results surprised me based on my previous research. Once I answered those, I was able to see my new results, including a page that compared my original estimates to those created using the new formula. The site allowed me to keep my new estimates or to “Update later.” I chose the former, but I can access the old under Updates>View previous estimates. (Though the updates apply to all AncestryDNA users, users aren’t required to view their updated estimates at this time.)

Changes to my ethnicity estimates

The AncestryDNA updates significantly changed my results.
My AncestryDNA results exactly three months apart. The updates made a huge difference.

As you can see from this image, my estimates changed quite a bit. The “Europe West” category split, and my estimate for that region changed to 61 percent “Germanic Europe” and 2 percent “France.” My “Scandinavian” (now specified as “Norway”) fell from 11 percent to just 3 percent, and the site made tweaks to the UK and Irish categories and my percentages within them. In addition, the updates stripped out my low-confidence regions (not pictured): Europe South (6 percent), Iberian Peninsula (4 percent), Europe East (3 percent) and Middle East (<1 percent).

These changes actually put my ethnicity estimate more in line with my traditional research. I was surprised when my results initially estimated only 37 percent Germany. My dad’s whole family came from a Germanic community in Eastern Europe, and half of my mother’s ancestors were immigrants from Germany. My Irish estimate (15 percent) seemed too high since I had found only one great-great-grandparent from Ireland; the updates revised this to 8 percent. The original 11-percent Scandinavian result was also a bit of a head-scratcher, since I don’t know of any ancestors from that part of the world. Some of my ancestors did, however, live in nearby northern Germany, so I wonder if the updates reclassified these relatives as Germanic rather than Scandinavian.

What it means for you

You’ll hopefully find your updated ethnicity estimates better reflect the actual ethnic makeup of your ancestors. With more precise reference populations, AncestryDNA can provide more specific (and thus, accurate) ethnicity readouts.

Note that the new categories may lead to your ancestors “shifting” regions. For example, my dad is now 39-percent “England, Wales & Northwestern Europe,” and AncestryDNA registers this as a big increase to his “Great Britain” estimate. On paper, this doesn’t make any sense given my dad’s actual family history (which is overwhelmingly German). But, when looking at the map, I noticed that “Northwestern Europe” significantly overlaps with western Germany. Perhaps my dad’s family originally came from that part of Germany, but that DNA now registers as part of the England group.

Concerned that you don’t see a certain ethnicity (or curious why an ethnicity is so over-represented)? Keep in mind that ethnicity estimates are, perhaps, the least accurate feature of your DNA results. In fact, we caution you not to read too much into these estimates, as they’re simply approximations. Because of how autosomal DNA is inherited, it’s likely not all of your relatives (and thus, their ethnicities) are represented in your DNA. As a result, your ethnicity estimates don’t present a full picture of your family’s history. We’ve put together a list of common questions about interpreting your ethnicity estimates to help you sort this out.