Five DNA Tests, 100% Me, and Back to Square One

Back in March, I started a DNA experiment with five friends. I invited each of them to take a genetic ‘ancestry’ test – something that most of them had barely heard of, let alone thought about doing. After sending off their swab or spit sample, I asked each person to describe their expectations regarding their results: What did they expect or hope to find out? What would their ideal result be, based on their own family history, physical appearance and cultural background?

I also participated in the experiment, although in the interests of scientific curiosity, I took a test with five different US-based companies specializing in ‘genealogical’ or ‘anthropological’ DNA tests: 23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, the Genographic Project, and African Ancestry. This mini-experiment is inspired by my PhD research on the way genetic data interact with local notions of identity, ethnicity, kinship and nation in the US and Brazil.

Sarah, born and raised in the East Midlands, England

The first test results I received were from 23andMe, a California-based company whose tests are tailored to a mainly American customer base. Being English, fair skinned and with no family stories of anyone living outside of Britain for the past few generations, I was hardly expecting any African or East Asian ancestry to show up on the test – although when I told this to an African American colleague she raised her eyebrows and told me, wryly, that black Americans have long known that fair skin is no guarantee of anything. Nevertheless, my expectations were confirmed by my results, and the only spot of colour on my blue-grey ancestryscape was a green dot indicating 0.6% Ashkenazi Jewish genetic heritage – possibly statistical ‘noise’, or possibly a relic of our lost Polish family connection. There’s no way of knowing.

The most striking thing about my 23andMe results was that my ‘British & Irish’ genetic ancestry estimate was only 6.1%; the rest of my result was made up of ‘Broadly Northern European’ and ‘Broadly European’ heritage. Rather than bringing on an identity crisis about my British identity, however, this merely indicated to me that there has been so much migration within Europe (not to mention with the rest of the world) that it is near impossible to identify genetic markers that are limited to specific regional or national populations.

The second set of results came from the Genographic Project. Linked to National Geographic, the Geno 2.0 test has an ‘anthropological’ focus and a humanitarian feel. The product has its roots in an international scientific endeavour, which aims to to collect genetic samples from contemporary indigenous groups all over the world, in order to trace the ancient migrations of humankind out of Africa, starting some 60,000 years ago. To spare you a long-winded explanation, I’ll just recommend you this documentary (followed by this excellent paper by Kim TallBear as complementary reading). Noticing the general public enthusiasm for all things genetics-related, National Geographic savvily set up an online company, making their tests available to anyone with $160 to spare.

Unlike 23andMe (and most other companies), which attempt to split an individual’s genome into something that looks more or less like a blood quantum chart composed of two or three founder populations (e.g. Europeans, Africans and indigenous Americans for New World customers), the Genographic Project assumes that all national ‘ethnic’ identities are based on older genetic mixes of substrate populations. So although I don’t recognize anything Mediterranean or Southwest Asian in my own family (and nor would most Brits, I think), this turns out to be a very common mixture for the UK, according to how the Genographic scientists visualize the islands’ ancient genetic makeup. Substitute ‘Mediterranean’ for ‘Roman’; ‘Southwest Asian’ for ‘Celtic’; and ‘Northern European’ for ‘Saxons’, ‘Vikings’ and ‘Normans’, and with a stretch of the imagination you get something vaguely representing the country’s history.

I admire the Genographic Project’s universalist approach (in spite of their conspicuously Euro-American-centric outlook), although I’ll confess that I found these results the most difficult to connect with on a personal level, for the very reason that they don’t reproduce my own sense of identity or ancestry in the way I would expect them to. This is one conundrum of genetic testing: on the one hand, if the company gives us a chart that looks recognisably like a blood quantum graph, we accuse the scientists of reinscribing race in genetic technologies. Yet, when the scientists try to introduce a new paradigm (even when it is only slightly removed from the blood quantum model), customers remain unsatisfied because don’t see anything that relates to our notions of ‘racial’ or ethnic identity in the results.

Next came my results from AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA – the newest and oldest competitors in the DNA ancestry testing market, respectively. Both boldly proclaim me to be ‘100% European’, with genetic heritage from four broadly defined regions within the continent. I find it striking that both companies choose the word ‘ethnicity’ to describe the concept they are selling: a statistical means of breaking down a broad ‘racial’ or geopolitical category like ‘white’/European into distinct biogeographical regions. None of the areas highlighted on either map could be considered to correspond to ethnicities or ethnic groups by any currently recognised social or political boundaries, although there is some congruence with familiar European ‘types’: the Scandinavian; the Mediterranean; the Eastern European, and the Brit.

These ancestral identities would be recognisable for many Americans who may not have concrete knowledge of the exact national origin of their European great-great-grandparents, beyond a vague sense of these broad regional categories. For European customers, on the other hand, my sense is that these ‘ethnic’ regions do not hold much water. For instance, if I know myself to be British (with Polish and French ancestors going further back in time), then what can it mean to be told that I am also genetically Scandinavian and Mediterranean, against all common sense and family tradition? Being British is not something that I feel in a genetic or hereditary sense – but rather an identity that revolves around a shared language, regional accents, a niche sense of humour, a mutual fascination with Marmite, and so on… In comparison, this genetic information is something I know to be true on an abstract level – but I don’t feel it, and it’s definitely not news to me.

The final test was by African Ancestry. As you might guess from the name, the company was set up in 2003, offering DNA tests to African Americans as a way to recover the tribal identities of their ancestors who were forcibly displaced by the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. African Ancestry’s main products are DNA tests that analyse only one maternal or paternal genetic lineage (rather than your autosomes, which contain genetic material inherited from all of your direct ancestors); these are then associated with one or more ethnic groups or tribes in Africa, and customers are presented with a certificate showing their ancestral tribal identity. Since I already knew my maternal lineage was mainly found in Europe (and therefore suspected I wouldn’t be eligible for a certificate), I opted for the slightly cheaper, less popular myDNAmix test.

Of all the different companies I tested with, these results are the most rudimentary in appearance. The only overtly Afrocentric company out of the five, African Ancestry expresses its results using five broad ‘genetic’ regions: ‘Indigenous Americas’, ‘East Asia’, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’, ‘Europe’ and ‘India Subcontinent’. In the form I filled in to return with my DNA sample, I was asked to estimate my expected genomic ancestry percentages – a standard practice that nonetheless makes me slightly suspicious of whether this might influence the results given out to customers, although there is no reason to think that this should be the case.

As it turned out, these were the most surprising results of all: 73% ‘Europe’ and 27% ‘India Subcontinent’ (give or take an error margin of 7%). There is no mention in my family of anyone ever even going to India, let alone living there or having Indian ancestors. Given the stark difference between these results and those of the other companies I am forced to conclude, on the basis of sheer good sense, that there has been an error somewhere down the line – although whether in terms of a sample mix-up or a category mistake, it is hard to know.

Yet this brings up the problem of the unknowability of genetic ‘truths’. Say, for the sake of argument, that there is no error, and 27% of markers analysed in my DNA sample really did match most closely to samples in the African Ancestry database originating in the Indian Subcontinent. That may be perfectly true, according to the criteria of this genetic test, and these sampling, labelling and statistical standards. But it is so untrue in terms of what I know about myself and my family (admittedly, not much past three generations), that I am forced to reject it, and to seek solace in one of the other tests that reinforced my preexisting sense of who I am. And, ironically, this brings me right back to where I was before I even took my first DNA test.

You can read my original post here.

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20 thoughts on “Five DNA Tests, 100% Me, and Back to Square One

  1. Which test did you find to be the most accurate? I too took the 23andme test and was told that I was broadly Northwest European when I well and know that I am descended from an Irish ancestor. It did say the % of Irish that I have but broadly European or anywhere else in the world is too vague.

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    • Hi Arlyne,

      23andMe and AncestryDNA (and possibly also Family Tree DNA) are the companies that are generally reputed to have the best databases and ancestry analyses with regards to European populations. Both companies update their admixture percentage calculations every year or so, so you might get a more specific calculation from 23andMe in the future. However, in my own opinion the “broadly Northwest European” type categories are really a reflexion of the fact that European populations have been quite mixed over the centuries and millennia, so there are not necessarily very many genetic variants that can reliably distinguish between national populations. In that respect it’s important to bear in might that genetic ancestry estimates are just that: estimates. If you want to find out with more accuracy where your ancestors came from, traditional genealogy may give you more concrete answers.

      Good luck!

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  2. Hey, Sarah. I was SHOCKED that I was 99.9% NW European. Since, I have learned that my 5 gig started TEXAS REVOLUTION. I’m very interested in learning more about auto,immune diseases and our heritage.

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  3. What if someone’s DNA were damaged, say, by ionizing radiation? Could the results then be skewed to show biogeographical origin which never happened?

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    • Hi Seeker,

      Sorry for the extremely delayed reply on this! I am by no means an expert on the subject, but you might find these two articles useful for understanding the effects of radiation on DNA:

      http://genetics.thetech.org/ask/ask402
      https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/achre/final/intro_9_5.html

      As the second article points out, the effects of radiation damage are only passed on to subsequent generations if the cells affected by radiation include the sperm and ova. In this case, you could expect to see a greater incidence of the type of genetic mutations (i.e. variations among the letters of genetic code making up our DNA) that usually occur randomly from generation to generation through reproduction. If the radiation was very severe, the genetic code would be so damaged that the foetus would probably not reach full development. As to whether this could skew the results of a person’s biogeographical analysis, I suppose in theory it’s possible, but usually these analyses are done by studying hundreds of thousands of base pairs, so I doubt that the effects could be widespread enough to radically change the outcomes of the test.

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  4. Very interesting. I am a German woman who lives in Southern California and I am interested in having my DNA examined, including my Neanderthal genes. Any suggestion which company would provide the best results for this? None of the ones you mentioned dealt with Neanderthal genes.
    Thank you.

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  5. Hi, I’m wanting to find out which Dna company or genetic company would or should be my first move . I have no idea how much of what ethnicity “race” I am ! I know white American/ African American/ ? Indian , but not sure which is more or less ! I know this sounds unbelievable but it is very true ! I have 6 children and 3 have markings that my Dr says has to come from Native American and I am 43 yrs old and have started about 5 yrs ago getting two different types of markings on me which I wld love to know where this comes from ! Some may call them birthmarks but they aren’t ! I found out later in life who my father was but he had passed away before I met him and I know nothing of his family. I’m wondering which company to go through to find out who i am as far as race and if there is a company that can narrow it down even further to what tribe if any and so forth?! I don’t know anything about any of this as you can definitely tell and so that is why I’m asking for any advice anyone is willing to give ! Thanks for taking the time to read and I’m hoping someone will take the time to help me ! Thanks , Linda

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  6. 23andme has just told me I am 75% British/Irish, which is no surprise. Except that it sort of is, because I have a rare m-DNA HV0 (for the British Isles), and a more eastern blood type B, but then I know for sure that comes from what I always called a “German” paternal grandmother. Only she seems to be more Scandinavian from the genetics. So – three grandparents with the whole British Isles sewed up (except for the odd Huguenot), whose genealogies I have pieced together. And that “German grandmother” and her many different European stocks supplying, I would guess, most of the other 25%. Oh, and one smidgen of East Asian/Native American which I think came into it during the New England colonial period, maybe through English Long Island (where the local Indians and colonists participated in a whaling industry I can trace to one of my progenitors whose name I bear). But maybe it came from Grandma whose ancestors lived in Prussia? The Golden Horde anyone?

    I also know that this interesting and diverse grandmother (living in Brooklyn) had lots of relatives who married Jews, though she was a Protestant (or my grandfather’s WASP family was, anyway, so she may just have followed suit). I always assumed (after her story of the German family coming from Spain originally, centuries before, and the fact of her father living in a part of Hamburg that had been set aside as a Jewish ghetto – though others lived there too – “Altona”) — that I might show some Ashkenazi genes. I then wondered if they might be instead Sephardic, referencing that Spanish origin story. But I don’t have anything labeled Iberian either. Just a bit of “Broadly European”. At any rate, it is she who has probably made my tree interesting and makes me want to know where all those little pieces came from.

    I have read that those peering deeply into the abyss of time that is the human genome have discovered a connection between all the different Jewish groups which argues they are still one. But I am unsure if this translates into such a genetic bottleneck as some might argue after 2000 years, or more (considering that Jewish population movement did not need a diaspora to motivate it in every age). Yes, for the Ashkenazi – but does that include the others? Anyway, I cannot tell my kids that their mother is Jewish like their father. They are going to have to be content with other genetic baubles from me. I think they are cool with Vikings, Highlanders and Druids, too. Oh, and being cousins with Winston Churchill (through more than one Puritan ancestor) and maybe even verifying his mother’s legend of Native American ancestry. I am definitely working on it, spirit of Jennie Jerome. You may be vindicated yet. Curious that my color splash of it appears on a chromosome associated with “endurance” — and Winston always said it was his mother’s energy that made that story believable to him. And heaven knows, he was no slouch in the endurance department either. So, if we are cousins, which we are, perhaps they had their bit on the same stretch of chromosome too…..

    How far we have to go to prove much of this!

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  7. Great post, Sarah. So glad I stumbled upon it. I’ve recently sent my spit to 23&me and am waiting for the results. I’ve become the go to person on genealogy in one particular side of my family (the Irish part). So it will be interesting to see the range of what I expect to be a predominately Northern European mix. I am a writer, and am fascinated by the “why” of searching our histories. I’ve wondered if those of us born in the U.S. who are not Native Americans, feel more “rootless” than say, Europeans. Our ancestors came here sometimes willingly or brought as slaves, or more often escaping something: famine, persecution – and we’ve blurred into this “American” thing – a very complicated identity. Would love to know what you think about that as an anthropologist. I have a son working on his anthro PhD, too, on migrant workers, so we talk a lot about people movement and identity.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Lois!
      The question of why ancestry testing is so big in the U.S. is a central point in my research, and I think it’s a really fascinating issue. When I was doing my fieldwork in the U.S., people would often comment that they wished they could know their ancestral origins back ten generations or more, like “most Europeans”. In fact, most of my European friends, both young and old, are singularly unconcerned about knowing where their ancestors came from. In Britain, genealogical research is sometimes seen as quite an ostentatious pursuit, designed to feed unseemly delusions of grandeur. In other parts of Europe, such as Germany and the Balkans, even looking back into the last hundred years is liable to uncover painful histories. At the same time, at least for “white” Europeans, the predominant perception is that our ancestors have all pretty much been in the same place for the past millennium and perhaps longer – many of us tend to forget or disregard the transoceanic networks and wartime migrations that have spread families all over the globe much more recently. On the other hand, American (as in U.S.) identities are very much built on the notion that “we are all immigrants” – and since the 1970s, the prevailing tendency has been for people to cultivate their roots outside the nation, I guess as a means of accruing a kind of cultural capital. There is a very interesting book on this, called “Roots Too” by Matthew Frye Jacobson, which you might enjoy.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, Sarah – I’ll check out the Jacobson book. I read Christine Kenneally’s book, The Hidden History of the Human Race, which is a nice overview. In the broader media world, I think Henry Louis Gates’ work on “Finding Your Roots” on PBS has probably moved more people to think more openly about their origins. Americans are such a motley crew – I think the effect of being untethered from our roots has its pros and cons. More willing to take risks, perhaps, but also less grounded. There was a study (Duke and Fivush) from Emory U. that showed that children who knew their family stories/history (hard times and good times) had a stronger sense of control over their lives, and greater self-esteem. Interesting stuff.

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  8. Sarah,
    Thanks for the entertaining read! With, what seems like, millions of hours into research I hope to share my additional confusion with some little shared facts in geneology. As a person with strong Polish Catholic ties it surprises many that a lot of my close friends are Jewish… Until my research uncovered that not long ago, obviously more than a century, Jews were not only welcome in Poland ( and parts of Russia) but highly encouraged to come. Poland was so democratic they even elected their Kings, who didn’t require residency… Whoops, maybe this is where they went astray.. As for the British connection,
    Unless you’ve managed to escape being Irish, it wouldn’t come as shock to find a bigger melting pot when you found that the Swedes kidnapped the Irish as slaves to be sold in Poland! But of course if you look a little further you realize that they had good reason, Sweden owned Poland… And the world just got a bit greyer or we just realized we needed history lessons to go with our test results.. I wish you the best with your thesis!

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  9. Hello, Sarah,
    Your research sounds interesting.
    Although I’m an American, my ancestors (except for one Loyal to the Crown) came from England to live in Plymouth (USA) and what is now Cape Cod from 1620 to 1920. Distant cousins in Cape Cod remain. That’s probably why I love British wit of the low dewpoint variety. Who else would measure their money by the pound, yet measure themselves with stones?
    My Ph.D. is in atmospheric physics, so I have been struggling for about 2 years to learn about DNA. My knowledge of biology is basic: liver goes with onions and kidneys go into a meat pie – or is it versa vice?
    You seem certain that you have no ancestor who was from (or had been to) the Indian subcontinent. I grew up in Boston and remember reading about your Parliament giving The East India Tea Company a tax break (AKA corporate welfare) to lower the price of English Tea. (cf. Tea Act of 1773.) Until then, Dutch Tea was much cheaper – mainly because it was smuggled into the colonies. John Hancock, he of flamboyant penmanship, was one of the most successful, and thereby one of the richest, smugglers. Discussion of the Tea Act led to some sort of brouhaha at a costumed tea party aboard a British yacht.

    Mayhap one of your ancestors lived in India as an employee of the tea exporters or as a soldier, smitten by mosquitoes and a local lovely, what?

    I, too, believed that my ancestors were from England only, until I found a diary of my Great Grandmother in which she had written that her grandfather’s family had migrated all the way to Gray, Maine (then known as New Boston) from Poland! I was at once simultaneously flabberred and gasted! It couldn’t be.
    It took me a few weeks to remember that Poland, Maine is less than 15 miles from Gray. Some migration. (He was a Dowe. Because I watch many British comedies and mysteries, I know that ‘Dowe’, like ‘Lowe’ is unpronounceable to a New England yankee. My grandfather Ryder, from New Brunswick, could pronounce it. He had a funny way of saying ‘spoon’ as well. You Brits pronounce the W as if it were a V, but the vowel sound – well, we simply can’t wrap out tongue around it. It wasn’t long before Dowe became Dow – to rhyme w/ brown cow, I suppose.

    I’m descended from Mayflower passengers; from local volunteers during the dust-up at Lexington, Yorktown, &c; as well as from a Loyalist. Can’t wait until I can be declared U.E.)
    Please say “Oy!” to Mr. Bean for me.
    Duane
    Virginia Beach Genealogical Society, Cape Cod Genealogical Society, et al.

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    • Thanks a lot for your colourful comment, Duane! I take your point about the trade links between Britain and India, and in theory I wouldn’t discount the possibility that someone in my family tree could have brought back a child or a wife back to Britain from ‘the colonies’. On the other hand, there is absolutely no mention of it in the genealogical records that my family knows of, and I tend to think that something that gossip-worthy would not just have been forgotten! Plus, the percentage is quite substantial, which would mean that it would have to be a recent ancestor – in theory, a grandparent. And, having met three out of four of my grandparents (the fourth passed away before I was born), well… the story just doesn’t fly with me.

      On the other hand, it’s surprising what details are not successfully passed down from parents to children. For example, my parents have a beautiful Chinese Mah Jong set, passed down from my paternal grandmother’s father. Apparently, he brought it back from a trip to China some time in the early twentieth century. What was my great-grandfather doing buying game sets in China in the interwar period? No one can remember.

      Good luck with getting to grips with DNA! Having originally studied languages, literature and history, I know what you’re going through…

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  10. Hi Sarah, good to see how this worked out for you! 23andMe updates their estimates from time to time, and most of us feel that the supposedly “speculative” setting gives the best results. So here’s what they currently have for you:

    99.2% European

    Northern European
    25.3% British & Irish
    9.1% French & German
    7.8% Scandinavian
    36.6% Broadly Northern European

    7.4% Eastern European

    Southern European
    0.5% Iberian
    0.5% Italian
    0.1% Balkan
    1.9% Broadly Southern European

    0.7% Ashkenazi

    9.3% Broadly European

    < 0.1% South Asian

    0.7% Unassigned

    100% Sarah Abel

    Yes, that's quite a bit of generic Northern European, and the reason is just as you said — these populations are too closely related to be distinguished — UNLESS they get far more reference samples from a very high-resolution sampling of Europe. There are published papers managing to get far more detail, and results being trumpeted over there in your country for excellent high-resolution mapping of British populations.

    Now when are we going to hear what Gedmatch's admixture tools reveal about your mysterious South Asian and Ashkenazi heritage? 😉

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      • Good to hear from you, Bonnie, and thanks for your comments!

        Ah, Gedmatch. I was hoping to get on to that this summer, but I’ve had only intermittent internet access, and their site was down back in July. Hopefully I’ll be able to look into that soon, though, and I’ll let you know what I find.

        In terms of the British & Irish percentage, the 23andMe speculative view does seem to be an improvement, in the sense that it gives back values that are more similar to what I imagine to be the ‘correct’ results, based on my family background. But, for the sake of argument, if you are a genealogy neophyte and principally interested in finding out your genetic ‘ancestry’ or ‘ethnicity’ estimates (which is the point of view I’ve taken in this blog), it seems intriguing that 23andMe would offer you three different levels of accuracy for your results – so if you’re skeptical about one reading, you can always select another. Given that ethnicity and identity tend to be described socially as mutable, context-bound and multi-faceted, the idea of gaining increased accuracy on an ethnicity/ancestry reading is very novel.

        As for the Ashkenazi Jewish percentage, that’s something that I would ideally want to look up through conventional genealogical methods – although I think time, war and language has severed our family from anyone that might be able to tell us more about that. All the same, the fact that no one in my family has any awareness of Jewish heritage might be indicative of the fact that someone, at some point, chose to convert, or not to pass on their traditions to the next generation. Considering Europe’s recent (and distant) history, there are a number of reasons why this might have been the case, and I would be intrigued to find out more about that. Sadly, though, I think that aspect of my family history may just be unknowable – at least in the way I want to know it.

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