Ancestry.com is under Fire as new DNA Algorithm Drastically Changes the Ethnicity of Some Users

It may be time to trade in your German lederhosen for a Scottish kilt!

Ancestry.com is updating its databases and altering the results for some users. The new findings of ethnic origins has sent some users into a full-blown identity crisis. If you previously had your DNA tested by Ancestry and have already found your family’s ethnic origins, you might want to go back to the AncestryDNA web site and check again. The results may have changed.

Some patrons are seeing their prior genetic and ethnic histories undergo an entire transformation, leading users to somewhat jarring realizations.

You can read more in an article by Liam Mannix and Alexandra Gauci in the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald at: http://bit.ly/2vvGdig.

Comment by DickEastman:

This change in reports shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, similar changes have happened before at other companies and I suspect we will see more in the future.

As the various DNA testing companies keep adding more and more DNA information, both from their own customers as well as from other, public, DNA studies, the historic DNA information in their databases becomes more and more refined. That’s another way of saying that the DNA information becomes more and more accurate over time.

Which results do you wish to believe? The results you obtained a year or two ago that was based on less historic information or the new results available today that are based upon a lot more historic information? Then again, how about the results you might obtain a year or two in the future that are based on still more historic information?

No reputable DNA testing company ever creates a database of historic DNA information and then “seals it” forever and ever. All the DNA testing companies are constantly adding more and more data and are refining their algorithms that compare your DNA results to all the millions of previously-identified historic records. You certainly can expect your test result to be tested again and again as more data becomes available.

I encountered something similar a couple of years ago with a different DNA testing company. The initial test results identified 50% of my ancestors as coming from two adjacent European countries. Those results contradicted my 35 years of manually chasing my family’s history without the benefit of DNA. I was convinced those first DNA test results were inaccurate.

About six months later, I went back and checked the DNA testing company’s web site once again. Lo and behold! Those 50% of my ancestors had now packed up and moved to a different, but nearby, country. In fact, their “new country” agreed with all the manual research I had found in the past 35 years of poring over written records.

Similar or same test results will probably happen to millions of other genealogists. Please don’t be surprised if it happens to you.

Now, how do I cancel my order for a custom-made kilt?

22 Comments

The results that should be believed are a combination of DNA tests and actual research into records to create a paper trail of evidence. Now the vast majority of users only want the former and not bother with the latter.

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    Carol Baker-Murray April 30, 2019 at 3:40 pm

    That is very true! You can’t get your ethnicity and expect it to NEVER change as time goes by and more people test. You need to keep up with things and do your own research to back up the findings of your DNA. I was shocked by a couple things that showed up but in research I found out it was correct!

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    Totally agree. Personally I don’t use the “ethnicity” part of my Ancestry DNA results. What if one has European noble or even royal ancestry? Look at the history of those families. Muslim rulers in Spain married persons of noble and royal Spanish origin. Turkish rulers married Byzantine persons. The entire history of European noble and royal ancestry is overflowing with mixed ethnicity. In my personal situation, I have an NPE (Non-Paternal Event) and my Ancestry DNA (autosomal) results helped immensely to narrow down the possible time frame of that NPE. I actually wish that I had taken an Ancestry DNA test many years prior. I might have saved time and money by doing so. I had a Family Tree DNA Y-chromosome (at 111 markers) and Family Finder (autosomal) test. They proved there was an NPE, but, the Ancestry DNA test added more needed info to narrow down further research. Also, even when one’s known more recent ancestral lines are documented, only the strongest levels of DNA may show matches. For some reason my Ontario, Canada and Bibb County, Alabama roots show up very strong (in reference to my matches at Ancestry DNA). But some of the New England lines (which were contemporary to the stronger matches) don’t show up at all. Even when they show up as STRONG matches to my mother and maternal grandmother. So yes you are quite correct. We should use our DNA matches as one of the ways (not the only way) to lead us to a profitable paper trail of primary sources or at least a larger number of secondary sources which compliment each other. I can almost guarantee one will gain much more satisfaction if that process is followed. To find those missing family connections and connecting with distant cousins is definitely a large part of the “thrill of the hunt” — at least it is to me anyway.

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    The Phoenicians used to trade all over the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe (even to England). Wonder if they ever brought slaves from the Middle East and/or North Africa and took them to other places and if those individuals have descendants living today in places like England, etc? Things that make you go hmmmm….;-)

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If ancestry allowed uploading of outside data, this wouldn’t be such a problem. Right now it looks as though they try to hide their inaccuracies.

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Dick,
My mother’s family is 100% Norwegian, according to church records, as far back as those records go, about to 1600 or a bit before. When my brother first did Ancestry DNA, it told him he was 38% Scandinavian. Since there was no evidence in the records that our father’s lines were Scandinavian at all, this was very puzzling. Over time, the Scandinavian inched up to just over 50% Norwegian. I finally learned that one branch of our father’s family was Dutch, settling in New Netherland only a few years after Plymouth (where we also had English settlers). One merchant in that Dutch group was born in Norway just before 1600, moved to Amsterdam, where he married a Dutch woman, and eventually they and their eldest children moved to Fort Orange (Beverwick, now Albany, NY). So by the records, we are “half and a smidge Norwegian.” It’s been fascinating to see the percentages of our Norwegian ancestry settle down over time to what the church records show. It’s not as simple as my father’s response to my second grade school assignment to create a diagram showing the variety of our ethnic heritages. But he wasn’t far off. My brother is working on the origins of our mutual last name. We can trace it historically to an Isaac Wagner who served as a teenager in the American side of the Revolution. His father seems to have been a Hans, and probably was the immigrant. AncestryDNA doesn’t give us useful information on this family line. There are also a bunch of other ethnic groups in his side–the diagram he helped me put together back when showed as little as 1/16, but it didn’t get down to “smidges” of anything. I don’t think I’d sue over this. As the Legal Genealogist puts it, so far the ethnic estimates are still cocktail party talk.
Doris

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These are not new estimates. The update was announced in June 2018 (see this article).

Users who have recently received emails from Ancestry either didn’t look at the new estimates last June, or else chose (as I did) to leave their old estimate in place. The only reason Ancestry are contacting them now is because the outdated estimates are going to disappear next month.

I have always regarded ethnicity estimates as being for amusement only (all my known ancestors were European, which limits their usefulness); that said, the revised estimates were more plausible. However for those who have ancestors from more than one continent they may be of some value.

I tested my DNA in order to find matches with genetic cousins that would help me knock down some of my ‘brick walls’, and also verify my paper-based research. I haven’t been disappointed. Anyone looking to do the same will find this article helpful.

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    Not correct. I’ve received an email advising an update. And I accepted the previous update last year.

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    Peter, I believe you are correct about this not being a big new ethnicity rollout from Ancestry. I searched the web and can’t find any announcements from Ancestry about a new ethnicity update. The Australian article being the only source of this news seemed odd to me. I think they were reporting on somebody who finally got around to looking at their update from last year.

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    Jen, if you accepted your revised ethnicity estimates last June I can’t explain why you got an email.
    I also got an email and my estimates definitely haven’t changed since last June, nor has the size of the reference panel increased. (I’m not relying on my memory – my estimates are shown as an example in the first article I referenced.)
    Last week I spoke with a well-known genetic genealogy blogger who also confirmed that these are not new estimates. However she commented that many people had been confused by the emails they received.

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I too had Ancestry change my results but, as with Dick’s experience, the new revelations only served to confirm and strengthen what I already strongly suspected from on-the-ground research, viz. that I’m much more Irish than Ancestry originally believed. In fact, the reformed report pinpointed with far greater accuracy just where in Ireland my people came from, Ulster. So, far from being unhappy with Anc’s report, I say “Keep it up!”

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I haven’t noticed any changes to my ethnicity estimate on Ancestry, but I did notice that my previous estimate will only be available to view or download until July 20. If you’re keeping track of changes over time, you might want to go to the Updates window and check on this. My account shows I can only download percentages as a PDF right now. When they released my current update, I was able to view map comparisons between current and previous estimates for a while, but that function seems to have disappeared. Glad I created screenshots and plan to keep doing this.

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There has always been migration within Europe. Beethoven’s grandfather was Dutch, Columbus was Italian, … In my own case, many of my Scottish, French-Canadian, and Dutch lines all seem to converge in Flanders in the 1600s or before.

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I tested early and my Scandinavian has gone from 12% to 27% and with this latest update 5% Sweden and 3% Norway at Ancestry. I have a fairly good papertrail and 90% of my ancestors came from the UK, so other than the 27% I think it is fairly accurate. However, since I have had this experience, I look at this a little skeptically. FTDNA has my Scandinavian at 36%, so there’s that.

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Identifying DNA ethnicities for Europeans is a hard problem.
First, disentangling many many centuries of mass migration (Goths, Huns, Vandals…), migrations due to religious differences (Cuius regio, eius religio), migrations due to ethnic cleansing, wars, families immigrating.
Second, we’re trying to reconstruct DNA profiles of ancient groups mostly from modern samples. Ancient DNA samples are invaluable but rare, and missing for some groups. (The Stonehenge people cremated their dead, so no DNA samples. Preservation of DNA in Middle Eastern graves is a problem.)
In my case, the paper-trail ancestry (not going far enough back) is 1/2 Irish, 1/4 English, 1/4 West Prussian. I had 4 companies run ethnicity tests, and they tended to make me seriously Scandinavian. I have no known Scandinavian ancestry, but all the ancestral homelands were invaded by Scandinavians at one time or another, from Viking days until the Thirty Years War.
My latest Ancestry.com revision seems to fit the paper trail better than most of the ethnicity assignments. It would make the West Prussian ancestry a mixture of Germanic, Slavic, and Northern European. So original Europeans plus Germanic Indo-European invaders plus Slavic Indo-European invaders. Plausible but subject to change as the data sets are improved.

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I learned about this problem a while back, when researching my mother’s maternal line.

Back in 2011, she was Haplogroup X. Users who tested positive for this group included a wild array of Germans, Scandinavians, English, and Siberian Asian migrants (Native Americans). It was only a few years ago that they refined these haplogroups, and named and labeled all the X subclades. Some of these ended up being attached to the Native American pool, the rest were Western European (which was where my mother’s haplogroup landed, now listed as X2b4). But for a couple years there, we thought we were part SIBERIAN! It gave some truth to the family rumors that Grandma was part Blackfoot Tribe. News flash – she wasn’t…and she always told us she wasn’t!

Over the years, I will expect to see that haplogroup change up some more, to get to a more refined, more recently created mutation.

That’s why I have always been skeptical, and knew they were still just working this stuff out on the fly.

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Marci in Mexico May 1, 2019 at 2:31 pm

This is the third or forth guestimate from Ancestry and the only one that was close to accurate was the one they created after asking me what I thought my results should be in a “poll” and then changing them to match. Both Roberta Estes and Blaine Bittenger say that in general, the results are only accurate to a continent level – this is important to remember.
Ancestry’s latest guess has 22% Norwegian which is only accurate if all my Swiss, French and Dutch ancestors were Vikings. I tell people to take it with a giant grain of salt or better yet, ignore it.

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The latest interpretation of my DNA results from Ancestry are much more in line with my documented research than the older interpretation. I am grateful that Ancestry and other DNA companies continue to update their databases and inform us of the changes.

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    The same happened for me. The original interpretation was way off compared to my research. It now matches my research, and also pin points where my family came from in Ireland & Scotland, which it did not previously.

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The new revised ethnicity estimates now correspond exactly to my research: 75% French, 22% Irish/Scot.

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Dick,
They change my information.
At first it was:
Western European (includes Normandy) – 72 % Yep, Eudo and Alan
Ireland (includes Scotland) – 20 % Yep, Crichton and Hepburn
Scandinavian – 4 % Yep, Hubba the Viking
Other regions – 3 % Middle European
African – 1 % Everyone has that
Now they have:
England, Northwestern Europe – 78%
Ireland, Scotland – 22%
The first summary matches what I have found over the last 30 years.
Mike

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MR JAMES GORDON ORRELL September 14, 2019 at 3:47 pm

Any “ethnicity” calculations should show 2 simple facts:
– what is the sample
– what is the time period.
A population at a geographic location will be vastly different at different times. England was very different after the “ango+saxons” took over etc etc etc. It is like trying to get American ethnicity pre Spanish from the average of todays population.

I can’t understand why Ancestry etc can’t do this, I think the Genographic Project test can do it, and via the free GEDmatch it will tell me things like what % I am Neandethal.

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