5 Myths About AncestryDNA Ethnicity Estimates

27 September 2021
by Barry Starr, Ph.D.

Imagine you just got your results back from your AncestryDNA® test and you are blown away by all of the different peoples and places you’re connected to. You got 25% Scotland, 12% Japan, and so on. How exciting!

Of course, with something as complicated as a DNA test, there are bound to be some misunderstandings and myths. We are here to clear up a few of them.

1 If a region appears in your ethnicity estimate, then you have relatively recent relatives from there.

For instance, someone from Northern Italy might get 2% France but have no relatives from France.

Some people with a long family history in Northern Italy, for example, will have a smidge of France appear in their ethnicity estimate. But this doesn’t mean they have relatives from France.

AncestryDNA ethnicity estimate results showing 35% Northern Italy and 2% France
A small percentage of France in your ethnicity estimate could be because you have DNA from a neighboring region like Northern Italy.

Instead, this is just a reflection of the fact that Northern Italy and France have a lot of shared DNA, because they have a lot of shared history.

Other examples of world regions that have a lot of shared history include:

  • Germanic Europe and Eastern Europe & Russia
  • Benin & Togo and Ivory Coast & Ghana
  • Scotland and Ireland

So someone with roots back to Ghana may get a bit of Benin & Togo in their results. Or someone from Scotland could get a bit of Ireland.

2 Full biological siblings will have very similar percentages of each ethnicity in their estimate.

For instance you might expect three siblings with the same biological parents to all have very similar ethnicity estimate results.

But this isn’t necessarily the case. For instance, three biological siblings’ Spain and Portugal ethnicity estimates could look like this:

  • Sibling 1: 21% Spain and 13% Portugal
  • Sibling 2: 27% Spain and 2% Portugal
  • Sibling 3: 26% Spain and 6% Portugal

And one sibling, say sibling #3, could have 4% Ireland in their ethnicity estimate while the other two siblings have no Ireland in their ethnicity estimate.

This is because although full siblings all get 50% of their DNA from Dad* and 50% of their DNA from Mom*, they don’t all get the same 50% from each biological parent.

illustration of how DNA is passed on from biological parents to biological children
Each sibling gets 50% of their DNA from Mom and 50% from Dad, but they don’t all get the same 50%.

Each biological sibling has a different mix of biological parents—and thus gets a different mix of ethnicities.

3 If a region doesn’t appear in your results, your relatives aren’t from there.

For example, just because Eastern Europe & Russia doesn’t appear in your ethnicity estimate doesn’t mean you don’t have relatives in Eastern Europe.

There are many ways to have relatives from a certain part of the world and yet not see that ethnicity in your DNA results.

The most common reason is that it’s been too long since your relatives lived in that region. If you go back far enough in time, it could be that you don’t have enough of a relative’s DNA to see their ethnicity in your results.

Another possibility is that AncestryDNA® test results don’t yet include that specific region. In that case, you would most likely get a mix of nearby regions.

For instance, we now include France in our ethnicity estimate, but before it was added, people with DNA from France instead had the region “Western Europe” appear in their test results.

The AncestryDNA regions list alongside a world map
We have over 1,500 regions in the AncestryDNA® ethnicity estimate, and we continue to add more.

If you’re looking for heritage not yet captured by one of the AncestryDNA® regions, stay tuned. We periodically update our results to include more and more regions around the world.

4 If you have a higher percentage from a region than both your parents combined, your ethnicity estimate is incorrect.

Your ethnicity estimate for Portugal could be 13%, while your mom’s could be just 8% and your dad’s could be just 2%.

You might ask, “How can that be? Even if your mom passes on the full 8% and your dad passes on all of his 2%, that’s still only 10%.”

Well, your reported ethnicity estimate of 13% Portugal is the most likely percentage. But other percentages are possible as well.

When we dig a little deeper, we see that the range of what your Portugal ethnicity estimate could be is actually 1-28% Portugal.

A screen showing the range of a 13% Portugal estimate, alongside a map with Portugal highlighted
An ethnicity estimate of 13% is just the most likely percentage.

So you’re most likely 13% Portugal—but you could be as little as 1% Portugal and as much as 28% Portugal. And that range fits in nicely with your parents’ results!

5 Your ethnicity estimate is where your family’s story ends.

Your ethnicity estimate tells you which populations your family may have been connected to hundreds to over one thousand years ago. But DNA matches can connect you to living family.

DNA results are so much more than ethnicity! If you opt in to the DNA matches feature, AncestryDNA® can give you a list of sometimes thousands or tens of thousands of people that you are likely related to. Matches works by comparing your test results with millions of other test takers and showing you how your DNA matches to other customers’ who have also opted in.

An example list of DNA matches
DNA matches bring your family DNA story into more recent times, with connections to living relatives.

These people, or DNA matches, could be relatives you never knew you had. And these relatives could be the key to exciting discoveries. One of your DNA matches, for instance, could be the long-lost link to the town in Ireland that your Irish ancestors came from.

Or a DNA match could be a cousin whose tree has old family photos you’ve never seen–like the photo of his great-grandmother that Rob Lowe discovered thanks to his third cousin John.

Don’t have an AncestryDNA® test yet? Get yours today.

*biological mother/father