What AncestryDNA® Can Tell You about Your German Ancestors

28 October 2021
by Barry Starr, Ph.D.

If like me you are one of the over 44 million1 Americans with German heritage, you might be curious about your German ancestors. Who were they? What brought them to the U.S.? Where exactly in Germany were they from?

You may have already started your research. Maybe you Googled your coat of arms. Or maybe you searched the meaning of your German last name.

But did you know you can learn more about your German ancestors from your DNA? Sometimes, you can learn a whole lot.

DNA-Based Details About Your German Ancestors

For many customers, AncestryDNA® can tell you what part of Germany your ancestors likely came from and even tell you how some of them moved around the world over time. They can also sometimes discover living relatives in Germany who share the same ancestral roots.

There are three basic sets of information you can get from just your AncestryDNA® results: ethnicity regions, communities, and DNA matches. Let’s break down each set—and a bit of the science behind them.

Ethnicity regions: Connections to more ancient populations

These regions represent populations in the world your ancestors came from hundreds to thousands of years ago.

Most people with German ancestors will have, of course, Germanic Europe.

AncestryDNA® test results show heritage from “Germanic Europe,” primarily located in Germany and Switzerland.

But because most people in Europe didn’t just stay in one place for centuries, they can also get ethnicity regions from other parts of Europe (including England & Northwestern Europe, Eastern Europe & Russia, and even Scandinavia).

People with “Germanic Europe” in their results can also get ethnicity regions from other parts of Europe.

The part of Germany your ancestors lived is often connected to which other European regions might show up in your ethnicity estimate—and how those regions rank by percentage.

For instance, if your German ancestors were from the eastern part of Germany, you might get a higher percentage of Eastern Europe & Russia.

If they were from the western part of Germany, you might get more England & Northwestern Europe.

We assign you regions by comparing your DNA, piece by piece, to the DNA of people from 70 different reference groups. Each of these reference groups is made up of people with long family histories from a certain part of the world.

Communities: Connections to More Recent Populations

Communities represent populations in the world your ancestors came from within the last few hundred years.

Many people with a significant amount of Germanic Europe will also get German or German-based communities. This is where we can really start to more narrowly define where your ancestors were from.

Currently AncestryDNA® has over 1,3002 communities: 33 with Germanic ties and many, many more communities in the U.S. with German roots. (*values from 2021 AncestryDNA results.)

AncestryDNA® has dozens of “communities” with Germanic ties, which can help pinpoint where in Germany your ancestors came from.

Current communities in Germany range from tiny Artland, a place in northwestern Germany, to the much larger Germans in the Ukraine with plenty in between. They can tell you about your ancestors and some of their history.

For example, the Germans in Upper Volga is an interesting one. In the late 1700s, Germans who were unhappy where they lived had two competing offers of where to go. They could go east to Russia or west to the US. Many people from this community chose both but at different times.

People with links to this community can see that some folks, in response to Catherine the Great’s invitation, headed east out of what is now Germany and settled on the Volga river in Russia.

In the first part of the 1800s the “Volga Germans” settled in groups along the Volga river in Russia.

These settlers lived there for a century or more but when Tsar Alexander II decided to make military service compulsory, many headed west to the Great Plains of North America, including Alberta in Canada and Kansas and Oklahoma in the United States. If you’re part of this community, you can get their  history from 1700-1975.

By the 1870s, the “Volga Germans” headed to the Great Plains of North America to continue to live in relative isolation.

We assign communities based on shared DNA matches—a list of other people who have taken an AncestryDNA® test, opted in, and are likely to be related to you based on your DNA. We look at all of your DNA matches and then look at all of their matches, and so on, until we end up with clusters of people who share more DNA with each other than they do with other people.

DNA Matches: Connections to Living Relatives

DNA matches are your living relatives, people you share some amount of DNA with. The more DNA you share, the closer the relationship.

If you have German roots, you may be able to find relatives still living in Germany. You can then reach out to them and learn more about that part of your family.

For example, a colleague of mine in Germany is part of a U.S. based German community—West Central Pennsylvania Settlers. This is one of 90 different communities just in Pennsylvania. Yes, you read that correctly—90.

Even people from Germany can be part of U.S. based German communities, like “West Central Pennsylvania Settlers.”

She and none of her known relatives moved to the US but apparently some of her ancestors did! In other words, she shares DNA with people from her community who did move to the U.S. These DNA matches can now reach out to her to learn about their German ancestors and she can reach out and learn about those DNA matches who left for the U.S.

What Will You Learn About Your German Roots?

From cousins in Germany to where exactly in Germany your ancestors may have lived and where they moved, there’s so much your DNA can reveal about your German heritage.

See what you can discover with an AncestryDNA® test today.

1Based on data from the United States Census Bureau, American Community Survey
2AncestryDNA® had over 1,300 communities as of April 2021. The current number of communities and DNA regions may differ.