DNA testing to determine your family history can provide some surprising results

DNA testing is a relatively new tool to determine your family history, and it can provide some surprising results, writes Elizabeth O’Neill


WHEN the emailed results finally float into my inbox, eight weeks later than expected, the readings match my expectations and I’m a little disappointed.

The coloured pie chart has sliced up my ethnicity as 65% Irish, 28% Europe West, 7% other. Given paternal grandparents from Glasgow (Grandad) and Nottingham (Granny), this more or less adds up. However, on closer inspection, when I hover over the map, Europe West includes France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Lichtenstein and Luxembourg, not the UK or Scotland. So now, I’m getting more excited, because really, I always felt a little bit French.

Overall it turns out only 1% of me goes back to Great Britain. Further digging, shows the final slices of the pie break down as 2% Scandinavian (Vikings!) and 2% Europe East. The final 2% falls in America and Asia, so now I’m really interested.

As I click into the regions and maps, I see <1% Central Asian (Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan). That’s bordering on the exotic and might explain the constant wanderlust.

But the last and biggest surprise lies in wait. Because there under the America region, under the ‘low confidence term’ I’m about to ignore forever, is the final sliver of the pie. <1% Native American. This is just all too much. Native American!!

Call me Elizabeth Whitefeather. Sign me up for tribal initiation. It might be a tiny spec of DNA, but I’m claiming it. Can legitimately wear a feather headdress at a music festival without claims of cultural appropriation? What I initially saw as expected results from the Ancestry.com DNA kit, on closer inspection show a diverse ethnic range in the very pale faced, white, Irish person. The results pose far more questions than they answer. Where does the 28% Europe West come from? And can I really, seriously annoy everyone with claims of Native American ancestry (either way I’m going too!).

Elizabeth O’Neill
Elizabeth O’Neill

I decide to get a more help in deciphering the results from Mike Mulligan – genealogist and Principal Product Manager with Ancestry.com.

DNA ancestry testing is relatively new, with a roll out of kits from Ancestry.com beginning in 2012. It’s easy to do. You buy the test online and when the kit arrives, you get an activation code which you set up online. You essentially spit into a tiny tube, add in a blue solution and send it off in a sealed, self-addressed envelope. A link to the results is emailed to you about six weeks later (my results took three months). To date, more than two million people worldwide have taken this particular test.

As Mike points out this is one commercial application of the $7billon human genome project. This kit will cost you about €70. It’s an autosomal test, meaning it looks at both the maternal and paternal paths of your DNA. Each sample is tested 40 times with the mean result given, for example, my Irish DNA came out in a range of 51 to 77%. The test surveys your entire genome over 700,000 locations. Those 700,000 locations refer to reference populations. For example in Ireland to get a reference, people wtih long rooted Irish family trees were tested, because logic would suggest that if they were here for a couple of hundred years, chances are they’re here for thousands of years.

The first question I ask Mike is why, if I’ve an English granny and Scottish grandfather, I’ve only 1% Great British ethnicity?

Mike explains that genetic ethnicity goes back centuries, “We’re talking about from the time of Brian Boru to before 500AD, that’s the time frame we’re talking about. If you think about 500 AD and what the UK looked like, well there was no such thing as the United Kingdom of course. You had the Anglo-Saxons coming in from what would have been Denmark/Germany and a couple of hundred years later you had the Vikings coming in from Norway/Sweden and then even if you go to 1100/1200 AD you’d a lot of people coming in from Belgium/France and Germany. So what we’re looking for when we’re looking for Great Britain is really far back indigenous.

“Your ethnicity estimate shows 28% Europe West that’s mostly coming from your English granny.” Doing my own research, I look up her surname Watts, and the provenance has roots in Normandy /France and Germany, so it’s beginning to make more sense.

However, Mike sheds more light on the European part of the genetic puzzle by explaining the role of the Genetic Communities result of my DNA test. This part I’d ignored somewhat, but it paints its own more recent picture. When the results arrive, you get your percentage of genetic ethnicity, but you also get maps to where your genetic communities come from. While ethnicity goes back thousands of years, the communities are more recent, from 200-400 years ago.

Looking at my results, Mike points out that I link to three defined communities, Munster Irish, Northern English and Yorkshire. “You can look at your communities and see clearly there’s one coming from your mum’s side and there’s one from your dad’s side – from his mother, and that’s very clear because you’ve got Northern English and Yorkshire coming from your English granny.

“From the Irish line you’ve Munster Irish and inside Munster Irish we have found five different communities and you connect to one that went all the way from Limerick to Waterford, it went right across a line. The DNA tells us where the community was born and then from the history side, we try to work out what brought that people together. The only thing that covers Limerick / Waterford and would tie the DNA of all those people is if they’d something in their history that kept them together.” He further explains this wasn’t a geographic obstacle, but rather it was possibly ruling Normans. “So I think part of that 28% Western Europe is not just your English granny, but some of it is on your mum’s side.” A lack of Scottish ethnicity from my Glaswegian O’Neill grandfather is more or less explained by his name, which is Ulster Irish and the fact I already know his grandfather was from Ireland.

While all this helps to confirm what I already know, or helps shape the fact that my English granny had European ancestry, nothing explains the more exotic links to Central Asia and America.

Mike says, “We call that low confidence in our community and anything we mark low confidence could be just one of those random things about DNA, that it’s just noise in the system.” What? It’s not a throwback to an adventuring ancestor or two? Mike acknowledges that a lot can happen in 1,600 years in a family tree. However, he’s not 100% convinced, it could simply be background noise and an anomaly.

He says, “What we’ll see as the science improves is the low confidence estimates fall way or that we’ll have a better answer why they’re there.” The evolution of DNA testing will see better reference panels and clearer pictures of who we are and where we come from. That’s why, as a new product on the market, DNA testing is so popular, it gives us concrete pictures of the existential question of who we essentially are. And even if it’s just “noise in the system”, my noise henceforth has a Native American (and European) beat.


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