This is the 2016 version of the article, the 2018 version of this article is now available!
There’s a meme going around on Facebook, started by J Paul Hawthorne, where people share their pedigree chart that shows the ethnicities rather than the names. In this article I am going to compare my ethnicity based on my paper trail to the ethnicity predictions by the DNA companies.
Ethnicity pedigree chart
Here is my pedigree chart, showing the countries of birth of ten generations of my ancestors. As you can see from all of the orange, I am quite Dutch.
The blue lines represent people born in Germany. Most of my German ancestors are from Suderwick, just across the border from the Achterhoek area where the rest of my paternal ancestors came from.
I have some unknown ancestors, including three unknown fathers of illegitimate children on my mom’s side, which show as blanks.
My father’s family did not move around. All 2,000+ ancestors of his that I have traced so far were born within a few miles of the house where he was born in Winterswijk. Based on naming patterns and archaeology, it is known that many farms in this area have been around since about 800 AD. That may well have been the last period when large groups of new people settled there.
My mom’s family is a bit more mobile, with ancestors from Noord-Brabant and Zeeland. On her Zeeland lines, she has some Huguenot ancestors from northern France. On her Brabant lines, she has some bastards of nobles, which tie into the royal families of medieval Europe, but these are all at least fifteen generations back.
All in all, I think I’m pretty Dutch!
Admixture predictions by DNA companies
So what do the DNA testing companies make of this? I had autosomal tests done by three different companies, who all provide their ethnicity predictions. Here is how they read my DNA.
Ancestry’s ethnicity estimate is spot on, showing I’m 100% European, and 94% from Western Europe. The trace regions could be explained by the medieval noble lines, although they are so low they could easily be noise.
23andMe has three levels of predictions: conservative, standard and speculative. All of them have me as predominantly Northwestern European, which matches my paper trail.
At the speculative level, 23andMe tries to assign even DNA it isn’t sure about. French & German, a region which includes the Netherlands, comes up as the highest. Even combined with the unassigned “Broadly Northwestern European,” that only accounts for less than two-thirds of my DNA. The 28.2% British & Irish is way too high, as is the 6.5% Scandinavian. So not bad, but not particularly impressive either.
Boy, did FamilyTreeDNA miss the mark on that one!
None of the regions cover the eastern part of the Netherlands, where my father’s family is from. When I first saw these results, I thought FamilyTreeDNA did not have a reference population for the area around the Netherlands, but I later had other family members tested and they had “Western and Central European” which covered the Netherlands.
It’s really unbelievable how FamilyTree failed to pick up even one percent of Western and Central European DNA, where my estimate based on my paper trail shows it should be close to 100%.
Paper trail versus DNA
In the past, when I’ve used my results to warn people about the unreliability of these ethnicity predictions, some people tried to convince me that my paper trail must be incorrect. However, I do not think that is the case:
- I match all the right people. If there was a recent non-paternal event, I would not expect to match all the fourth, fifth and further cousins that I do.
- Most of my ancestors lived in small villages. Even if I made a mistake somewhere and got the wrong parents, chances are that the right parents were from the same village. That should not affect my ethnicity predictions, as those people weren’t immigrants but usually lived there for many generations.
- My paternal uncle and mother tested as well. Their ethnicity predictions are quite different from mine. For example, FamilyTreeDNA shows significant Western and Central European DNA for both of them. DNA proves they are definitely my mother and uncle, so if they are Western and Central European, so am I.
- The predictions of these three companies are quite different from each other. This in itself shows we should not put too much faith in them and that the prediction models are in its infancy.
To me, these results confirm what Judy Russell was saying about ethnicity predictions two years ago: “it’s not soup yet.”