Comparing Ethnicity Estimates at Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage: Case Study

This weekend a relative received their DNA results back from Ancestry.  As I have written earlier, I started out testing relatives at FamilyTreeDNA.  But now Ancestry has a much larger database, so I have started testing family there.

I had the chance to talk to my relative on the phone as I looked at the results.  We talked first about the match list.  The person’s cousin was there as a first cousin, as expected.  There were second and third cousin matches, cool, but no known individuals in those lists.  The results were so new that Ancestry hadn’t shown me any shared ancestor hints.  I would spend more time looking through the matches after our call.

Next we talked about ethnicity results.  First thing, I noted, “You are 100% European.”  Ok, no surprise there.  Then, I explained that within Europe there are European sub-groups, but they are rough guesses.  (I wrote about this in DNA Testing, What Do My Origin Percentages Mean?)  “Really?” they said, disappointed.  We talked through the sub-groups.  The conversation felt a little empty, because we both knew those ethnicities probably weren’t accurate.


The conversations turned more positive as we talked about Genetic Communities.  The only one of those I have found to be untrustworthy is the Mormon Settlers group, which wasn’t in their list.  They have Early Settlers of New York and French Settlers of Montreal, and both agree with the paper trail.

After this part of our conversation I was left a little disappointed.  I do DNA testing for the match lists, and not the origin percentages, but could I add some more confidence to the origin results?  With the tester’s agreement I transferred the results to MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA, who do their own ethnicity estimates.  Hopefully if there is some agreement among the companies, we can have more confidence in the ethnicity results.

The last of these transfers finished processing Sunday.  I can now compare results from Ancestry, MyFamilyTree, and MyHeritage.  As a bonus, both of the person’s parents are also at FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage, adding an extra dimension for comparison.

The Paper Trail

Every person has a paper trail family tree that includes all of their ancestors.  They have a genetic tree that includes a subset of the paper tree, the people they inherited DNA from.  Although the exact percentages are probably different, what ethnicities do we expect from the paper trail?

The father of our DNA tester has a paper trail that leads to:

  • 50% Early New England and New York heritage, mostly British and a bit of Dutch
  • 25% German-speaking from Posen province of German Empire, currently Poland
  • 25% Germans from Russia

The mother of our DNA tester has a paper trail that leads to:

  • 25% German-speaking from “Prussia”
  • 18.75% French Canadian
  • 12.5% German-speaking from Mecklenburg province of German Empire
  • 12.5% German-speaking from Baden province of German Empire
  • 12.5% German-speaking from Schleswig province of German Empire, border with Denmark
  • 12.5% Danish from southern Denmark
  • 6.25% Scottish in Early Canada

Their child’s percentages would then be, approximately:

  • 56.25% German (12.25% of that from current-day Poland)
  • 25% British
  • 9.375% French
  • 6.25% Danish
  • 3.125% Scottish

So in general we would expect a good amount of German and British, and then probably some of the French, Danish, Scottish, maybe Dutch, and groups that had intermarried with these.

Ethnicity results from Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage

Here are the results from the testing companies.  Geographic areas that all three tests share are in bold type.

Ancestry result:

  • 34% Scandinavia
  • 22% Europe West
  • 21% Europe East
  • 18% Ireland
  • 3% Italy/Greece
  • 1% Iberian Peninsula
  • 1% Great Britain

FamilyTreeDNA results:

  • 69% West and Central Europe
  • 21% British Isles (includes Great Britain and Ireland)
  • 9% East Europe
  • <1% Finland
  • <1% West Middle East

MyHeritage results:

  • 36.1% Scandinavian
  • 26.8% English
  • 18.9% Balkan
  • 14.9% Irish, Scottish, and Welsh
  • 3.3% Greek

Ok, so what do these numbers tell us?  The only area in common was Great Britain/Ireland.  I double-checked the FamilyTreeDNA definition of “East Europe” and found that this area doesn’t include the Balkans, so no overlap there.

How do these compare with the paper trail?

  • FamilyTreeDNA: seems to match the paper trail the best; good, significant German/French percentage, British Isles good, some Eastern European could be from the Germans that were in current-day Poland, missing Danish but that can happen, and not sure where traces of Finland and West Middle East from, but possible
  • Ancestry: next-best match to paper trail; Europe West somewhat low, Great Britain seems very low, Scandinavia seems very high, Europe East high, Ireland high, and not sure where traces of Italy/Greece and Iberian Peninsula from, but again possible
  • MyHeritage: seems to match paper trail the least; no German/French at all, though English is good, Irish/Scottish/Welsh okay, even higher Scandinavian than Ancestry, high Balkan percentage seems a little out there, trace Greek is possible

Of the three testing companies FamilyTreeDNA matches the paper trail the best.  I wanted to know more.  How consistent were the FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage results within the father, mother, child group?

FamilyTreeDNA comparison with parents

Father Mother Child
West and Central Europe 60% 52% 69%
Scandinavia  0% 31% 0%
East Europe 28% 4% 0%
British Isles 12% 11% 21%
West Middle East  0% < 2% < 1%
Finland  0%  0% < 1%

Overall the FamilyTreeDNA results for the child are plausible based on the parents’ results, except for the trace Finland amount.  It is possible the child happened to inherit significant parts of the parents’ DNA from the British Isles and missed the Scandinavia and East European sections.

Comparing the father’s results to the paper trail: West and Central Europe ok, British Isles low, East Europe high.

Comparing the mother’s results to the paper trail: West and Central Europe ok, Scandinavia high, British Isles high.

MyHeritage comparison with parents

Father Mother Child
English 67.2% 0% 26.8
Scandinavian 0% 39.7% 36.1
Irish, Scottish, and Welsh 0% 32.8% 14.9
Baltic 15.9% 0% 0%
Balkan 14.6% 27.5% 18.9
Finnish 1.3% 0% 0%
Ashkenazi Jewish 1.0% 0% 0%
Greek 0% 0% 3.3%

Again, overall the MyHeritage results for the child are plausible based on the parents’ results, except for the 3.3% Greek.

Comparing father’s results to the paper trail: Missing German in results, British Isles a little high, and significant Baltic and Balkan with no paper trail evidence.

Comparing mother’s results to the paper trail: Again no German, high Irish/Scottish/Welsh, high Scandinavian, and very high Balkan with no paper trail evidence.

Is there a conclusion?

I had hoped to analyze results at three testing companies to gain more confidence in my relative’s ethnicity percentages.  I found that the only geographical area in common between the results at Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage was British Isles.  Comparing origin percentages to the paper trail, FamilyTreeDNA seemed better than the other companies for this tester.

When comparing FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage results of the child, father, and mother, in both cases an ethnicity was reported for the child that wasn’t in either parent, though for FamilyTreeDNA it was a trace amount (<1% for FamilyTreeDNA, 3.3% for MyHeritage).  Also, MyHeritage reported no German for either parent even though both are at least half ethnically German, and unexpectedly reported Baltic and a very high percentage of Balkan.  MyHeritage reported the most questionable results for this tester.  They may need to improve their German reference population.

Ethnicity percentage testing is still a new field with research ongoing.  Checking your ethnicity results at different companies can give you a feel for which ethnicities are probably real.  If you test at Ancestry, it is free to bring your results to MyHeritage and only $19 to bring your results to FamilyTreeDNA and get their ethnicity estimate.  For this tester, FamilyTreeDNA had better results than MyHeritage or Ancestry.  But in the end these are still all just educated guesses.  They should improve as the research in sample populations improves.  To be continued…

For further reading, some good articles are Ethnicity Results – True or Not? and Ethnicity Testing – A Conundrum by Roberta Estes at DNAeXplained blog and DNA disappointment  by Judy Russell at The Legal Genealogist.

Posted in DNA

5 thoughts on “Comparing Ethnicity Estimates at Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage: Case Study”

  1. Just uploaded my Ancestry DNA to MyHeritage and found I am no longer German !! My Father more than 50% German. My Grandfather 100% German .How does this happen ? Suddenly , I am confused. I am now 85 % UK.


    1. I have written to MyHeritage previously about this issue. I also believe that German origins are severely under-reported by their test. The sample population and/or algorithms need to be improved for this population. Of course, Germanic people did migrate to and populate much of the UK, but the error is still significant. I would trust Ancestry DNA more than MyHeritage at this point, but they are all estimates, of course.


  2. Ancestry’s overall estaimates can go back thousands of years , your papers trail only goes back hundreds . So how can you compare?


    1. First of all, the DNA testing companies are comparing your DNA to people who live today. That’s the starting point. They try to test and use as data samples people who have at least their four grandparents from the same general area. Then they use the fact that over much of history people stayed in the same general place. They may weed people out who are not genetically similar enough to the others. But understand that you are being compared to people who live now.

      There has been some success in taking DNA from old remains, but as far as I am aware those results are not yet informing the ethnicity results. Hopefully they will some day.

      You get DNA from a subset of your ancestors. All of your DNA was around in pieces thousands of years ago. Can the ethnicity test formulas take DNA based on locations today and accurately say where that DNA came from thousands of years ago? Maybe in some cases. Can they tell where people with DNA similar to that were living 100 years ago? Much more likely.

      The best case is using DNA and your paper trail together.


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