Jan 232018

My autosomal DNA test results indicate I’m 98% European, which is further broken down to 49% British Isles, 36% East Europe, 9% Iberia and 4% Scandinavia. The remaining trace 2% is either Southeast Europe or simply “noise,” which is unexplained variations in the data.

Ethnicity predictions depend on many factors and are only approximate. They represent similarities of my DNA, my past really, with representative samples from modern populations. The ethnicity map does agree strikingly with my mother’s lineage. Her father’s side was likely from Scotland and her mother’s side is proven to be from Hungary and Slovakia. However, I inherited roughly 50% of my autosomal DNA from my father. That means my father’s side is also some combination of this very same ethnic mix, with a little Spanish (9%) and Scandinavian (4%) thrown in somewhere.

Ethnicity Map

What does this mean in a practical sense? To find out, I superimposed three additional maps over my ethnicity map. My ethnicity is represented by two large gray shaded regions, one over the United Kingdom and one over Hungary, Poland and the Ukraine. To a lesser extent there are also shaded regions over Spain, and over Norway and Sweden.

Haplogroup Migration Paths

Next I superimposed my paternal ancestor’s migration route. My estimated Y-Chromosome DNA haplogroup is R-M269, also known as R1b. Their ancient migration path is the dark arrow that sweeps from east to west across Romania and into France. I also superimposed my maternal ancestor’s migration route. My mitochondrial DNA haplogroup is H1g1. One branch of that haplogroup moved north through Hungary and into Finland.

So far, my Eastern European ethnicity coincides with my maternal haplogroup and my British Isles ethnicity coincides with my paternal haplogroup, if we extend the migration westward into the United Kingdom.

Known Locations

Next I superimposed the known locations where my maternal ancestors (green triangles) and paternal ancestors (red squares) were born during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Locations for my maternal ancestors coincide with both my maternal haplogroup and my Eastern European ethnicity. Likewise, locations for my paternal ancestors coincide with my paternal haplogroup, but do they coincide with my “British Isles” ethnicity? The red squares appear outside of my ethnicity estimates (shaded regions).

False Ethnicity

I think the key to interpreting ethnicity is the comparison to modern populations. After my paternal ancestors settled in southwest Germany and northeast France, others in the same haplogroup continued their westward migration through hundreds or thousands of years. Today, their descendants happen to be concentrated in the British Isles.

With respect to my paternal ancestors, my ethnicity is probably not “British Isles,” but I do share DNA with those who eventually settled there. Does that make my ethnicity “British Isles?” I think not in that sense for my paternal line. Note there is still a chance my great-grandfather Voisin’s mother was from the British Isles, so I may find I actually have that ethnicity paternally.

With respect to my maternal ancestors, my maternal haplogroup continued their migration northward into Scandinavia. Another branch continued their migration westward into Spain. This could explain my Scandinavian (4%) and Spanish (9%) ethnicity. I am probably not actually Scandinavian or Spanish, but I share DNA with those who eventually settled there.


Perhaps I interpreted my ethnicity map to fit what my genealogical paper trail shows: I am mostly German and Eastern European, with a little Scots-Irish thrown in. It would be difficult to do the reverse: Use an ethnicity map to determine who your ancestors were. The comparison to modern populations doesn’t seem to give an accurate picture of the past.

Ancient haplogroup migration paths in combination with ethnicity maps provides a better picture. Still, haplogroups correspond to a very narrow group of ancestors, that being my father’s father’s father, and my mother’s mother’s mother, and so on. My true ethnic mix will include hundreds of other ancestors that are not included in just those two haplogroups.

Note that a whole branch of my maternal ancestors is from Scotland and Ireland. So even though my paternal ancestors may not have originated in the British Isles, many of my maternal ancestors did. They necessarily contribute to my British Isles ethnicity. In effect I am part actual British Isles ethnicity mixed with a part that is inferred by extending the R-M269 haplogroup migration path into the British Isles.

Ethnicity estimates do not seem to account for time. That is, the place where our ancestors flourished along their ancient migration path seems to have no bearing on DNA comparisons to modern populations. On the other hand, a genealogical paper trail represents relatively recent time periods, especially when compared to ancient migration paths. The connection between ancestry and ethnicity is not straight forward.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in genetic genealogy, so what I say may not be accurate. I am simply trying to make sense of my ethnicity estimate using what I already know of my ancestry.

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