Ancestry Estimates by Brianne Kirkpatrick

AncestryDNA, a consumer testing company under the Ancestry.com umbrella, recently updated the way they analyze and report the genetic ethnicity to customers based on DNA testing. Many existing customers who had a chance to view their “before” results are reporting changes. Some are confused by them, and others say the update matches more closely to their family history as they know it.

Many customers are reporting a “Scottish problem” right now. Being Scottish is not the problem! Rather, it appears a notable number of people now have a percentage of “Scottish” DNA without any genealogical documentation an ancestor from that area in the UK.

Why would this happen?

Three main reasons:

1. Natural migration of people over the past. You have a far-distant ancestor in common with a lot of people in modern-day Scotland. That common ancestor might never have lived there, but a descendant of that ancestor is also the ancestor to many current Scots in the Ancestry’s reference database.


2. The company is still tweaking its algorithms and might change your results again in the future. As an example, I was 5% Middle Eastern for a while in 2013, until Family Tree DNA made some adjustments and it dropped to 0%! The percentages fluctuate often with each update, and they differ from one company to the next. The testing companies do not share their own reference data, so keep that in mind and take the numbers you get with a grain of salt.

3. Your true genetic ancestry isn’t quite the same as the story told by genealogical records. There are many different ways this can happen.

For example:

  • A DNA surprise or family secrets might be in the process of being discovered. Think of situations like hidden adoptions, donor conception, and NPE (not parent expected/misattributed paternity) situations.
  • Someone in a past generation might have changed their name and assumed the identity of another person or taken on a name change when they migrated to a new country.
  • There might have been two people with the same name in the same place at the same time, and the wrong person of the two was recorded as your ancestor.

These are just a few ways someone’s genetic tree and genealogical tree fail to overlap. A DNA test might be the first way a discovery is revealed.

These reasons aren’t specific to the Scottish problem or to Ancestry; this can happen at any company and with any geographical region where people moved around, invaded other lands or were invaded, or where national borders have shifted and changed over time.

So what do you do if your results don’t seem quite right? It might not be obvious or clear why your ethnicity results show up the way they do. Check out the resource “Could the DNA Test Be Wrong?” Downloadable as a PDF or Kindle ebook as a first step and guide!

If you struggle with the result of your ethnicity estimate, check out Cross Cultural Connections on Facebook, or the non-Facebook option of Watershed DNA, hosted on Mighty Networks. The latter is where one of the many topics discussed is “Not Ethnicity Expected,” where members discuss the struggles and revelations that come when forming a new sense of identity based on DNA results. 

The Watershed group has an added benefit of supporting all involved in an unexpected DNA surprise, whether they are the individual involved in the discovery, a discovered biological parent, spouse, sibling, or genealogist/search angel for others. 

Have you done a DNA test and noticed your ethnicity results change over time? Before you settle in on a conclusion based on a DNA test, know it sometimes takes asking more questions and digging deeper for the answers before all of them come.

Brianne Kirkpatrick, MS, LCGC, is a genetic counselor, DNA consultant, and author of the books ‘The DNA Guide for Adoptees’ and ‘Could the DNA Test Be Wrong?’ Through her website and online support group, Watershed DNA, Brianne offers support and professional guidance with a focus on adoptees, donor-conceived persons, and people with unexpected family matches (NPE). She provides special support to those who need to share a family secret. 

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