How accurate is Ancestry’s DNA ethnicity percentages for English ancestry?

I want to start by this blog by stating that whilst I am proud of my deep Yorkshire heritage I in no way associate with English nationalism. England has much to be positive about, but we have also, as a nation and as individual humans, wreaked havoc on peoples across the world and it cannot be right that to continue in the same xenophobic vein. I have not, as yet, discovered any ancestors who were directly involved with any historic atrocities, but I, and they, have still benefited from the privilege such acts have accorded us. We all need to recognise our own and our ancestors’ role in the system as was and more importantly strive to change it.

That being said, I’m now about to write about how Ancestry’s newest tool, the DNA sidebar, doesn’t work well for people with deep, known, English ancestry. I think this matters more broadly. One thing the English have been good at is record keeping. For over four hundred years parish churches have recorded births, deaths and marriages, plus parish poor law guardians took particular care to identify the fathers of any illegitimate children. Ancestry can’t be short of people to include within their sample groups, which should mean they can be more accurate than telling me I originate from “England and North Western Europe”. I only hope that Ancestry have instead focused their resources in adding to sample groups which can help those with more complex ancestry. Those with enslaved ancestors for example for whom so few records exist.

Each year I like to count the ancestors I have “identified”. It’s far from a perfect barometer of progress, making no reference to the depth of research. Sometimes all I know is a first name, generally Mary or Elizabeth. Nonetheless last time I counted (January 2022) I could identify 567 ancestors and I am also aware of other’s (quality) research that could help me extend this further.

Broadly the paper evidence leads me to believe I am 90% Yorkshire, 75% from 3 river valleys originating in the Dales – the Wharfe, the Nidd & the Washburn. Another 6.25% covers Wales and the Gloucestershire or the Welsh/English border. The remaining 3 – 4% is unknown but given where the babies were conceived there’s a high probability their fathers were from Yorkshire or surrounding counties.

In working this out I generally start with my 4xG Grandparents. This generation was born in the late 1700s/early 1800s when ordinary folks moved around less, and I’ve not found any evidence of earlier ancestors moving far. Indeed, they rarely even move beyond a neighbouring parish. One is unknown due to illegitimacy, one is questionable for the same reasons (both on my Mum’s side), four were from Gloucestershire & Pembrokeshire (equally split, again my Mum’s side). One, on my Dad’s side, carried the surname Scott, so some small part of him was possibly Scottish. That leaves me with fifty-seven (90%) from Yorkshire.

My DNA matches support the paper trail. I have found no unexpected parental events. I am a descendant of the left-behinds, of those who didn’t stray from home either geographically and sexually speaking. It makes me a somewhat inbred and my family history a little dull.

With background, let’s move to what Ancestry’s ethnicity data shows.

My DNA analysis

Ancestry DNA ethnicity estimate – October 2022

On the face of it my England & Northwestern Europe heritage has increased from 67% to 71% and indeed the range suggests that it could be as much as 99%. The regional identification is sound, but why not provide an estimate for this? Looking at it in more detail:

  1. England & Northwestern Europe? That is a huge area and quite honestly belittles cross fertilisation within the Isles. Why are Scotland & Wales considered separate units and England not?
  2. The range now runs from 63 – 99%. I could be just 2/3rds from Yorkshire, or equally, totally inbred. Ancestry’s best guess (71%) is considerably lower than it should be.
  3. Sweden, Denmark, Norway – on first glance it could be as much as a sixth of my ancestry. The range runs from nought to a quarter. Yorkshire was, of course, Viking controlled, but that was over a thousand years ago when they controlled or invaded much of Northwestern Europe. This is where my doubts about the usefulness of this tool really started to creep in.

I turned to the parental splits being fortunate to have access to both my Mum’s and my paternal Uncle’s DNA which takes me back a further generation.

My Mum’s DNA

Mum’s DNA – ancestry October 2022

The Welsh ancestry made it easy for me to identify which of Mum’s two parents was Grandpy and hence which was Nana.

Diving into Mum’s ethnicity split it seems that Mum could be somewhere between 2/3rds and 99% England & Northwestern Europe with Ancestry’s best guess being 72%, fractionally higher than my own. Odd, as it is from Mum that I inherit both my known Welsh ancestry and that part of my DNA which could come from anywhere.

But then it tells me that Mum is also, apparently, 19% Scottish. Split 11% maternal and 8% paternal,

That would make my Nana nearly a quarter Scottish. Possible as she has two illegitimate great grandparents, but there is evidence to suggest who one of the fathers was and he has Yorkshire ancestry. Which would make the other a full-blooded Scot. The North Yorkshire/Lancashire border is not that far from Scotland. It is certainly possible. But I’ve also got to factor in my apparent Irish heritage of course making up about 4% of Nana’s DNA.

Grandpy on the other hand? The only reason he is not highest in my ancestor count is because I got a bit bored of adding others (quality) research to my tree. 10% Welsh, absolutely, if you count the Barretts from Gloucestershire, everything else is pure Yorkshire. I have no idea how he’s turned out to be 16% Scottish. Hence why I think the English/Scottish split is unhelpful. I am sure Northumbrians & Cumbrians would agree.

My paternal Uncle’s DNA

Paternal uncle DNA – ancestry 2022

My paternal Uncle’s DNA is the best substitute I have for my Dad’s. I based his parental split on shared matches but given how odd his own DNA ethnicity breakdown seems to be I don’t think the split adds any value. What’s interesting is that there’s no Scottish ancestry. Clearly the surname Scott doesn’t necessarily mean Scottish heritage. My Uncle is a Viking at heart so perhaps he’ll be pleased with Swedish, Danish & Norwegian genes.

I, on the other hand, am not, for both my paternal grandparents’ trees are fully documented for over 200 years. All 32 of my paternal 4xg grandparents were born in Yorkshire as were all of their ancestors whom I have so far identified (275 at the last count). It helps that they are (twice) descended from the same ancestors and rarely married outside of the parish.

Clicking in, the detail becomes increasingly lazy as whilst the ranges allow for my Uncle being 99% England & Northwestern Europe they also allow for him being 21% Swedish and Danish and up to an astonishing 29% Germanic European. Imagine if you were starting without a decent paper trail. These ranges would leave you criss-crossing the whole of western Europe.

In conclusion

It would be unfair for me to end this blog without referring to all that is positive about DNA testing. Through DNA testing I have been able to confirm the paper trail and have also corresponded with and even met some wonderful DNA cousins. It’s also helped an adopted friend who was delighted just to know that he was as biologically Irish as his adopted family helped him feel (although even in this example, it’s the specific matches which have helped us prove this). It’s just that, at best, the ethnicity splits, promise an accuracy which they don’t deliver. At worst, without a paper trail to fall back on, you could end up believing something which isn’t true.