In previous blog posts I have demonstrated how the current African breakdown on AncestryDNA can be very insightful to gain a greater understanding of the regional African roots for people across the Afro-Diaspora as well as actual Africans themselves. Despite several shortcomings as well as the continued need for correct interpretation. My survey findings on a group level have still been reasonably in line with either historical plausibility or actual verifiable genealogy.
A new version of AncestryDNA’s Ethnicity Estimates has been provided gradually (and quietly..) to a subset of Ancestry’s customers for at least since April 2018. I do not have all the needed information in place yet to make a proper assessment. Therefore I reserve my final judgment on this intended update for later. However in this blog post I will discuss some suggestions on how to improve on the current African breakdown hopefully ensuring that Ancestry’s update will be a step forward and not a step backwards. Below a short summary of these suggestions. If you continue reading I will provide more details.
- Maintain current coherency of African breakdown and improve by creating less overlapping and more predictive regions
- Add more historically relevant African samples to Ancestry’s Reference Panel. In particular from Angola, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau/Conakry, Liberia, Madagascar, Mozambique and Sierra Leone.
- Create new regions and/or migrations centered around these historically relevant samples.
- Bring back the continental breakdown display (subtotals specified for each continent)
- Create new African “migrations”, a.k.a. genetic communities. In particular for Nigeria & Ghana, as sufficient customer samples may already exist.
- Mention the “aggregate ethnicity estimates” for each migration/genetic community.
- Enable the Ethnicity Estimate Comparison feature for all customers and not just USA-based smartphone users. [DONE as of October 2018]
- Show ethnicity/admixture of shared DNA segments with your matches.
- Avoid misleading labeling of ancestral regions. Providing a false sense of accuracy.
Updated results for a Nigerian (Bini, Itsekiri, Urhobo & Isoko)
***(click to enlarge)
***(click to enlarge)
It is sometimes said that your DNA results are only as good as the next update. So it’s best not to get too attached to them 😉 After all it is just a snap shot of how your DNA compares with the reference samples in Ancestry’s current database according to their current algorithm. Given scientific advancements and a greater number of relevant African reference samples hopefully a greater degree of accuracy may be obtained in the near future. But naturally no guarantees are given that any given update will automatically lead to an improvement (or at least not on all fronts).
As shown above one major change in regards to AncestryDNA’s current African breakdown might be the combining of the “Cameroon/Congo” and “Southeastern Bantu” regions into one single region labeled: “Cameroon, Congo & Southern Bantu Peoples”. In regards to Central/Southern African DNA this change therefore seems to be leading to more generic rather than specific results. Although the appearance of the new region labeled “Eastern Africa” in itself could represent an improvement enabling the identification of Northeast African DNA.
Another change concerns Ancestry’s algorithm which now “reads longer stretches of your DNA at once“. This might also be an improvement in itself as it may lead to a decrease of trace region reporting and a greater focus on a genealogically meaningful timeframe (going back 500 years or so). It might also be that some of the 13,000 newly added samples in Ancestry’s Reference Panel (partially) apply to the already existing African regions. Although I have not seen any specification yet of these newly added samples. At the moment of writing this blog post there is still some remaining uncertainty if AncestryDNA’s intended update will indeed be implemented or remain stuck in beta phase (as happened in 2016). I will therefore refrain from any in-depth judgement for now. For more details about the update:
- Why did the estimate change? (Ancestry)
- Updated “ethnicity” estimates at AncestryDNA (Cruwys News)
- AncestryDNA New 150+ Regions (Youtube)
Again I will need more data to make a detailed assessment of how Ancestry’s proposed update will work out for the African breakdown. I have however already seen more than a dozen updated results. Including for several African Americans, Cape Verdeans as well as a few Africans. Based on just these results and at the risk of speaking prematurely I find it regrettable to say that I am doubtful that Ancestry’s intended update will be an improvement for the African breakdown1. Rather I am quite concerned that it will lead to more people being confused and even mislead by their DNA results. Due to the often drastic and seemingly incoherent changes compared with the current set-up it might understandably also lead to a loss of confidence in admixture analysis. Even when I strongly believe that this aspect of DNA testing can provide very valuable information as long as it interpreted correctly and even more so when combined with other ancestral clues (population averages to be used as regional benchmarks, DNA matches, haplogroups, genealogy, relevant historical context etc.). See also these blog posts:
- ROOTS.NL (S1E1): What can be learnt from AncestryDNA when trying to trace African ancestry?
- Update: Afro-Diasporan AncestryDNA Survey (part 1)
- Update: Afro-Diasporan AncestryDNA Survey (part 2)
Updated results for a Cape Verdean
***(click to enlarge)
Suggestions for improving AncestyDNA in regards to Tracing African Roots
What is about to follow partially represents my own subjective point of view as an Ancestry customer and an interested layman. However it is also based on the many observations I was able to make during my survey of AncestryDNA results among Afro-Diasporans and Africans, which I started five years ago already. I have also been inspired by the frequent interaction I have had with people sharing their results with me or when engaging in online discussion boards. This overview is not meant to be exhaustive. The suggestions being made are also not per se ranked in any particular order of priority. Not wishing to come across as overtly demanding I have attempted to balance feasibility with valid needs/wishes for an improved regional framework to describe the African roots of people from the Afro-Diaspora as well as actual Africans. For previous discussion on this topic see also:
Regional descriptions for “Benin/Togo”: current version and updated version
***(click to enlarge)
***(click to enlarge)
1) Maintain the coherency of the current African breakdown and improve by creating less overlapping and more predictive regions. I fully realize that this is by no means an easy task given the inherent trade-offs to be dealt with when aiming for regional delineation despite genetic similarities. Many hurdles and pitfalls are to be overcome while designing an appropriate regional configuration. In my opinion the current African breakdown on AncestryDNA was a pioneering initiative which already did succeed in providing a very useful tool for Tracing African Roots, given correct interpretation. It would be a true shame if this accomplishment goes down the drain due to perhaps inadequate QA or unintended side-effects of Ancestry’s upcoming update…
Reviewing the current 9 African regions there is indeed much room for improvement. Many shortcomings however may be dealt with quite effectively and with relatively little effort:
- “Senegal“: despite the minimal sample size (n=28) this region has been very useful already in singling out Upper Guinean lineage. Its very high predictive accuracy for the “typical native” (100%) being confirmed by the results of in particular Cape Verdeans and Hispanics but also for example for Hausa-Fulani. In order to reduce its current coverage/overlap into Sierra Leone and even Liberia more defining samples are however needed. Perhaps Wolof or other Atlantic samples being more suitable than the presumably Mandenka samples being used right now (see also suggestion 3).
- “Mali“: this region is probably most in need of additional and appropriate sampling (along with “Southeastern Bantu”). Right now only 16 samples being available with a very low predictive accuracy for the “typical native” from Mali (39%). But going by my survey results this region is still reasonably predictive of Upper Guinean lineage for Afro-Diasporans. Then again it still remains ambivalent because of genetic overlap with Burkina Faso and surrounding areas in Ivory Coast/Ghana/Togo/Benin. The creation of a new region based on Gur samples could very well solve or atleast diminish this issue (see also suggestion 3).
- “Ivory Coast/Ghana“: a rather robust region already (n=99). Even if also covering ancestral ties with Liberia and Sierra Leone. There is fewer overlap to the east though which is helpful for distinguishing between possible Akan and Gbe lineage. Replacing the current “Ivory Coast/Ghana” region with three separate and properly labeled regions to describe and measure genetic affiliations with either Kru, Akan/Kwa or southwestern Mandé samples could increase its informational value tremendously. See also:
- “Benin/Togo“: also a fairly robust region based on underlying sampling (n=60) and prediction accuracy for the “typical native” (82%). But again overlapping with neighbouring countries, especially (eastern) Ghana and (southern) Nigeria. It was probably the most confusing region in the current set-up. Especially for African Americans it was often unexpected when reported as main region (for Brazilians & Haitians however it was in line with historical plausibility). Highly unfortunate therefore that in the proposed update it seems “Benin/Togo” will be even more wide-ranging across borders! The creation of a more narrowly focused region to describe and measure genetic affiliations with Gbe samples from not only Benin and Togo but also Ghanaian Ewe would be much more beneficial. It will probably remain difficult to decrease the inevitable overlap with fellow Volta-Niger speaking southern Nigerians. Just as a tweaking idea it might be worthwhile to for once dispense with the ubiquitous Yoruba samples for the “Nigeria” region (all too often used as a generic stand-in for West African DNA). See also:
- “Nigeria“: one of the most admixed regions according to Ancestry’s own data (along with “Mali”) and therefore tending to underestimate genuine Nigerian ancestry. Even if my Afro-Diasporan survey findings for this region were mostly in line with historical expectations. For many Afro-Diasporans the crucial question to be answered is if their Nigerian lineage is either Yoruba or Igbo. I suspect however that making this very specific distinction could prove to be quite difficult still, given genetic similarities among southern Nigerians. And in stead of feeding into false hope it might be best to maintain the status-quo. Still possibly by including Middle Belt Nigerian samples a higher prediction accuracy may be obtained than right now: 69% for the “typical native” (n=67) but only around 50% according to my survey findings which now have a higher sample size (n=73) than Ancestry’s Reference Panel! Other tweaking possibilities based on adding various Nigerian sample sets may also be explored. However a northern shift of this region does not seem recommendable given the mostly southern Nigerian roots of Afro-Diasporans! Integrating Ancestry’s migration feature (based on the number of IBD matches with either Yoruba or Igbo customers/samples) could possibly also be very helpful (see also suggestion 5).
- “Cameroon/Congo“: this region was probably one of the most robust regions together with “Senegal”. High prediction accuracy for the “typical native” (92%; n=115) and also confirming historically known patterns of Central African heritage among Afro-Diasporans. The geographical range of this region was larger than indicated by Ancestry itself though. According to my African survey reaching into Zambia, Zimbabwe and even Madagascar! As I have argued from the beginning the inclusion of Cameroonian samples (despite ample availability..) should be reconsidered in order to create a clear distinction between Bight of Biafra origins and proper Central African roots. Given prevailing slave trade patterns this is a crucial issue for Afro-Diasporans! I do not know if the current Cameroonian samples might be genetically compatible with any southeast Nigerian samples. But if so then a new region centered on southeast Nigeria & Cameroon might be a very good alternative! The remaining Congolese samples preferably to be amplified with Angolan samples to create a genuine Central African region (see also suggestion 3). Such a region will be much more suited then to uncover historically documented Central African lineage for the Afro-Diasporans. See also:
- “Southeastern Bantu“: this region was undersampled (n=18) and had its inherent flaws because it was mislabeled and based on wideranging samples from presumably Kenya, Namibia and South Africa. Southwestern Bantu origins from Angola/DRC Congo also being covered. While additionally also an overlap with Northeast African DNA was implied. Due to a lack of Northeast African samples in Ancestry’s Reference Panel. The creation of the new “Eastern Africa” region in the update is certainly appropriate therefore. Given correct interpretation the distinction being made between “Cameroon/Congo” and “Southeastern Bantu” was still very useful for Afro-descendants as well as many Africans. This was demonstrated most clearly by the frequency of top-ranking scores for “Southeastern Bantu” for my Brazilian and Mexican survey participants, corroborating their strong ancestral ties with Angola (see this blog post). I would therefore strongly urge Ancestry to cancel the proposed “Cameroon, Congo and Southern Bantu Peoples” region. As this will only lead to less specification rather than more! And instead I would argue for the creation of two separate regions for describing Congolese/Angolan origins (“western Bantu”) and Mozambican/Malagasy (“southeastern Bantu”) DNA. This will be most relevant and highly informative for African Americans as well as other Afro-Diasporans and actual Africans!
- “South-Central Hunter-Gatherers“: this region is currently based on very genetically distinctive samples (n=35) from the Khoi-San & Pygmy people. Its predictive accuracy is quite solid (86% for the “typical native”). Still it almost always showed up as a minimal trace region for most people. Therefore its informational value was rather limited. Especially given that usually very ancient ancestral ties were indicated rather than anything from a genealogical meaningful timeframe (~500 years). Main exception being South Africans, and in particular South African Coloureds. Judging from a few updated Northeast African results as well as the new map it seems that Ancestry might have replaced its Pygmy samples by Sandawe samples from Tanzania instead. Another much studied yet very marginalized hunter-gathering population. This has resulted in peculiar and inflated “Hunter Gatherer” scores for Northeast Africans undoing the in itself useful addition of the new “Eastern Africa” region. For example see this screenshot for a Sudanese person. Frankly I do not believe there is much added value in reporting these genetic affinities with marginalized hunter-gathering populations (no matter how distinctive and fascinating in itself) as they usually go back thousands of years. It only leads to confusion while also the labeling may be perceived as akward by some people. I would only keep in the Khoi-San samples as they are meaningful and relevant to describe the recent origins of especially South Africans. See also:
- “Africa North“: this region showed an impressive prediction accuracy for the “typical native”: 100%! Still going by the results of actual mainstream North Africans in my survey it seems that the 26 samples used by Ancestry may not have been the most representative ones (most likely Mozabite Berbers from Algeria). This region usually was only reported in trace amounts or just absent for African Americans and West Indians. For Cape Verdeans and Hispanics it showed up more regularly, but still almost always below 10% (see this overview). In most cases inheritance by way of an Iberian or Canarian ancestor seems most plausible for them. In the current set-up especially Portuguese people tended to score quite consistent “Africa North” scores of around 5%. Given the creation of new regions for “Portugal” and “Spain”, such “Africa North” scores might actually decrease or even disappear as these improved Iberian regions might tend to incorporate older genetic affiliations. An ancestral scenario involving a Fula ancestor could also theoretically be possible in selected cases. As afterall according to my survey (n=42) the Fula could have around 13% “Africa North” on average. I suppose after the update such scenario’s might be easier to distinguish. Especially when Ancestry decides to implement a chromosome browser or starts mentioning the ethnicity/admixture of shared DNA segments with your matches (see suggestion 8). See also:
2) Add more historically relevant African samples to Ancestry’s Reference Panel, in particular from Angola, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau/Conakry, Liberia, Madagascar, Mozambique and Sierra Leone. All of these countries currently missing from AncestryDNA’s regional set-up. This historical relevancy is to be determined by the documented ethnic/regional provenance of people from the Afro-Diaspora in the first place. As this group of Afro-descendants is after all most reliant on admixture analysis to learn more about their background. The selection of ethnic groups & individual samples within these countries should naturally be done very carefully. Avoiding people with known mixed backgrounds (also in intra-African terms) such as the Krio people from Sierra Leone, Americo-Liberians, as well as Mestiço’s from either Angola or Guiné Bissau, who aside from having minor Portuguese lineage at times may also be partially Cape Verdean. Generally speaking there’s always much ado about the lack of African sampling in DNA testing. The difficulties involved may be underestimated to some extent. However it seems no more than reasonable to me that at least some of these badly needed African samples may be obtained in the following ways:
- customer samples: based on my ongoing survey of African AncestryDNA results I would estimate that there could very well be hundreds of Africans (incl. 1st and 2nd generation migrants living in the USA or Europe) already within Ancestry’s customer database. I have personally seen results from practically all African countries already! However some countries tend to be overrepresented (such as Nigeria & Ghana) while others are underrepresented (such as Angola & Burkina Faso). Obviously also consent for research purposes would be required.
- academic databases: Ancestry is already making use of the HGDP database as well as its own Sorenson database. However several other academic collections of African DNA samples exist. Possibly restrictions may be in place against commercial use etc.. However the following collections might provide a very valuable source of appropriate African samples:
- creative recruiting of African samples: through targeted marketing for example offering free kits among African migrant associations in either the USA or Europe. Or else also by crowd-sourcing: third parties/ individuals travelling to Africa in order to test local Africans. Afterall where there is a will there is a way 😉 When carried out effectively the costs involved may be quite minimal while the added value could be enormous! For some very praiseworthy examples:
3) Create new regions centered around these historically relevant samples. Whenever possible and provided that the current coherency of the African regional framework as a whole is not compromised.
- Atlantic samples from either Senegambia (Wolof, Sereer etc.) or Guiné Bissau (Balanta, Papel etc.) may be used to solidify the current “Senegal” region (hundreds of Gambian samples from various ethnic groups are possibly to be obtained via the MalariaGEN database!). Helping to pinpoint such lineage while also creating a sharper delineation for the “Senegal” region. Given sufficient genetic differentiation and appropriate sampling I suppose a very helpful distinction between northern Senegambian versus southern Senegambian/Guinean origins may also be enabled.
- Mande samples from either Guinea or Mali may be used to solidify the current “Mali” region. Helping to pinpoint such lineage while also hopefully enabling a sharper delineation with the “Senegal” region.
- Southwestern Mande samples from either Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast or Guinea might be used to create a separate region. Helping to pinpoint such lineage while also hopefully contributing to a sharper delineation of both the “Mali” and “Ivory Coast/Ghana” regions.
- Kru samples from Liberia and/or Ivory Coast may be used to create a new region. Helping to pinpoint such lineage while also contributing to a sharper delineation of the “Ivory Coast/Ghana” region, which would then become even more predictive of especially Akan lineage.
- Gur samples from Burkina Faso might be used to create a greatly needed intermediate region to cover the genetic legacy of people nowadays found in northern areas of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin and Togo as well as Burkina Faso itself. It may also result in a sharper delineation of especially the “Mali” region which will become more strictly suggestive of Upper Guinean roots.
- Angolan & Mozambican samples (preferably from relevant and currently undersampled populations such as the Mbundu and the Makua) might be used to solidify any Bantu orientated region. But given sufficient genetic differentiation I suppose an extremely useful distinction between western and southeastern Bantu origins may also be realized.
***(click to enlarge)
4) Bring back the continental breakdown within the Ethnicity Estimate display. With subtotals specified for each continent. This used to be standard until it was changed about a year ago without any explanation why (as far as I am aware). Right now the display merely shows you a seemingly haphazard listing of regions sorted from biggest to smallest amount, regardless of continent. This creates a lot of inconvenience for people who are also interested in knowing their continental percentages. This is especially relevant for Afro-Diasporans given their generally admixed genetics.
5) Create new African “migrations”, a.k.a. genetic communities. As far as I am aware currently there are only two “migrations” in place for Africans. One of them centered on South Africans (in particular Afrikaners & Coloureds, see this screenshot). And the other one based principally on Cape Verdeans (see this screenshot). Even when misleadingly labeled “Portuguese Islander”2. I understand that this potentially very insightful “migration” feature is a work under progress. Naturally a certain minimum number of DNA tested Africans with a common background will be required to create new genetic communities. Then again from my ongoing survey of African AncestryDNA results I have learnt that there could very well be hundreds of Africans (incl. 1st and 2nd generation migrants) already within Ancestry’s customer database. Especially for Nigerians and Ghanaians I would imagine something could already be set up. Even more so when appropriate academic samples can be added. Given the pressing need for more specification of African lineage I would argue for a loosening of certain thresholds and/or requirements provided that a minimum level of robustness for this “migration” tool can still be maintained.
6) Mention the “aggregate ethnicity estimates” for each migration / genetic community. This aggregate was basically an average of the ethnicity estimates for all people belonging to a certain migration. It was briefly available for customers in 2017 with access to the beta version of the “migration” tool, being mentioned in a third tab called “insights” (see this screenshot). This information can be very useful as some sort of regional benchmark in order to see how you yourself or others fit in the bigger picture. Keeping in mind variations around the mean any statistically significant deviations could possibly still provide valuable ancestral clues. Functioning much in the same way as the very helpful admixture averages being provided by Ancestry for the “typical native” (see this link). And also very similar to the group averages I have been calculating during my survey of AncestryDNA results. As a crucial precondition Ancestry should however single out people who have 4 grand parents from the same area as mentioned in the migration. Given their access to people’s familytrees this should not be very difficult I imagine.
7) Enable the Ethnicity Estimate Comparison feature for *all* customers, incl. PC users and people outside of the US. As far as I am aware this comparison feature (see this screenshot) is now only available for smartphone users who have downloaded the Ancestry app, which is restricted to the USA. Obviously it is not a fair policy to deprive other customers of this potentially very insightful tool! Basically by using this feature you can compare the ethnicity estimates of yourself with each one of your DNA matches. Very useful for example when wanting to find out a plausible background of a possibly African match! For more details see also this informative blog post:
- Compare Your Ethnicity With Your Match: Ancestry DNA (Who Are You Made Of)
8) Show ethnicity/admixture of shared DNA segments with your matches. This can be very useful for many purposes. For example when reviewing your African matches ideally you will want to verify if the shared DNA segment is showing up as a certain region, let’s say “Ivory Coast/Ghana”. Because that way you could have more certainty that these matches will indeed relate to your own “Ivory Coast/Ghana” amount. Given that most Africans when tested by AncestryDNA tend to be described as a composite of adjacent regions and not just one single one. Regrettably this potentially very insightful information is not available because Ancestry so far has not implemented a chromosome browser. See also:
- Give AncestryDNA Customers DNA Segment Data & a Chromosome Browser Now (Shannon Christmas)
9) Avoid misleading labeling of ancestral regions. Providing a false sense of accuracy. Even when in my opinion the current country name labeling by AncestryDNA is to be preferred above ethnic labeling. Ancestral categories named after ethnic groups will tend to be overlapping across ethnic boundaries just as much and therefore will be even more misleading!
Generally speaking the whole framing if you will of admixture analysis can be misleading and is often catering to unrealistic expectations. Specifically in regards to how ancestral categories should conform exactly to a person’s family tree and all the known ethnic lineage it may contain. Even when there are still so many misunderstandings and uncertainties about the genetic underpinnings of ethnicity. And to add to complexity ethnic groups are of course to some extent also social constructs due to fluid ethnic identities and inter-ethnic unions.
None of this is to deny the potential informational value to be gained from admixture analysis. As always I prefer to see the glass as half full rather than half empty 😉 However correct interpretation is a must! On the one hand this requires an educational effort on part of DNA testing companies. But frankly I believe that customers have their own responsibility in this matter too and should invest more time in informing themselves about inherent limitations etc.. A good start is by taking a proper look at the regional maps integrated in your Ethnicity Estimate. Compared with other DNA testing companies I actually find that Ancestry does a rather good job at providing helpful sections/pages offering guidance and context. I sincerely hope they will continue to do so. For example see this overview:
- AncestryDNA Ethnicity Estimate Help and Tips (Ancestry)
Ancestry’s update has been fully rolled out to all its customers in September (see this blogseries for an evaluation). Unfortunately none of my suggestions have been taken into account. But a new update seems to already be in preparation. As Ancestry has acknowledged that their updated African breakdown has not been an improvement. So just to add to my suggestions in the hope Ancestry will take note of it this time:
- It seems prudent to me that already existing African customers should be actively engaged and stimulated to fill in their family tree details or at least provide places of birth in Africa. This would help tremendously for Afro-Diasporans wanting to connect with their African DNA matches. Plus it may also facilitate the recruiting of new African samples for Ancestry’s Reference Panel.
- Another potentially very helpful suggestion might be to enable DNA matching with all the African samples contained in Ancestry’s Reference Panel. Possibly also to be combined with Ancestry’s migration tool. Creating new African genetic communities as mentioned in suggestion 5.
- The very insightful “genetic diversity” tabs should be brought back to optimize Ancestry’s transparency towards its customers. Before the update these tabs were available within everyone’s ethnicity estimate page and included detailed statistical information about the predictive accuracy of each single region. But now they seem to have been discontinued.
- Lastly I would like to implore that knowledgeable scholars of African & Afro-Diasporan history will be involved in a re-writing of the regional descriptions. For example the current overview for “Cameroon, Congo and Southern Bantu people” is quite misleading and definitely incomplete. Most historians will agree that the captives from the Bight of Biafra were overwhelmingly from southeastern Nigeria. While the number of Angolan/Congolese captives far exceeds the ones taken from Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea (see this link for references):
Appeal for true commitment
Especially a few years ago I often got the notion that some DNA companies simply blurt out their admixture reports as well as their updates just like that. Without realizing or caring about what kind of additional questions they might raise or even what kind of emotional reactions they might trigger. Providing a minimum of context is the least thing they could do in my opinion. It is often still the customers themselves who need to put two and two together. The much hyped but eventually underwhelming update of 23andme’s Ancestry Composition earlier this year brought back memories of previous updates carried out in a rather cynical manner by that company3. In particular 23andme’s lack of clarifying communication and general indifference towards its customers over the years. Despite lip service and FIVE years of building up expectations 23andme is still not able to give any helpful insight into the African origins of Afro-descendants…
I am of Cape Verdean descent myself and I am personally not expecting any special treatment or favours from profit-driven companies such as 23andme or Ancestry. Even when I can easily imagine that as an USA-based company some degree of consideration for African Americans is in order. Afterall due to historical circumstance Afro-Diasporans are arguably in most pressing need of receiving finer regional resolution of their admixture results (aside from adoptees). Most people in the Afro-Diaspora do not have any detailed knowledge about their African roots and are usually very eager to learn more. Not anything with “100% accuracy” even but just something meaningful and relevant which goes beyond the lump category of “West African”. Again this sets them apart from customers with verifiable background who have the luxury to be snobbish about admixture analysis.
Unfortunately it seems that many DNA testing companies are either not able or do not have a true commitment to cater to the particular needs of Afro-Diasporans when it comes to admixture analysis and other aspects of DNA testing. I always thought Ancestry was an exception but I might have to change my mind after this upcoming update… Again I do not have a full scope on what will effectively be implemented and how this might impact AncestryDNA’s current African breakdown. But based on what I have seen sofar maintaining the current African breakdown seems like a better option right now.
Although ultimately of course we would want to see an update that actually improves on how African DNA is being described in regional terms. Leading to greater insights and further specification rather than confusion and running the risk of being mislead about your ancestry. Given Ancestry’s ample resources, incl. probably the biggest number of African tested customers, I do think they can do so much more. Which is why I have presented this overview of suggestions for improvement.
It is quite sad as up till now I have always regarded AncestryDNA’s African breakdown as the best on the market.4 Certainly not without shortcomings but still very insightful already for understanding the roots of both Africans and people across the Afro-Diaspora. It would be a true loss if Ancestry’s pioneering analysis of especially West African DNA will turn out to have been downgraded rather than upgraded…
Updated results for an African American
***(click to enlarge)
I normally don’t actively plead for my blog posts to be shared on social media. However given that the stakes are quite high and as they say strength is in numbers 😉 I want to urge everyone who is in agreement with the main outline of these suggestions to share this blog post on Facebook, Twitter etc. as well as with Ancestry.com as soon as your results have been updated. Because you will then be given the opportunity to let them know if you found the update to be helpful or not. I am not sure how exactly they will handle such feedback but it might just be that given sufficient complaints Ancestry will rethink this update or atleast the African part of it…Of course you are free to personalize this feedback and add your own suggestions as well! In fact I would also very much like to encourage my blog readers to discuss these suggestions in the comment section below. In order to get a fruitful and constructive exchange of ideas going on which again hopefully Ancestry will take notice of starting from this Independence Day!
1) It might be different story for the European and Asian breakdowns. I have actually seen quite encouraging updated results in this regard. And generally speaking they could be an improvement indeed. The non-African regional breakdowns are however not a topic of discussion in this blog post.
2) I strongly urge Ancestry to change the labeling of the socalled “Portuguese Islander” migration into “Cape Verdeans”. This will be much more appropriate given that from what I have seen the vast majority of people being assigned to this genetic community share common Cape Verdean lineage. I understand there might be an overlap with actual Portuguese Islanders from the Azores & Madeira. However there are already several separate “migrations” in place for them.
3) Eventhough 23andme’s recent update of its Ancestry Composition was widely regarded as an anti-climax (see this discussion thread). It still did have some merit too. The addition of the socalled Recent Ancestor Locations potentially does have added value (even when they strike me as just being a stripped down version of the former Countries of Ancestry tool). But by setting up high thresholds which only cover potential ancestry from “the last two hundred years” it was bound to leave out any African matches (measured by dots) for most Afro-Diasporans. History teaches us that their African origins are mostly to be traced back to the 1700’s or even earlier (depending on specific background, see this link). This basic aspect about the Afro-Diaspora seems to have escaped 23andme for some reason…
Then again on the European side things looked more positive (for those willing to explore that side of their ancestry). Historically plausible matches from the UK & Ireland (measured by dots) being reported for African Americans, French ones for Haitians, Spanish ones for Hispanics and Portuguese ones for Cape Verdeans and Brazilians. In this aspect 23andme might be said to have gained the upperhand on Ancestry. Because the socalled migration feature on Ancestry is generally speaking not picking up on recent European connections for New Worlders. For an interesting comparison read this blog post:
- Fine Scaling Genetic Admixture: 23andMe vs AncestryDNA (Roots & Recombinant DNA)
4) A very promising development is however taking place with a new DNA testing company called: Living DNA. Something which I hope to be covering in greater detail in the near future. See the map on their West African project page, it looks very ambitious to be honest but even if only half of the intended resolution will be achieved this could be MAJOR!
“Living DNA, working with the world’s leading academics, scientists and genealogists are seeking your help. Together we are looking to map the world’s genetic ancestry to the finest scale possible, one where we identify patterns of DNA within countries. Following our collaboration with the academic team involved in the landmark publication “The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population”, we are now looking to extend the level of genetic detail throughout West Africa. Our preliminary research indicates at least 55 areas of West Africa may have distinct genetic differences.
The aim of the project is to confirm whether the proposed genetic boundaries are correct, and redefine them based upon the genetic data submitted by participants that fall within these regions. By participating in this project, you will help us to map the genetic heritage of west Africa and show how we are all connected based on our DNA.”