Last month Ancestry finally rolled out the updated version of its Ethnicity Estimates for all its customers. In this three-part blog post I have argued that Ancestry’s pioneering analysis of especially West African DNA has been downgraded rather than upgraded! In the first part I evaluated the accuracy of Ancestry’s new African breakdown by analyzing the before & after results of 130 African customers. I found that in most cases the informational value to be derived from their results is showing a decrease rather than any improvement. For more details see:
In part 2 I had a closer look at the newly added African samples within Ancestry’s Reference Panel as well as its new algorithm. And I found some structural flaws which most likely are responsible for the inflated “Cameroon, Congo & Southern Bantu”, “Benin/Togo” and “Mali” scores showing up for Afro-Diasporans. For more details see:
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The title of this blogseries was sort of meant to be tongue-in-cheek 😉 . However ultimately I do not see much benefit in taking a demoralizing stance. I do still believe that Ancestry offers opportunities for those wanting to learn more about their African ancestry. As always however it is essential to be fully informed about both strengths and weaknesses for each separate aspect of DNA testing. This particular update by Ancestry has arguably been a failed one for people of African descent. But this does not mean that improvement may still be forthcoming, if not on Ancestry than elsewhere! I am specifically referring to admixture analysis a.k.a. ethnicity estimates. As my previous AncestryDNA survey findings have demonstrated that potentially this tool can be very useful in unlocking the secrets of main African regional lineage for Afro-Diasporans.
In this final part of this blog series I will try to outline some promising developments, both on Ancestry and elsewhere, when wanting to Trace African Roots. I will also look into some common reactions & frequently asked questions about this disheartening update for Afro-Diasporans & Africans. Providing my own perspective. My main advice for achieving optimal insight in regards to your African breakdown can be summed up as follows: stick with your previous AncestryDNA results and combine with follow-up research (DNA matches, genealogy, relevant historical context, other types of DNA testing, etc.).
- FAQ / Common Reactions
- What’s next?
1) FAQ’s & common reactions
Sadly the concerns I raised in July about Ancestry’s update of their ethnicity estimates have become reality. Many people are now left confused by their revised African breakdown as reported by AncestryDNA.1 Understandably so given the often drastic and seemingly incoherent changes compared with the previous set-up. To its credit Ancestry does provide helpful information to make you understand things better. See links below. These pages are certainly worth reading carefully. However for an unbiased and more in-depth evaluation see the first two parts of this blog series 😉
- Frequently asked questions about our next-generation ethnicity estimate. (Ancestry)
- DNA Story Help & Tips (Ancestry)
- Ethnicity FAQ (Ancestry)
In this section I will try to add my own 2 cents, singling out some commonly heard reactions after the update. Obviously this will represent my personal perspective first most. Although wherever possible I will try to substantiate my opinions. I have categorized each type of reaction with one or more keywords. While also the main reasoning behind each reaction has perhaps been a bit simplified and exaggerated. Naturally not meant to be offensive but rather to entice further discussion 😉
- Ancestry killed their African breakdown!
- I will never trust DNA tests again!
- Ancestry’s ethnicity estimates have become more accurate!
- I feel lost again!
- I want ethnic labeling instead of country labeling!
- Only your DNA matches matter!
- Ethnicity Estimates are just for fun and the masses!
Get your “Nigeria” groove back by searching for African DNA matches
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Reaction 1: Judging too rashly?
“Ancestry killed their African breakdown!”
“I do not see much added value in Ancestry’s updated African breakdown”
“Ancestry has only made things worse with this update…“
My 2 cents: These are in fact quotes by myself In this blogseries I have made a conscious effort to be as fair and balanced as possible in my assessment. Attempting to point out any improvements or positive features whenever I came across them. Despite my disappointment and even anger about Ancestry’s update. I must admit however that possibly I may still have overlooked a few redeeming aspects in my previous discussion.
In the second part of this blogseries I said that: “Arguably after Ancestry’s update the African breakdown now only has 6 regions instead of 7 which really matter. The “Eastern Africa” region again being minimal for Afro-descendants in the Americas (and not even having a good prediction accuracy).” Even when I still stand behind that statement I do think that the new “Eastern Africa” region might be useful as indicator of Southeast African lineage for Afro-Diasporans. Minimal amounts generally speaking but still helpful for possibly identifying at least one Southeast African ancestor (Madagascar, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe etc). In line with historical plausibility, but to be corroborated with follow-up research (DNA matches, genealogy, relevant historical context, other types of DNA testing etc.)
Reaction 2: Overly dismissive?
“I can never take Ancestry seriously again now that they have made such drastic changes in my African breakdown!”
“You can’t trust any of these DNA tests! Ancestry tell me this, 23andme tells me that and on Gedmatch I might get twenty different stories!”
“I told you so from the beginning DNA testing is a scam!”
My 2 cents: It is sometimes said that your DNA results are only as good as the next update. After all they are just a snap shot of how your DNA compares with the reference samples in Ancestry’s current database according to their current algorithm. Nothing more but also nothing less! Your ethnicity estimates are not intended to provide the full and final answer to your ancestry. This is not a bad thing in itself. Given scientific advancements and a greater number of relevant reference samples hopefully a greater degree of accuracy may be obtained in the near future.
But naturally no guarantees are given that this will indeed be the case. In regards to the African breakdown Ancestry’s current update has clearly not lived up to expectations… However as detailed in this blogseries the reasons for this failure are not random or inherent to DNA testing. The reasons why the update of the African breakdown did not succeed (unlike the European & Asian breakdown!) can be clearly identified and therefore also rectified eventually. So why not hold on to the useful insights which were achieved before the update! Instead of throwing away the baby with the bathwater! From my survey findings AncestryDNA’s previous African breakdown has usually been in alignment (broadly) with the verifiable or historically plausible background of both Afro-Diasporans and Africans. Despite shortcomings such an outcome is not something to carelessly brush aside when wanting to Trace African Roots. See also:
Discrepancies when comparing DNA results from different companies/websites again are to be explained by differences in algorithm, different databases of reference samples and different labeling rationale of categories. Correct interpretation and awareness of inherent limitations is always a must. But you can indeed gain useful insight as long as you judge each case on its own merits! When deciding which DNA test to choose I personally always go by how well people of verifiable background are being described as well as historical plausibility. Aside from reviews by the “pundits”.
I am a guy who prefers to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. Maintaining a critical stance but at the same time I aim to maximize informational value despite shortcomings. Also by way of combining with other insights. DNA testing might indeed be an infant science. But I find it amazing how much it has already developed. I feel it’s very encouraging also to see how many possibilities are available now to explore the African roots of the Afro-Diaspora. When previously this seemed almost like a hopeless endeavour!
Reaction 3: Naive?
” AncestryDNA has become more accurate because it now uses 16,000 samples and has improved its algorithm”
“My updated African breakdown is more condensed and less “all over the place”. I like that because I want to claim just one “tribe” and one ancestral place!”
“My updated African breakdown used to be much more exciting & diverse before. I don’t like it now because it’s boring! I want to be surprised by my DNA“
My 2 cents: Don’t be too trusting of Ancestry’s marketing hype! In part 2 of this blogseries I have argued that: More is not always better. It is not only the number of additional samples which matters but also their relevancy and how well they fit in Ancestry’s Reference Panel. Additional samples being a means to an end. But coherent regional scores in line with historical plausibility and/or verifiable genealogy should remain the main goal! The same thing goes for Ancestry’s new algorithm which might be well-suited indeed for people of well-defined origins. But for people of more complex origins it may be less appropriate in many cases. This goes especially for the Afro-Diaspora!
When it comes to prior expectations of DNA testing of course everyone is entitled to have different preferences and ideas about their ancestry. All of us might be both thrill-seekers as well as truth-seekers to some degree 😉 It might be well-advised however to be honest to yourself about exactly which motive has driven you to take a DNA test. As your preconceived notions will influence how you will judge your DNA results. And also how you feel about this update. Do you want DNA results that more or less reflect your true ancestry or do you want them to reflect what you wish to be?
On an individual level it might be very tricky for most Afro-Diasporans to check how well a given DNA test predicts your African ancestry. However on a group level there certainly are various ways to determine the historical plausibility of your test results! For example going by documented slave trade patterns, African ethnonyms being recorded among enslaved people as well as cultural retention. For an overview see:
- Ethnic & Regional Origins of the Afro-Diaspora (Tracing African Roots)
Reaction 4: Too emotionally attached?
“Ancestry provided me with a hopeful start to research my African regional roots, but now I feel lost again!“
“I know they’re just estimates, but I’m still more upset than I thought I would be“
“I’m mad as hell! I made plans for my first trip to Africa based on my previous top ranking regional scores!”
My 2 cents: it is perfectly rational why Afro-Diasporans are so much invested in their DNA results! After all, aside from adoptees, they are arguably in most pressing need of finding out their ancestral origins because of the whole aftermath brought about by Trans-Atlantic slave trade as well as slavery itself in the Americas. This is no trivial matter as it may be for other people who are taking DNA tests! And it is certainly not something to be played around with by companies who seem to severely underestimate the wider impact of the product they are selling.
Naturally people should be well informed about the limitations of DNA testing. And in fact many people are aware that these results are mostly to be taken with a grain of salt. Still also useful insight was already to be obtained, given correct interpretation. As I have argued many times now the previous African breakdown on AncestryDNA provided a valuable tool for Afro-Diasporans, despite shortcomings. And when Tracing African Roots you’ll need every tool you can get! However with this update a promising avenue has been largely dismantled. Sure, updates always bring along changes. One hopes for refinement and improvement. But when instead everything seems to be switching and flipping around completely of course people are going to be upset and even insulted!
Reaction 5: Unrealistic?
“Ancestry’s country labeling is misleading for its customers because of the increased regional overlap!“
“I want to pinpoint which ethnic groups I descend from! African countries are artificial constructs!”
“Ancestry should use ethnic regions or regions referring to precolonial African kingdoms! Because that will be more in line with our true ancestry”
My 2 cents: understandably many people desire to have the most specific degree of resolution when searching for their African roots. They want to be able to pinpoint their exact ethnic origins and preferably also know the exact location of their ancestral village. In a way following in the footsteps of the still very influential ROOTS author Alex Haley. Unfortunately these are rather unrealistic expectations to have in regards to DNA testing (at least in regards to admixture analysis.). Not only given current scientific possibilities. But also because such expectations rest on widely spread misconceptions about ethnicity, genetics, genealogy as well as Afro-Diasporan history. Too often people ignore how the melting pot concept is really nothing new but has always existed, also in Africa!
Generally speaking the African regions on AncestryDNA have indeed become more generic and less specific after the update. As a consequence the country labeling has become even more misleading when taken at face value. After all so-called “Benin/Togo” is now also to be found in Sierra Leone and even in Gabon! I have seen the “Mali” region being reported in double-digit amounts as far east as northern Cameroon and even Sudan! The new region called “Cameroon, Congo, and Southern Bantu Peoples” is including over 20 countries! With such a wide area covered, it really begs the question why this seemingly exact country labeling is to be maintained…
On the other hand ancestral categories referring to ethnic groups might be just as deceptive or even more so! As many people will again tend to take them too literally. Underestimating not only the sheer number of ethnic groups existing in Africa (thousands!) but also the complexity of interplay between fluid ethnicity, overlapping genetics and shifting political borders. The same goes for precolonial African kingdoms which again were not static entities. But instead very often ended up being multi-ethnic after expansion and assimilation of neighbouring peoples.
Either way for such an endeavour to succeed one should preferably use ancient samples from relevant time periods and locations. Rather than modernday African samples whose pedigree may very well include many inter-ethnic unions within the last 200-300 years or so. Of course the intermingling of African ethnic lineage continued even more so within the Afro-Diaspora. Again during several centuries but this time also involving ethnic groups geographically far removed from each other. All of which resulting in a very intricate mix which remains tricky to disentangle.
I do agree that Ancestry should come up with more appropriate labels than the present ones. Also knowledgeable scholars in African & Afro-Diasporan history should be involved to redo the regional descriptions so that people will more immediately be aware of the ancestral connections being implied. An intermediate solution might be ancestral regions which are referring to either non-political geography or meta-ethnic/linguistic groups. Such as Atlantic, Mande, Kru, Akan, Gbe etc. (see this page). But I fear that inherently there will always be some degree of blurriness involved and exact delineation might be impossible to achieve in many cases. Instead of generating false hope it might be a more honest approach to go by the motto of “don’t be more specific than your data supports”. Previous blog posts of mine dealing with this topic:
- Is it possible to pinpoint a plausible ethnic origin for one’s African bloodline?
- Suggestions for improving the African breakdown on AncestryDNA
- What can be learnt from AncestryDNA when trying to trace African ancestry?
- West African AncestryDNA results (sections 3 & 5)
Reaction 6: Overfocused on DNA matches?
“Your African DNA matches are what really matters, not regional %’s which may change with each update!”
“Finding African DNA cousins is the surest way of reconnecting family ties which were broken by Trans Atlantic Slave Trade!”
“autosomal DNA matches with native Africans teach us far more than haplogroup predictions and autosomal biogeographical analysis”
My 2 cents: I like to stress that I am in full agreement that African matches indeed hold a great importance in Tracing African Roots! They are often highly indicative of specific African lineage along one particular family line. And also enabling meaningful contact to real people/family from Africa! So I myself also definitely would recommend people to put in more effort in finding their African DNA cousins! My concern is more about why limit yourself to just one type of information source? As my research approach has always been about complementarity and combining of insights from various fields. Instead of putting all eggs in just one basket.
Given Ancestry’s very disappointing update I understand very well why many people might now be turning their backs on admixture analysis and choosing to focus only on DNA matches. However all aspects of DNA testing have their own limitations and this also includes DNA matches! As always one needs to be well informed about any possible shortcomings in order to avoid being mislead. Just to give a brief listing:
- Not all your African matches will be “identical by descent” (IBD). Especially the smaller-sized matches might often be false positives or “identical by state” (IBS).
- Ancestry’s customer database is not perfectly representative of all your possible African lineage. Certain African nationalities being over-represented due to greater migration presence in the US or UK.
- Each individual African DNA match will only be informative of one family line out of potentially hundreds others! Such a finding might be very valuable in itself but can never give you a total overview of your complete ancestry as given in proxy by Ancestry’s ethnicity estimates.
- There might be a higher likelihood of your African DNA matches reflecting mutual ancestors from the early 1800’s and late 1700’s. While there might be a built-in bias (due to the matching threshold) against African ancestry which is to be traced back to the early 1700’s, 1600’s or even 1500’s.
- Your mutual ancestor may not per se have been of the same ethnic background as your match. I find that the occurrence of inter-ethnic mixing within African societies and also among your own African ancestors is often underestimated.
From my survey findings Ancestry’s African breakdown before the update was a pretty good indication of regional origins across West & Central Africa. So why not build on the regional framework obtained before the update to enhance your current African DNA matches findings? Putting things in perspective and acquiring more context.3
Previous blog posts of mine dealing with this topic:
- How to find those elusive African DNA matches on Ancestry
- African DNA Cousins reported for people across the Diaspora
Reaction 7: Snobbish/Aloof?
“Ethnicity estimates only have entertainment value. Which is why DNA testing has become so popular with the masses”
“Admixture analysis only serves to distract from serious genetic genealogy“
“Reasonable accuracy only exists on the continental level. Subcontinental predictions are meaningless“
My 2 cents: variations of these opinions quoted above are voiced in particular by genetic genealogists, incl. several influential bloggers.4 I do not agree with their main message, which I feel is too discouraging and even condescending at times. Although I do think some of their objections and admonishments have been valid indeed. I have always seen admixture analysis as providing complementary information to be combined and contrasted with other information sources in order to possibly verify or at least reach more solid ground regarding one’s ancestral background. These other sources being (in no particular order): IBD matches, genealogy, population genetics, haplogroups, relevant historical context, cultural retention, family traditions etc..
Obviously all this information needs to be interpreted correctly and one must be aware of inherent limitations. But personally I would not want to rule out any information source in advance due to some blind spot or bias. Ancestry’s arguably failed update for the African breakdown should not be used as an excuse to undermine the potential of admixture analysis in my opinion! Even more so when Ancestry’s latest update has resulted in helpful improvement for the European and Asian breakdown in many cases.
Due to the increasing popularity of personal DNA testing (see this link) it has become apparent that many of Ancestry’s new customers are no longer interested in pursuing genealogy per se but are rather intrigued by their “percentages”. Which seems to bother some of the veterans in genetic genealogy. Personally I do not mind as I believe that everyone should be free to learn more about their ancestry according to their own wishes and capability. Everyone has been a newbie once. Furthermore I would say that the benefits of an ever expanding pool of potential DNA matches and customer samples to be recruited for Ancestry’s Reference Panel are not to be looked down upon.5
The belief that especially subcontinental predictions in admixture analysis are bound to be very inaccurate has been repeated almost like a mantra by some people. To be sure each particular DNA testing company will indeed have its own flaws and strengths. Also the perceived accuracy of ethnicity results may vary according to a person’s own main background (African, Asian, European etc.). As well as their expectations of what admixture analysis should deliver. This can be observed quite clearly when comparing various bloggers and their opinions about admixture analysis. Interestingly it seems the appreciation of Ancestry’s ethnicity estimates has increased somewhat after the latest update. Especially among bloggers of Northwest European descent (see this link for an overview). Perhaps to be expected as after all Ancestry’s update worked out quite well for the European breakdown.6
Going by my own observations of Ancestry’s former African breakdown I found that subcontinental categories in DNA testing CAN be indicative of distinctive lineage. They were certainly not meaningless or totally random. This goes not only for African DNA but also European DNA in fact.7 As long as you do not take the regional labeling at face value and do not hold unrealistic expectations of ethnicity estimates conforming exactly with known pedigree or being super specific. Using a macro-regional format (more generic but still subcontinental!) can be quite helpful as well in my experience. Just to name a few main findings from my AncestryDNA survey (before the update):
- African Americans and Jamaicans with top ranking scores for either “Ivory Coast/Ghana” or “Nigeria” could be pretty sure already of having substantial roots from respectively Ghana/Liberia/Sierra Leone or Nigeria.
- The “Senegal” region was very useful in singling out predominant Upper Guinean lineage. In particular for Cape Verdeans and Hispanics but also for example for Hausa-Fulani from Nigeria.
- Brazilians and Haitians were able to assess the relative weight of either Yoruba and related Bight of Benin lineage versus Angolan/Congolese/Mozambican lineage. By looking into their scores for the reasonably predictive regions of “Benin/Togo” + “Nigeria” and “Southeastern Bantu” + “Cameroon/Congo”.
These outcomes may not be pinpointing exact ethnic lineage or exact ancestral locations. But I would argue that such subcontinental resolution still represents very valuable information! Given that usually Afro-descendants do not have the privilege of being able to fall back on paper trails when wanting to learn more about their African origins.8 Because of this lack of viable alternative Afro-Diasporans cannot afford to be particular about the imperfections of admixture analysis. Instead I would argue for judging each aspect of DNA testing on its own merits. In a constant attempt to maximize informational value despite shortcomings (which do need to be properly accounted for). Basically taking any promising lead we can get and combining with other clues. Seeing the glass as half full and not half empty. Rather than be overcritical and risk loosing out on helpful information, even when only approximate or incomplete.
Of course the tricky thing with admixture analysis for Afro-descendants is that there is usually no independent means of verifying the accuracy of their personal results. However during my AncestryDNA survey I found that on a group-level you can already roughly try to corroborate by comparing with how Africans are described when being DNA tested. A second way of (approximate) verification consisted of looking into possible correlation between the group averages of DNA tested Afro-Diasporans and historically documented slave trade patterns.
From my findings verifiable regional roots for actual Africans were often indeed roughly confirmed by the previous version of Ancestry’s African breakdown. Also my survey of selected parts of the Afro-Diaspora was largely a confirmation of historically documented African origins for each nationality. Again such potentially profound information is not something to carelessly brush aside when wanting to Trace African Roots!
Precisely because of its once pioneering West African regional specificity I found AncestryDNA to be more insightful than anything else on offer at the time I performed my survey. Sadly this is no longer the case after the update. As covered in this blogseries. A valuable tool has therefore been taken away. However this does not cancel out the ancestral clues you may have obtained from the previous version of Ancestry’s African breakdown. So whenever possible make a screenshot of your old results for future reference! For all we know it might take another five years before Ancestry decides to update again 😉
2) What’s next?
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“We’re working to increase the number of African samples in our reference panel so we can take full advantage of our new methods of analysis and provide even better estimates for Africa.” (Source: Ancestry)
“Currently, we are working to further expand our global reference panel for future ethnicity updates. We have already begun genotyping and analyzing samples for a future update which we expect will provide even better estimates. We have also begun a new diversity initiative to gather DNA samples from underrepresented regions around the world in order to expand the number of regions we can report back to customers.” (source: Ancestry’s White Paper, 2018, p.33).
“Simultaneously, we are also working to improve our algorithms for ethnicity estimation. Future ethnicity updates may include an improvement to our statistical methodology that will more fully leverage information in genetic data to reveal even more information about population history.” (source: Ancestry’s White Paper, 2018, p.33).
In this three-part blogseries it has been argued that Ancestry’s most recent update of its African breakdown has been a downgrade. Only few improvements being achieved on some minor fronts. But otherwise leading to a deterioration of informational value. This has caused widespread confusion and dismay among Ancestry’s customers of African descent. The whole manner of implementing these changes by Ancestry will certainly not win them a beauty prize 😉 However a resurrection of Ancestry’s once pioneering African breakdown is still possible! Going by the quotes above a next update may already be under preparation! And from Ancestry’s stated intentions some promising new developments could be forthcoming!9
Caution is warranted of course. One wonders for example how much time will pass till this next update will be available? Again five years?? Also which specific African populations will be targeted by Ancestry’s new “diversity initiative”? Now more than ever relevant African samples are needed! Producing coherent regional scores in line with historical plausibility or even verifiable genealogy for people of African descent. In particular new samples are needed from Angola, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau/Conakry, Liberia, Madagascar, Mozambique and Sierra Leone. For the already existing regions (“Senegal”, “Ivory Coast/Ghana” and “Nigeria”) a more balanced distribution of sample size should also be realized in order to avoid the current flaws.
True commitment is needed to cater to the particular needs of Afro-Diasporans when it comes to admixture analysis and other aspects of DNA testing! I am willing to give Ancestry another chance to redeem themselves. But they do need to prove they are not only paying lip service when asking for customer feedback.10 Plus they should be aware that if this new updating process takes too long their competitors will not be waiting… Again if you want to stimulate Ancestry in creating a well-designed African breakdown please forward Ancestry this link:
In the meanwhile not all will be gloom on Ancestry. Of course for genealogy purposes Ancestry will keep on providing an enormous amount of records and resources. Their innovative migration tool may yet be further refined in the near future. But most of all a clear advantage of sticking with Ancestry lies in the increased odds of finding African DNA matches! This is made possible by Ancestry’s unmatched customer database (currently including more than 10 million DNA-tested persons!) increasingly also including Africans (or children of African migrants). One must hope that this very helpful trend will not be off-set by Ancestry’s current lapse in offering a decent African breakdown…
I intend to devote more blog posts to DNA matching patterns on Ancestry for both Africans and Afro-Diasporans. And although not all details have been worked out yet I am also hoping to offer extra assistance in connecting with your African DNA cousins, in the near future. For now I will refer to this still very effective tutorial of mine from last year:
Updated African breakdown on 23andme
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I used to rate Ancestry’s African breakdown above anything else on the market. But with 23andme’s long awaited specification of African DNA now being rolled out while Ancestry has just degraded its African breakdown I might have to change my mind…I have not been updated yet myself. But I have seen a few promising results for both Africans and Afro-Diasporans. Although I can already tell it will not be completely without shortcomings. But that is to be expected perhaps. After all it’s more about maximizing informational value rather than going for 100% accuracy 😉 . It definitely represents a major breakthrough when compared with 23andme’s formerly very basic African breakdown (see this page). I will eventually blog about this update in greater detail. For more info:
Proposed African breakdown on Living DNA
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Another very promising development is 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. The above map is taken from 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.”
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. Although there are also still some remaining issues. The non-African regional breakdowns are however not a topic of discussion in this blog post.
2) This screen shot featuring the updated results from 4 different parts of the Afro-Diaspora (Cape Verde, Haiti, Jamaica, USA) is quite telling for several reasons. Previously you could more or less distinguish historically plausible African regional patterns for each nationality (on a group level, see this link). This is mostly no longer the case because of the way the African breakdown has become much more generic after the update. The European scores are now however more in line with expectations based on colonial past. Take notice especially of the new regions for “Portugal” and “France”.
Because I was given access to their profiles I was able to analyze the DNA matches for these 4 persons on Ancestry and single out possibly African ones by using my scanning & filtering method. Going by plausible regional combinations, African surnames and other relevant profile details. Actually I had already performed the same exercise one year ago for two of these persons: the African American and Cape Verdean (see this blog post). And I have found a considerable increase in their African DNA matches. A very encouraging indication of how DNA testing among Africans has become ever more popular!
As can be seen from the overview below all persons who had their sometimes very high “Nigeria” amounts practically wiped out do still have several Nigerian DNA matches. Greatly indicative of actual Nigerian lineage! Intriguingly also for the Cape Verdean person possibly one Nigerian match showed up. But most likely because of shared Upper Guinean/Fulani lineage. The other Fula matches are all likely to be from either Senegambia or Guinea. Actually non-Fula Senegambian/Guinean matches far outnumber any possibly Malian matches for Cape Verdeans as I will demonstrate in an upcoming blogpost.
- African American: 5 most likely Nigerian matches; 1 possibly from Ghana, 1 possibly from Sierra Leone.
- Cape Verdean: 4 most likely Fula matches; 1 possibly Hausa-Fulani; 3 North Africans.
- Haitian: 4 most likely Nigerian matches; 1 from Angola; 1 from Malawi; 1 possibly from Ghana; 1 possibly from Sierra Leone.
- Jamaican: 20 (!) most likely Nigerian matches; 4 possibly from Ghana; 2 possibly from Liberia; 2 possibly from Senegal and/or Gambia; 1 possibly from Togo.
3) Let’s consider a hypothetical case whereby an adoptee who was raised by two African American parents took a test with Ancestry last year. He considers himself to be African American as well. But actually his birth parents are both from Africa! His father being Nigerian (Igala, to the north of Igboland) and his mother from Uganda (Bari, a Nilo-Saharan people).
Now going by the African breakdown of last year he might still have received a reasonably decent “Nigeria” score of around 20-40%. While his Ugandan side would have been predominantly described by a distinctive score for “Southeastern Bantu”, let’s say around 40-45%. Of course not a perfect reflection of his pedigree due to the very likely appearance also of additional secondary or trace regions. But still quite indicative when interpreted correctly! By comparing with other African American results he would quickly find out that his breakdown is quite atypical: 1) for being 100% African 2) for having such a high “Southeastern Bantu” score. With proper follow-up research these two clues might already lead him in the right direction.
However when only relying on DNA matches the impression of his African lineage will be incomplete & disproportionate. Due to the composition of Ancestry’s customer database his DNA matches overwhelmingly will be African Americans (hundreds if not thousands!) who will share Nigerian ancestry with him. Probably also his closest matches will all be African American. Next in line will most likely be West Indians and other Afro-Diasporans who again will have Nigerian DNA in common with him.
If he performs a thorough search he will probably encounter some Nigerian matches as well. If he’s lucky perhaps even a few dozen or so. However a majority of them will most likely be of Igbo descent rather than Igala. Because they are neighbouring people these two ethnic groups do share a lot of genetic similarity, resulting also in mutual DNA matches. But due to a greater number of Igbo migrants in the USA/UK they will also tend to be overrepresented among Ancestry’s customers. DNA matches to be associated with his Ugandan side are quite unlikely. Ugandans being very rare in Ancestry’s customer database, unlike Nigerians. Perhaps he might get a few puzzling Middle Eastern matches though, due to the Arab slave trade reaching into Uganda.
Just going by these DNA matching patterns and not knowing his ethnicity estimates he will probably not suspect he has been adopted. After all his main DNA matches will be African American! He will have no reason to assume he is anything else than African American himself as well. Going by the much smaller number of Nigerian matches he might assume he has Igbo lineage by way of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Even when in reality his Nigerian lineage is much more recent, and not Igbo but rather Igala. In the absence of any Ugandan matches he will remain completely in the dark about his maternal side!
Of course this is just one hypothetical example but it might illustrate the added value of combining insights from different aspects of DNA testing. Rather than only focusing on DNA matches. The assumptions being made about the composition of Ancestry’s customer database are based on my ongoing analysis of DNA matches being reported for African customers on Ancestry. I intend to blog about these findings eventually. Actually in an upcoming blogpost I will already explore the correlation between admixture and DNA matches for 50 Cape Verdeans, as reported by AncestryDNA.
4) For an overview of blog articles discussing the usefulness of admixture analysis, see heading “Blog Posts” in this ISOGG entry: Admixture Analysis.
5) I do share the concern that the ethnicity aspect of DNA testing may be abused by people with either superficial or dubious agendas. Especially identity politics come to mind. Undoubtedly the marketing campaigns of DNA testing companies have played a major factor in this. Even when their intentions may have been merely playful and sales-orientated. For an interesting recent article:
- Your DNA Is Not Your Culture: A Spotify playlist tailored to your DNA is the latest example of brands cashing in on people’s search for identity. (The Atlantic, 2018)
On the other hand I find it unjustifiable to paint all first-time DNA testers with the same brush. Also I would find it rather paternalistic if for example the choice to no longer maintain a continental breakdown on AncestryDNA was motivated by such concerns. A few months ago I blogged about bringing back the continental breakdown within Ancestry’s 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.
6) Without wanting to be divisive I do find it noteworthy how the ethnic backgrounds of each of these bloggers seem to often determine their outlook on admixture analysis. Perhaps not that surprising given that their evaluation will be based mostly on how their own DNA is being described. Nothing wrong with personal reviews. But I do think that people of African descent should realize that their predicaments are not the same as those of bloggers of fully European descent.
White Americans/Canadians and Europeans who take DNA tests tend to have well researched family trees and detailed knowledge of their recent ethnic origins. This allows them to be “picky” about their ethnicity estimates. As afterall they will have the luxury to cross-check their results. Which often tends to make them obsess on details such as labeling of ancestral categories rather than trying to grasp the overall added value it may have for other people. It is interesting to contrast this with the more constructive attitude among bloggers of mixed or non-European descent. Often seeking ways to already use admixture analysis effectively despite obvious shortcomings. See for example:
- Ancestry Inference Is Precise And Accurate(Ish) (Gene Expression)
- Africa in 12 ADMIXTURE chunks (Gene Expression)
- Part I: The DNA Trail from Madagascar to Manhattan (Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches)
- A Puerto Rican Look at : A Generational Exploration of African Ancestry (Boricua Genes)
- We don’t have African Ancestry from One Place – Example of Dominicans (Dominican Roots)
- Admixture Centrifuge: Cherokee DNA (Roots & Recombinant DNA)
- What Do I Think About These DNA Results? (Roots Revealed)
Generally speaking I suspect some degree of ethno-centric bias is quite likely to influence how people will judge the usefulness of admixture analysis. Again not trying to be accusatory or anything. Because I believe I could very well be guilty of such bias myself as well! I am of both Cape Verdean and Dutch descent. My blogging interests are more wideranging. After all I am focused on covering the entire Afro-Diaspora and also regularly discuss African topics. Still my own specific background may (consciously or unconsciously) direct me in certain ways. I guess what I’m trying to say is when deciding on the usefulness of admixture analysis don’t let other people, social media, genetic genealogists or even bloggers (myself included 😉 ) dictate your choices! Do inform yourself properly but make up your own mind based on facts relevant to your own situation rather than on sometimes subjective opinions.
7) Sometimes it almost seems that admixture analysis is being considered mere guessology by its fiercest critics. Or only fit for cocktail parties as the saying goes 😉 This has however not been my experience. I do agree that performance among the various DNA testing companies and third party websites is very variable. And obviously even more so going back in time. I have myself only tested with 23andme and Ancestry and I found that with correct interpretation and knowledge of their methodology you can derive useful information from their ethnicity results. Which were of course not just pulled out of a hat.
I know of many people who made important discoveries about their genetic ancestry by using ethnicity estimates. For example I have heard several stories by West Indians who had unexpected Asian admixture, minor but still substantial (say >10%). And this information was really useful to them as it lead them to previously unknown Asian contract labourer ancestors. There are plenty of other ancestral scenarios for Afro-Diasporans which can be illuminated by way of the continental breakdown which is usually quite accurate.
The regional or subcontinental percentages are indeed not to be taken all too literally. But again I know several persons who relied on distinctive regional scores to make a breakthrough in their ancestral quest. For example I have been told about at least three instances of NPE being confirmed whereby the father turned out to be East African instead of African American or West Indian. In one case indicated by the very predictive “East African” category on 23andme but also by a singular combination of “Southeastern Bantu” and “Middle Eastern” regional scores on AncestryDNA. Many times I have also seen how unexpected partial Cape Verdean lineage could quite reliably be corroborated by “Senegal” scores on AncestryDNA. Not only for African Americans, but also for Hawaiians (due to whaling connections, see upcoming blogpost)!
In my AncestryDNA survey for Africans & Afro-Diasporans I have also made good use of a macro-regional format. Which is still sub-continental. Basically combining interrelated & neighbouring AncestryDNA regions in order to allow certain regional patterns to show up more clearly. This turned out to be particularly helpful when wanting to explore any rough correlation between aggregated AncestryDNA results and slave trade patterns. Which I indeed established for the most part. But also for European DNA I found that this approach works quite well. For example by making a distinction between Northwest European DNA ((“Great Britain”, “Ireland”, “Europe West” and “Scandinavia”) versus Southwest European DNA (“Iberian Peninsula” and “Europe South”) and East European DNA (“Europe East”, “Finland/Northwest Russia”, “European Jewish”). For more details see:
- Afro-Diaspora AncestryDNA results: A Comparison
- Update: Afro-Diasporan AncestryDNA Survey (part 1)
- Update: Afro-Diasporan AncestryDNA Survey (part 2)
8) The very low odds of tracing back to Africa for African Americans were highlighted last year during an episode of Finding Your Roots by Henry Louis Gates Jr.. The guest of his show, musician and producer Questlove, was found to be descended from one of the last enslaved Africans to arrive in the US on a slave ship.
“The discovery of ancestors on the Clotilda isn’t just an interesting genealogical fact. As Gates says, it means that Questlove is the only African-American he knows who can answer a question that many have asked: not only where in Africa his ancestors came from, but how exactly they got to the U.S. in the first place.”
This certainly was a very remarkable and precious finding! But such a verifiable paper trail leading back to Africa must be extremely difficult to reproduce for ordinary African Americans. For one thing they will not be assisted by professional teams of historians and genealogists. Furthermore this finding only concerns one particular family line (relatively recent) among possibly hundreds of others. All individually to be traced back to several parts of Africa! How is a layman expected to ever uncover a majority of these lines, let alone one single one? This (near) impossibility of the genealogical route for me underlines once more how there is a lot more at stake for Afro-Diasporans when taking a DNA test than for people with plentiful documented knowledge about their ancestral origins.
9) Aside from the increase in African sampling it is also noteworthy that Ancestry seems to have plans to possibly provide two versions of their ethnicity estimates. Aside from relatively recent origins also aiming to describe “ancient genetic origins”. This could be very insightful and might reconcile the demand for bringing back trace regions (often reflecting “deep ancestry”) with the need for maintaining the current more condensed breakdown. I am guessing perhaps different algorithms will be applied to reflect geneflow to be traced back to (very) ancient time periods versus geneflow from a genealogically meaningful time period (~ 500 years). I suppose similar to the various calculators available on Gedmatch but hopefully with explicit context given about underlying assumptions, implications etc..
10) Just to add to my suggestions for improvement I blogged about a few months ago (see this link).
- It seems prudent to me that already existing African customers should be actively engaged and stimulated to fill in their family tree details or atleast 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 I have already blogged about earlier.
- 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 writing 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):
“While much of southeastern Africa was spared the worst effects of the transatlantic slave trade, West and Central Africa, including the area from Cameroon through Angola, was not. More than half of all Africans enslaved in the Western Hemisphere came from West Central Africa. Portuguese merchants began taking slaves from the west coast of Cameroon in the 15th century. Many individuals from the coastal regions of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea ended up in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina.” (source: Ancestry)