The Science of DNA Heritage

You’ve sent in your spit or your swab, and now you’re waiting on the DNA company to send you your results, to tell you who your family is and where you came from.

When the results come in, you’ll get a list, and perhaps a map, of your ethnic makeup.

MyOrigens map generated by Family Tree DNA from my test results.

MyOrigens map generated by Family Tree DNA from my test results.

I’m 97% European, with traces of Native American, Asian, and African.

The DNA companies will all give you slightly different results. That’s because they’re comparing you to different people.

Here’s now the DNA ethnicity results are generated. The companies each collected DNA samples from hundreds or thousands of people who knew their ancestry. I don’t know how they found these people, and I don’t know how accurate their family trees are. They convinced the company that their people had been in the area of Frankfurt, Germany, or the Loire Valley in France, or Manchester, England for at least a couple of generations. Then the company compares my DNA to theirs and determines where I’m from based on where they get the strongest matches.

So, your ethnicity is reliant on the accuracy and size of the company’s database. They’re at least somewhat accurate.  I know my great-great grandfather came over from Germany when he was a teenager. It’s not just family lore; I’ve found documents supporting it.

Based on my family tree, I’m 1/16 German. Here are the results from three companies:

  • 23andMe: 17.4% French and German
  • My Heritage: 30.4% North and West European
  • Family Tree DNA: 48% West and Central European

I didn’t test at all three places. I sent my spit to 23andMe, then I downloaded my raw data and uploaded it to the other two companies, who analyzed it using their databases.

As the companies build their databases, the results will become more accurate, and more focused. For now, it’s a good tool for general information on your ethnic background.

About Taminar

When I grow up, I want to make movies and write books. Now in my 50s, I wonder if I'll ever really accomplish the dreams of my youth. I have made two short films, one for a college film-making class, the other for an MTV-sponsored contest. I have written short plays that have been produced, and a few short stories and reviews that have been published. I also perform and direct for community theatre. My working life has included stints in local TV news, public relations, retail management and cashier, and for a couple of years, I made the rides go at Walt Disney World. I have two cats and a husband.
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