How valid is family tree DNA "origins"?

+14 votes
I am super new at DNA. Some really great people have helped me "get it" to some degree, but my eyes still glaze over pretty fast.  So forgive me if this is a question everyone (but me) knows the answer to.

Is Family Finder's "My Origin" results accurate enough to base assumptions on? In other words, is it reasonable to assume that if my Dad's Family Finder results say he's 100% European & mine say I'm 96% European, then my mom's family is where my 3% Middle Eastern & 1% Central Asian came from?


P.S. I tagged my top-four surnames - Noland/Martin for Dad and Brien/Watkins for Mom.
WikiTree profile: Liz Shifflett
in The Tree House by Liz Shifflett G2G6 Pilot (424k points)

10 Answers

+5 votes
Best answer
I found FTDNA to be very accurate and compares favorably with my results from and GEDmatch.

GEDmatch is great because it provides many different ways of breaking down and categorizing my DNA. For example, my 8% Native American according to Ancestry, is broken down into 4% NE Asia and 4% New World according to FTDNA. On one of GEDmatch's many different analyses, it's broken down even futher into Siberian, North Amerindian and MesoAmerican.

All of the interpretations of the DNA are valid. They are simply different perspectives of the same information.
by anonymous G2G4 (4.9k points)
selected by Jeannette Saladino
+9 votes
My understanding is that you can make that assumption to start with, but also must keep in mind the the 3% Middle Eastern and 1% Central Asian could come from your father or not exist at all.  Too much depends on the referance populations used in admixture calulators.
by James Applegate G2G6 Mach 5 (54.0k points)
uh huh, she says with glazed eyes. Um. That's a no, then?
A lot of people do consider such small percentages "noise" and ignore them.
+3 votes
I'm really late to this party, but my origins seem to fit. You can see my results posted on my profile page. All my traditional research points to these areas.
by Doug Lockwood G2G Astronaut (2.4m points)
+5 votes
I'm also very curious about this. I find this to be one of the most interesting parts of my DNA test results, but I'm not sure how accurate they are.

To give you an example, according to Family Tree DNA's My Origins, I'm 99% European (66% British Isles, 21% Scandinavia, and 12% Southern Europe) and 1% North African.

On the other hand, on GEDmatch they have a bunch of different analyses like this that you can do, and one of those said that I'm 49% North Atlantic (whatever that means), 23% Baltic, 15% West Mediterranean, 8% West Asian, 2.6% East Mediterranean, 1% East Asian, 0.46% Siberian, and 0.72% Amerindian. So, that's obviously broken down really differently, but also just does not add up the same.

Like James said, these are based on DNA reference samples taken from various populations. I imagine they'll get more accurate as more samples are collected from more diverse populations around the world. It's still a young field! It's really kind of exciting to be part of its development by getting our DNA tested. :)
by Lianne Lavoie G2G6 Pilot (423k points)
+7 votes
A very cursory Google search for reliability of DNA origin data produces several articles where comparisons between the different DNA analysis providers are published (i.e. one person sends their own DNA sample to different providers and compares the results). Seems to me that the results for the same person vary so much from test site to test site that I find it hard to put much credence in such small numbers.
by Helmut Jungschaffer G2G6 Pilot (540k points)
+4 votes
I've not used Family Tree DNA's origins, but I can comment on my experience with 23andMe. I think its ancestry composition report is valid, and has been getting better over time (as more population data are added).

23andMe's ancestry is reported in 3 different levels of certainty: Conservative, Standard, and Speculative. In both the Standard and Speculative modes, it tags me as 99.9% European, with less than 0.1% in each of the categories "East Asian & Native American" (specifically Japanese) and "Unassigned." The breakdowns for "Northern European," "British & Irish," etc., are consistent with my understanding of my background. There are some small amounts of "Italian" and "Ashkenazi" that are not clearly identifiable in my known ancestry, but I figure they are probably valid. I have the impression that most 23andMe profiles include a few small "odd bits" of ancestry (like my bit of Japanese).
by Ellen Smith G2G Astronaut (1.2m points)
+7 votes
Liz, I spent a lot of time reading up on how these percentages are calculated.   Basically it goes like this:

Test company A has a pool of people.  These people test and hopefully submit data based on gedcoms that have ethnicity.  They look at the pool and say the majority of the people from say Scotland have this stuff in their DNA, whole those from India have this stuff and those from Africa have this stuff, and those from North America have this stuff... so over time by looking at all these ever changing pools of people they develop admixture analysis reports.  This is why your results might change over time as more people enter the pool and are then calculated into the admixtures.  

Test Company B does the same thing but they have a slightly different pool of people and so they get a slightly different result.  

Test Company C instead of running their own admixture results uses those from a 3rd party which might be Company A or Company B.  

So the word accuracy is a kind of a misnomer...  it is more like statistical probability.  Accuracy would demand a static pool that never changes and my understanding is that they do change...  This is considered the "holy grail" of DNA info and they have a chart you might find interesting:  scroll down to see discussion of biogeographic (ethinic) origin accuracy.

So in short.  It is evolving and probably more fun than accurate.
by Laura Bozzay G2G6 Pilot (651k points)

Do like the comment "it is more like statistical probability"

This sums it up perfectly.

I was part of the My heritage ethnicity founder population

My breakdown was 99.2% English and 0.8% South American.

Interestingly one of my ancestor was mistakenly listed as being born in South America so I am wondering if this affected there admixture

And... Since the testing companies "upgrade" their algorithms or reference populations from time to time, don't be surprised if you see changes to your ethnic makeup. I originally tested in 2013 along with my two brothers on Ancestry. I then transferred one kit to FTDNA.  Then earlier this month I transferred all three of these same kits to FTDNA again and received significant differences.

My brother's kit which was transferred back in early 2015, came back as 40% West & Central Europe, 27% Scandinavian, 20% British Isles, and a few others.  Transferring the same DNA from Ancestry again (to get it under the correct name) resulted in 88% British Isles and 12% East European.  Each of our DNA percentages had changed significantly, but this was the most dramatic.

So I uploaded each of the new FTDNA kits to GEDMatch to compare against the older kits uploaded in the 2013/2014 timeframe... and they were almost identical just off by a few tenths of a percent (Using the same Admixture) at most when compared to the older tests.

So the bottom line is... take what these companies tell you about your ethnicity percentages with a grain of salt.  And if you don't like what you see... wait a couple of years and try again!
+2 votes
Yeah, mine was pretty good on some areas 86% british isles  & it caught the 2% north Africa that is my paternal E-M35. But didnt really catch any French with an entire half of my maternal side being French Canadian. UNLESS my French ancestors were more from south or eastern Europe which they predicted. Seems if that is your bigest goal,finding your percentages, doing an automosal with two or more companies is the way to go.
by Jesse Elliott G2G5 (5.1k points)
+3 votes
by Reginald Wheeler G2G Rookie (280 points)
Cool! Thanks for sharing :D
+3 votes
Anyone who turns in their leiderhosen for a kilt without reading the fine prints and doing a bit more research just handed in their family history with pride. I don’t know how many zillions of people’s message board posts and private messages I’ve recieved (including my aunt’s) that all say something like: “That doesn’t make sense! My great grandfather always said his parents came from Germany, but my ethnicity reports don’t have ANY German! Maybe I need to start looking in England for people with the sur-name ****”.... Never once have I seen anyone notice (on ancestry anyway) the FULL sentence where the link to view their ethnicity report is.

Except! I just went to quote what it USED to say, apparently, they changed their vocabulary with last update! Ha! It USED to say something like: “See your ethnicity report from thousands of years ago” THOUSANDS. Not your 2nd great grandparents, or even 5th greats! THOUSANDS of years ago... but that little catch phrase must have caught some ancestry member’s eye once they tossed their leiderhosen in the trash....and that trip to the dump already had shredded those cute little German overall-shorts and fused them into little blocks of compost you can’t get back,  because it no longer says anywhere the time frame you are looking at unless you fast forward a few thousand years into their new “genetic communities” beta. Think about all the wars and battles, conquests, and massive religious relocations,  not to mention forced migrations from natural disasters and the like through out history that have occurred, pushing one race of people out of their native land into another, meanwhile, whoever was pushing filled up those populations with their own people to stay for a couple hundred years until the next wave happens....

Each site I’ve uploaded my one and only test’s raw data to has given me something completely different as a report! The best and only way for me to feel like I got some type of ethnicity report from my DNA test, was to take all those reports, and glomp them together, then look down at my skin and hair, look in the mirror to see my eye color, and feel good with a primarily “European” ethnicity based off of info relating to THOUSANDS of years ago! I say “European” meaning all the areas with the least amount of skin pigmentation in Europe- England, Ireland, Scandinavian countries, etc., then sprinkle a bit of “American” (not USA, but the whole continent) and some “Iberian”, or other more dark skin toned European regions, into the DNA soup. My reports absolutely cannot confirm ANY unknown or known ancestors from any time in history where family trees come into play. EXCEPT MAAAAAYYYYYBEEEEE, that one distant branch of Mexican family from that tiny “dna noise” unreliable piece of American/Iberian in the report. Maybe not though.

My two full maternal aunts have tested, 100% full siblings, and their reports vary to an extent that one would surmise they were NOT full siblings at all if one were to use their ethnicity reports as the only means of comparison. One was something like “England” (+misc other euro places within a few miles of each other) with 25% “Ireland”, the other “England” with “40% “Ireland” and a completely different set of numbers for the misc. other euro regions. (Side thought is when and how could Whales be even tickled with a fancy from the report providers that the Welsh are somehow separate from any other ethnic grouping in the general vicinity? It’s right in the center of an English coast! While yes, they have managed to sort of remain out of the English loop politically, it hasn’t ALWAYS been that way! It’s like trying to separate Mexicans from California from Mexicans in Tijuana because California isn’t mexico.... ANYMORE. Or being “French”. Depending on where in France, I guess is how you become ethnically French? Like the Spanish kind of French? Or English kind? Or pick any place in Europe kind of French? Not to mention it’s illegal to DNA test in France...Just my brain wandering like the 1% Asikstan Jew that appeared in my reports...from THOUSANDS of years ago...her her her...).

So really, unless you have 2 TOTALLY different ethic groups of parents, like an “African/Chinese” couple or “Native American/White” or whatever, mix and match to suit your own body, it is an extremely general report. Basically, that blog post from the legal genealogist someone posted says it best. Your report is as accurate as the the statistical data for the day says it is, but tomorrow Mr. S. Data might have a whole new set of opinions...
by Erin Van Zante G2G4 (5.0k points)

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