Most DNA takers are interested in the Great Britain DNA ethnicity for one of two reasons. They either have more than they expected to have, and wonder how it got there, or don’t have as much as they were expecting, and are interested in an explanation. If you fall into either of those two categories, this post should help guide you in understanding your individual DNA results.
The way that British DNA shows up on DNA tests is different depending on the company that you tested with. Family Tree DNA shows a very broad “British Isles” category, while Ancestry DNA has Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England split into more than 37 specific regions. There are clear advantages on both sides of the broad vs. specific ethnicity reporting. The broad category is less likely to leave people out, and thus they are more likely to generally match their known family history. The regionally specific categories are useful when tracing ancestors, but it can sometimes be confusing not to show DNA from a category that you think that you should.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- How they come up with your ethnicity estimate
- A little about the genetic makeup of a modern Great Britain native
- About the history of movements between Great Britain and nearby geographic areas
- How British DNA might have ended up in your ethnicity estimate
- Why you don’t have as much British DNA as you think you should
- How to take the first steps in tracing your British ancestry
Note: It’s important to define the terminology that I’ll be using for this article. People tend to use and confuse the terms United Kingdom, Britain, England, the British Isles, etc. For the purposes of this article, Great Britain means the whole island where England, Scotland and Wales are located.
How do they get your ethnicity estimate?
The reputable testing companies, such as Ancestry DNA, Family Tree DNA, and 23 and Me, are able to determine your ethnicity estimate by a two-pronged process. First, they must create a large, verified collection of DNA samples from people who have extensive history in a particular region. Then, to determine British ancestry, for example, they compare your DNA to natives of Britain to see how much you have in common.
Fun fact: The most recent Ancestry DNA ethnicity reference panel contained a total of 3000 samples from people all over the world.
What does the typical genetic diversity of a native of Great Britain look like?
Though it often comes as a surprise to many people, Great Britain is relatively genetic diverse. The average person native to Great Britain who has verified family history in Britain going back several generations only shows, about 60% Great Britain DNA. This means that there has been lots of admixture (fancy word for mixing of the genes) with populations not native to Britain.
What are the results of all of this admixing? People who live in Great Britain (not recent immigrant families) will often show DNA from the following regions in their autosomal DNA results:
- Western Europe
- Iberian Peninsula
- Southern Europe
- Eastern Europe
- European Jewish
As you can see, even someone born in Britain, with British ancestors going back a few hundred years can show quite a shocking number of different DNA ethnicities. There are completely British people whose DNA is more similar to that of other regions. It’s important to understand the genetic diversity of a particular region when you are trying to figure out where your ethnicity regions came from in your family tree.
It’s good to know this, since it’s possible that you inherited other ethnicities from the same ancestors who gave you your British DNA.
Fun fact: Did you know that the British Isles are actually made of of more than 1,000 islands? Apart from the islands of Britain and Ireland, there are many, much smaller, islands surrounding the big ones, and these all make up the British Isles archipelago.
How did Great Britain get its genetic diversity?
For most people, knowing a fact is not enough. You want to know the story and the explanation behind it. Sure, you get that people in Britain aren’t typically 100% British – but you want to know more. How did other DNA get all mixed up in Britain? There are a few major historical factors that helped DNA from other European regions spread into the British Isles, and specifically, Britain.
The Roman Empire
Did you know that the great city of London was established by the Romans, and originally called “Londinium”? The town served as an important military and trade hub. While it seems obvious that there likely could have been people moving from other parts of the Roman Empire to Britain, there is little evidence that this was common. The more likely way that “Roman” DNA was admixed with British would have been between soldiers and British women, whether consensual or non-consensual, as is the case often with war and invasions. In the end, the Romans ruled Britain for a period of about 400 years.
The Vikings played a very important part in adding to Britain’s genetic diversity. They were adept sea travelers, and conditions at home encouraged violent expeditions (often called “raids”) where they plundered and pillaged rural parts of Britain – and many, many other places. Raids were so frequent and effective that Viking settlements were established in Britain, and controlled territories were so large that they could even be described as kingdoms.
Viking raids occurred primarily over a period of about 300 years, and ended about 1066 when William the Conqueror was crowned King of England.
Fun fact: There is even evidence of Viking raids as far south as the northern coast of Africa.
The Norman Conquest and British DNA
Britain is located very close to France, geographically speaking. In fact, the closest distance between the two countries across the Strait of Dover is only about 20 miles. While the distance to cross the English Channel from Normany is longer than that, it wasn’t far enough to keep the Normans from engaging in political and military engagements in Britain. In fact, the king coronated in 1066 was a Norman (French) king.
As many as 8000 French Normans ended up living in Britain during the Norman rule. There is evidence that intermarriage between the Normans and British were limited in nature, it definitely leads our imagination to wonder how extensive the mingling between the French and the British really was. In fact, I suggest that the Norman Conquest is one way – even though probably not the most likely way – in which Iberian Peninsula DNA arrived in England (and thus, to the American colonies hundreds of years later).
Jewish and Roma Migration to England
There have been Jewish people living in Britain since as early as the Norman Conquest, almost 1000 years ago. Throughout the centuries they have been persecuted some times more than others, but it is generally accepted that there have been Jews in Britain since the conquest, whether they were practicing their religion in secret, or not. There are records of Jewish immigrants to England going back as far as the 1700s, and the United Kingdom currently has one of the largest populations of Jews in the world.
As far as Roma peoples in Britain, there is evidence that Roma have been there since as early as the 1500s, if not earlier. There are only a little over 95,000 Roma living in the United Kingdom today, but I think it is safe to assume that there are many, many more people than that who likely have at least a trace of Roma DNA in their genome, based on hundreds of years of living in close quarters with that population.
Did you know that Roma people were sometimes sent as slaves to British colonies in the Americas? How I lament the tangled webs of our ancestors!
Due to the proximity of France, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the Norman Conquest was not the only contact between the French and the British. Religion is a popular reason for persecuting others, and the French Huguenots were no exception. About 50,000 Huguenots settled in Britain after conditions at home changed in the late 1500’s, and it was no longer safe to practice their protestant religion.
People with Indian ancestry have been moving to Britain since the 1700’s. Despite regulations attempting to limit the number of Indians coming to Britain, there were thousands of instances of people coming as sailors, domestic employees, and even as children born in India of British soldiers and Indian wives. India was under British rule between 1612 and 1947, allowing for 335 years of commerce, linguistic, cultural, political, and DNA exchange for about 335 years leading up to World War II. Although it is not quite as relevant to those doing autosomal DNA tests, it is still important to know that Indian immigration to the UK continues to this day. The British Indian community is so well-established (and long-established) that there is now a well-formed British Indian diaspora in other countries, like Canada and the United States.
Other factors, like trade and smaller waves of migration between European countries, caused exchange of DNA
This is true for most other parts of the world, and it’s true for Britain. Europe is a pretty small place, relatively speaking, and there is close proximity to people of other languages, cultures, and of course, DNA ethnicities. Due to smaller migration events, natural moving around, intermarriage between families (especially among the upper classes), trade, and war, there have been ample opportunities for admixture to occur.
How British DNA might have ended up in your ethnicity estimate
Nearby countries where British DNA is commonly found
Since Britain is located very near many other countries, it is common to find British DNA among the population of those countries. If you find that you have DNA from Great Britain but no British ancestors that you know of, you might be able to trace your ancestry back to one of these countries:
The vast British Empire
The British “got around” as we would say in America. From the mid-1700’s to World War II, the British Navy was the most powerful in the world. Along with military might, the Navy brought British political and economic rule to places all over the world.
*This image was used with a CC BY-SA 4.0 license, and the image is attributed to the Red Hat of Pat Ferrick (no link available at the time of publication)
As you can see from the image above, British political rule was vast. Along with the arrival of soldiers, sailors, and politicians, British subjects were often directly or indirectly encouraged to immigrate to some areas, and many British citizens decided to leave Britain for economic opportunity, political and religious freedom in the numerous British colonies. As I am sure you can easily imagine, all of this movement of British DNA around the world gave ample opportunity for it to show up in your ethnicity results, even if you have no obvious connection to Britain that you are aware of.
Why you don’t have as much British DNA as you think you should
Most people can’t trace their family history back far enough to know if any of their ancestors would have arrived in Britain during a Viking invasion, or even as a French Huguenot. If you were expecting to find more British DNA in your ethnicity results, and you have traced your verified ancestors* back as far as you can in England, Scotland, or Wales, then you might consider that several of your distant ancestors arrived from one or more of those far-off places and contributed a different ethnicity to your genome.
This doesn’t mean that your ancestors weren’t British! It just means that your British ancestors had some ancestors that came from somewhere else, too. This is the case in most geographic areas of the world, aside from very isolated populations that are rare. In other words, while your ancestors and their ancestors for a few generations back were born in Britain, they weren’t as “British” as we would expect them to be.
Remember the statistic about modern British only having, on average, about 60% British DNA? Statistically speaking, many of your British-born ancestors probably could have included themselves in a non-100% British group.
* By using the term “verified ancestor”. I simply mean that you have checked your close and distant DNA matches to verify that you truly do descend from the ancestors that are in your genealogical family tree. Accidents happen, and there are all sorts of reasons that our DNA family tree could have branches that we can’t see in documents and records.
How to take the first steps in tracing your British DNA ethnicity
Those of us with British ancestry are in luck. Due to a long history of entrenched religious institutions, relatively stable government, and a highly motivated diaspora interested in genealogical research, you can actually find a ton of information on the internet to help you build a family tree fairly well into the past. Finding records and documents as far back as the 1600-1700’s is not uncommon.
I recommend building a free family tree on Ancestry. It’s easy to use, and you can also download the tree and upload it to other websites. There are two reasons that I prefer Ancestry for building my family trees: I love their DNA testing, and you can link your family tree to your DNA test. The second reason is that with a subscription, you can add records and people to the tree with just a few mouse clicks. Building a tree takes time, and having this convenience is a huge help to me.
For my readers interested in building your trees: You can use this link to get a free two-week trial, though If you end up purchasing at the end of that time, I will receive a small commission at absolutely no extra cost to you. Start Your Free Family Tree! 14 Day Free Trial Thanks for your support so I can continue to write great articles on this website – it really helps out so much!
Were you surprised to find Great Britain in your DNA ethnicity estimate? Or were you disappointed when you didn’t see as much as you expected? I would love to hear from you in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by.