Did you find Europe West in your Ancestry DNA results? Many people were hoping for something a little more specific – isn’t Western Europe made up of many different countries, each with their specific language and culture? You aren’t the only person to wonder what the Europe West DNA ethnicity really means.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- How the testing companies are able to tell you that you have Western European DNA
- Where Europe West DNA is usually found
- A little about the genetic diversity of Western Europe
- The basics about how Europe West got its genetic diversity
- How you might have gotten your Europe West DNA
- Reasons why you might not have as much Europe West DNA as you think you should
How do they know that you have Europe West ethnicity in your DNA?
Ancestry DNA has a collection of thousands of DNA samples from people all over the world who have extensive roots in the region where they are native. Their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all born there, and provide a good example of what DNA in that region typically looks like.
The Ancestry DNA reference population for the Europe West ethnicity is currently made up of 416 samples from people who are native to the region. Your DNA is compared to the DNA samples, and your ethnicity results tell you the percentage of your DNA that is similar to that found in Europe West.
In which countries is Europe West DNA usually found?
We tend to think of Western Europe as the entire continent of Europe from Germany to the UK, but in reality there is a difference between political and geographic definition of Western Europe and the DNA definition. In the image below, you will see the general area where Europe West DNA is typically found in high amounts. Please note that since European populations have historically been very mobile, it is common to find Europe West in smaller amounts outside of the highlighted area.
For those who like details, the following is a list of countries where you will typically find substantial percentages of the Europe West DNA ethnicity:
- Czech Republic
Why can’t Ancestry DNA, or any other testing company, provide you with something more specific than “Europe West”? If you have German or Austrian grandparents, for example, you might have been expecting to find German or Austria as an ethnicity percentage. There are two main reasons for this:
- Shifting geographic borders. The borders of Germany, France, Austria, Slovenia, for example, don’t look exactly like they did in the 1200s, 1400s, or the 1800s, for example. In fact, many of the countries of Western Europe didn’t even exist until the 1800s, and some didn’t form until the late part of the 1900s. And some countries don’t exist anymore – think of Prussia, for example.
- The part of the continent defined as “Europe West” for DNA purposes has not experienced any long periods of isolation – meaning that it will be very difficult to “tease out” or isolate the Europe West DNA down to a more local level.
How genetically diverse is the geographic area of Western Europe?
A typical native of Western Europe has about 48% Europe West DNA, but they are also likely to show the following ethnicities:
- Great Britain (52% of natives show this region)
- Scandinavia (46% of natives show this region)
- Europe South (39% of natives show this region)
- Europe East (36% of natives show this region)
- Ireland/Scotland/Wales (27% of natives show this region)
- Iberian Peninsula (23% of natives show this region)
- Finland/Northwest Russia (5% of natives show this region)
- European Jewish (2% of natives show this region)
- Caucasus (1% of natives show this region)
How did Western Europe get its genetic diversity?
For the better part of history, there have always been people moving in, out, and through, Western Europe, as well as invasions, occupations, and trade. All of these very human activities have a profound effect on genetic diversity. This is one reason why they haven’t been able to be more specific that just a generic “Europe West” DNA (some companies report it as “Western Europe”).
There are thousands of reasons why and ways that Western European DNA has been consistently “admixed” (fancy word for mixing) for centuries, but here is just a sampling of some major events – you will be able to easily imagine why DNA from this region is just “all mixed up”:
Celtic peoples and Germanic tribes
About 2,500 years ago the main cultural group in Western Europe was the Celts, which surprises a lot of people, since the Celtic peoples are traditionally associated with Ireland and Scotland. There were people who lived there before the Celts, who many researchers believe migrated to the area from the Middle East. Despite the fact that the Celts language and cultures dominated over much of Central and Western Europe for centuries, their influence gradually diminished due to the Germanic tribes pushing down from the north, and the Roman Empire’s expanding territory from the south. By the middle of the first millennium. the Celts were not the largest group in Europe.
Interesting note: Celtic languages are still spoken, but in only a few isolated regions, primarily in Scotland, Ireland, and Brittony, France.
The Roman Period
Half-way through the first millennium, Western Europe was basically divided in half, with Germanic tribes to the north and the powerful Roman Empire to the south. There was constant conflict between along the borders of territories, no doubt with the average resident suffering through dominance sometimes by one group, and other times by another. The Roman Empire was broken up around 400 A.D., leaving room for others to gain power and control.
“Völkerwanderung”- The Migration Period
This was a major period of migration all around the continent of Europe, possibly due to the power vacuum left by the dissolution of the Roman Empire. Tribes that had previously been unable to gain power were now able to move more freely, expanding their growth. Germanic tribes like the Goths, Vandals were driven west and south, and tribes from Central Asia (like the Huns, Slavs, Bulgars, and Alans) came through, causing more upheaval and migration in the region.
German speaking tribes were the most successful in what had been the western part of the Roman Empire. They eventually were able to divide what was left of the Roman Empire into little shiny, new, German-speaking territories.
The Frankish Period
Comprising a territory that consisted of what is now Northern Italy, all of France, Germany, and Austria, the Kingdom of the Franks was founded by descendants of a united group of smaller Germanic tribes. The second-to-last emperor was Charlemagne, which might sound familiar to those who remember their high school history classes. Charlemagne only had one son, Louis the Pious. When Louis the Pious died in 1840, they ended up dividing the empire in parts among his three sons, setting the stage for the more modern period of European history.
How did you get Europe West in your DNA estimate?
Some people are surprised to find Europe West DNA in their estimate and wonder how it got there. I’m sure you already know that the United States is primarily comprised of descendants of immigrants, and many of those immigrants were from areas that fall into the “Europe West” category.
The following are just a few events that occurred that helped Europe West DNA arrive in the US (there are many, many more waves of immigration from Western Europe that I did not include here):
- Dutch immigration to North America extends back to the very first groups of Europeans to arrive. In fact, Dutch colonists were extremely active in settling what is now the United States, and their descendants played major roles in the American Revolution. Dutch immigration, while minimal during colonial times under British rule, has continued for about 400 years – hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million, people from the Netherlands have come to North America.
- Eight million Germans immigrated to the United States during the 19th century
- As many as 740,000 French immigrants came to live in the United States before 1820. As it turns out, was US is still a popular destination for French immigrants during the 1900s- as many as 120,000 people reported having been born in France on the 1990 US Federal Census.
- The first Poles came to the United States in the 1500s, but about one million Polish people eventually came to the US, and some of these people would have had at least some Europe West DNA
- As an effect of World War II, as many as 12 million Germans left the region and settled in many different parts of the world
- About two million Jews came to the US between 1881-1924. A small number of these individuals might have had Europe West DNA, even though it’s true that European Jews show DNA from neighboring areas
In addition to the most obvious ways that Europe West might have appeared in your DNA results, there are a few more pathways that require more investigation – and this is by no means an exhaustive list:
- If you were born, or have close ancestors who were born in primarily non-European countries, it’s possible that you inherited your Europe West DNA from ancestors who migrated away from Europe into other areas – before you or your family eventually came to the US. There were hundreds of thousands of people who left Europe for Mexico, Central American, South America, Europe territories in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. (Read here about Mexican DNA or Hispanic Ancestry)
- Do you have French Canadian ancestry? Many French Canadian settlers likely had Europe West DNA (and even Iberian Peninsula DNA!)
- Many people who descend from enslaved peoples in the United States and other places find themselves with a surprising amount of European ancestry, and many times it is Europe West ancestry, specifically
Do you think you should have more Europe West DNA?
There are several reasons why you might not have inherited as much Europe West DNA as you think you should have:
- The genetic diversity of the region could mean that your “100% Western European” ancestor actually had substantial amounts of a different ethnicity, meaning that as it got passed down through the generations, there was less and less for you to inherit. As we can see from the list that I included above which lists the percentages of people native to the Western Europe region (i.e. were born there), having deep roots in an area does not preclude a person from showing an ethnicity from elsewhere.
- If your Western European ancestor was several generations back, it’s possible that you inherited higher percentages of the ethnicities of your other ancestors, and either only a small amount from the Western European ancestor, or none at all. It only takes about 5 generations for it to be statistically possible to inherit no DNA from any particular ancestor, due to the way that DNA is inherited. The further back the ancestor, the higher the chance that no DNA, or only a small amount of DNA, was inherited from that particular ancestor.
- Due to the close geographic nature of countries in Europe, and shifting political and geographic boundaries, it’s possible that the place where your ancestor was born is actually now part of a different country than it was before. For example, I have a mystery great-great grandmother. On census forms, she says she was from Austria. Since she didn’t speak English (I also learned that from the census record), and she married a Polish man (who said he was Russian on same census), I know that she probably wasn’t really “Austrian” in the sense that I would think of someone from Austria now. She was more likely from a part of Poland that was being ruled by the Austrian Empire at the time. These shifting political boundaries are why you might actually see your ancestors answers seem to “change” based on when the census was taken.
Is it possible to trace my Europe West DNA?
The best way to find out how you inherited Europe West DNA is to start working on your family tree. The first step is to talk to your parents or grandparents, as well as other relatives from previous generations. Take great notes, and see if you can collect the names, dates of birth, and location of birth of your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, if possible. Once you have this information, you will need to organize it into a “tree” form.
The best place to build a family tree, especially since you tested with Ancestry DNA, is on the Ancestry site. You can easily build your tree there, and their large database will automatically search to see if there are records that match the names of your grandparents and great-grandparents. I was actually able to even find my mother’s yearbook photograph from high school on the site – that was pretty amazing!
You do need a subscription to access most of the records, but if you use this link you can get a two-week free trial. Start Your Free Family Tree! 14 Day Free Trial If you end up purchasing after using the link, I might get a small commission (but it doesn’t affect your cost): It really helps me pay for the costs of maintaining this website, so thank you so much for your help!
Another great reason to build your family tree on Ancestry and connect it to your DNA results is because Ancestry will actually compare your tree with those of your DNA matches to find “shared ancestor hints” and other clues about how you might be related. (Learn how to connect your results to your family tree.)
I hope that this post helped you better understand your DNA ethnicity estimate, and especially how it relates to your Europe West DNA ethnicity. If you have any questions, concerns, or feedback about anything that you have read, I would encourage you to leave a comment.
Thanks for stopping by!