Have you heard the news? Elizabeth Warren had her DNA examined by an expert, and guess what? Senator Warren does, in fact, have Native American DNA. It has been, and likely will continue to be, a contentious subject among both her followers and supporters. In this post, I’ll explain her results and talk about how distant – or not – her ancestor might be.
Personally, I was very surprised to learn that Senator Warren had had her DNA analyzed, since it is very possible to have an ancestor from a particular region and show no DNA from that ancestor. In fact, it’s very possible to share no DNA with a great-great-great-great grandparent. The further back an ancestor is, the less likely that we share DNA with them. I was so sure that she wouldn’t ever have her genome sequenced, that I even wrote a post about whether or not a DNA test would show her indigenous American ancestry.
Nevertheless, she did have her DNA examined, and she does indeed have Native American ancestry. I’m happy that she did it because now we have an interesting topic of conversation which can hopefully bring more understanding to DNA testing and the way that DNA is inherited.
What did Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test show?
Using advanced, peer-reviewed, technology accepted as the industry standard, the experts who analyzed Elizabeth Warren’s DNA were able to determine the following:
- With 99% confidence, at least 95% of Elizabeth Warren’s “high confidence” DNA segments have European origin
- With 99% confidence, five of Elizabeth Warren’s “high confidence” DNA segments have Native American origin
You might be curious about the term “high confidence” as it relates to these particular DNA results. When geneticists design an algorithm to determine someone’s ethnicity (or ethnicities), they are sure to build in a mechanism for determining how confident they can be in the results. A “high confidence” result means that strong evidence supports those particular DNA segments as matching the stated ethnicity region.
The report by Dr. Carlos Bustamante, Professor of Biomedical Data Science and Genetics at Stanford University, also points out some important observations made during the analysis:
- Elizabeth Warren has 12 times more Native American DNA than the average person with ancestry from Great Britain, and 10 times more Native American DNA than the average sample from people from Utah
- There were a total of 366 centimorgans of DNA segments that were not high-confidence segments (i.e. they didn’t match any particular region with high confidence)
Notably, all of the analysis was done on Senator Warren’s DNA under anonymity, meaning that the people who were analyzing the DNA did not know who the DNA sample belonged to.
How much Native American DNA does Elizabeth Warren actually have?
Those of you who are familiar with DNA testing might be interested to know exactly how much of Elizabeth Warren’s DNA matched Native American reference panels. The total number of centimorgans of her Native American DNA segments 25.6 centimorgans. Most of the segments were very small (Dr. Bustamante’s report says that the average length is 5.8), but there was one fairly long segment measuring 13.4 centimorgans.
Is it really possible to identify a Native American DNA segment?
You might be surprised to know that it is actually very possible to identify the geographic origins of a particular DNA segment. It’s a very complicated science, but I’ll explain the basics behind the science:
- DNA samples are collected from people who are able to prove “deep” ancestry (generally a couple of hundred of years of ancestry) in a particular region
- Once samples are collected from people all over the world, scientists are able to create “reference panels” for various ethnicity regions using these DNA samples
- Your DNA (or my DNA, or Elizabeth Warren’s DNA) is then compared carefully with these reference panels in order to determine which DNA segments show ancestry from which region.
People who take commercially available DNA tests (like Ancestry DNA or 23 and Me) will then receive their ethnicity estimate, or ancestry composition. If you’ve never done a test like this, you might have seen a pie chart that a family member or friend share with you, but most of the time the results are displayed as a list of percentages matching various “ethnicity” regions. Most of the time, people who take these tests are interested in family tree research, or at least in understanding where their ancestors might have lived during the past few hundred years.
It is important to note that Elizabeth Warren’s DNA was analyzed in a similar way, but with extra scrutiny, as I will address in the next section. I suppose it was important to her to have accurate results – understandable, for obvious reasons.
How accurate are Elizabeth Warren’s DNA results?
I’ve been writing about DNA and genealogy for a few years now, and I have extensive experience in analyzing people’s DNA results, as well as in family tree research. Generally speaking, I have found ethnicity estimates to be a fairly accurate representation of someone’s relatively recent family history.
The methods used to determine Elizabeth Warren’s Native American DNA segments that Dr. Bustamante describes in his report go above and beyond the type of analysis that we generally see in this community, and would be considered by most objective experts to be above reproach. For example, Senator Warren’s DNA was compared with reference samples that have been completely sequenced, something that is generally not done in the commercial DNA testing for ancestry field.
How far back might Senator Warren’s Native American ancestor be?
It’s impossible to say with 100% confidence exactly how far back in Elizabeth Warren’s family tree her Native American ancestor might be. Experts in DNA and genealogy use the total amount of DNA segments that match a particular region (and thus, a particular ancestor), along with the size of the longest DNA segment that matches that region in order to estimate how far back in a family tree one should look to find that ancestor.
Keeping in mind a total of 25.6 centimorgans of Native American DNA with the longest segment being just larger than 13 centimorgans, Dr. Bustamante and his team estimate that her Native American ancestor could have been as recent as six generations back in her tree, and as far back as ten generations.
In other words, statistically speaking, her Native American ancestor could be as close as a great-great-great-great grandparent. Or as distant as a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparent. It would seem most probable that the ancestor lies somewhere between the beginning and end of that range, but because Elizabeth Warren grew up knowing about her Native American roots, it does lead one to suppose that it might be more recent than distant.
Does having Native American DNA make you Native American?
A discussion of Elizabeth Warren’s DNA results is not complete without mentioning that simply finding out that you have Native American DNA does not make you automatically Native American. People can’t use their DNA results to join a particular tribe, of course. Most people probably won’t claim to “be Native American” if their DNA results display 1% from this region, since most people likely know whether or not they identify culturally as Native American before they take a DNA test.
With that said, DNA testing can be an important aspect of learning about our unique family history, and if learning about a particular Native American community and understanding customs and culture is part of that for people, who are we to judge?
Do you want to know if you have Native American DNA?
If you are interested in taking a DNA test to learn about your Native American roots, check out my DNA tools page where I have links to my recommended DNA tests, as well as lots of other information.
I hope this post helped you understand a little bit more about Senator Warren’s DNA results, including how far back her Native American ancestor might be in her family tree, as well as how you might be able to go about discovering more of your own heritage.
If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or would like to add your own experience with researching Native American ancestry to the discussion, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.
P.S. I know that Senator Warren is a political figure, but let’s make sure to keep politics out of our discussion and maintain civility in our comments towards each other. Any comments that include racist language, profanity, or that are excessively rude (as per my standards) will be deleted as soon as possible.