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How to Understand Your FTDNA Ethnicity Results

If you just got your results back from your Family Tree DNA Family Finder test, you might be wondering how to understand your FTDNA ethnicity results.  Ethnicity estimates are often the cause of skepticism and confusion, and if this is how you are feeling, know that you are not alone.  In this post, I will shed some light on how FTDNA can tell where your DNA is from, and how to understand your myOrigins unique results.

How to Understand Your FTDNA Ethnicity Results

Once you log in to FTDNA and click on the “myOrigins” tab, you will be shown your ethnicity results.  The information that you see on the first screen is the overview of your ethnicity results, but you can also click on “Show All” in order to view all of the regions that your DNA was tested for, and whether or not you show any percentages (even a low percentage) for any of those areas.  The percentages that are shown are basically telling you how similar your DNA is to the genetic profile of the reference panel that FTDNA has compiled for that particular region.  (See the last section of this post to read a little bit more about how FTDNA determines your ethnicity)

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Why do my myOrigins results look different than my family tree?

Your myOrigins results are only an estimate.  Additionally, you should keep in mind that the genetic profile of one country will have similarities to the genetic profile of neighboring countries or regions.  For example, people in Germany generally show Eastern European DNA, and it is common for people who live in Eastern European countries that border Germany to show Western European DNA (which is generally how German DNA is displayed on these ethnicity estimates).

A final reason why our ethnicity results can display an unexpected ethnicity is because our family trees are very rarely “complete” and our ancestors were much more mobile than we might imagine.  Despite the difficulty of traveling over long distances, our ancestors did exactly that.  For example, people with ancestors from the England are often surprised to find Scandinavian, Iberian Peninsula, and Western European DNA was passed down from those British ancestors.

How is ethnicity inherited, anyway?

One thing to keep in mind when you are examining your ethnicity results and comparing it with what you know about where your family came from is the way in which ethnicity is inherited.  We all inherit 50% of our DNA from each parent, which means we are inheriting about 25% of our DNA from each grandparent.  As the generations pass, we will share less and less DNA (and thus, ethnicity) with our ancestors.

We can’t share DNA with all of our ancestors – our genome just isn’t long enough to hold DNA from thousands upon thousands of people.   It would certainly be possible to have inherited no DNA from a great-great-great grandparent, for example.  This means that with the passing of every generation, some DNA is just “lost” or “washed out”.  We will share DNA with many of our ancestors, however, and that DNA that we did inherit is what is used to determine our ethnicity estimate.

A good way to look at your ethnicity estimate?  It’s like a snapshot, as opposed to a 200-page doctoral thesis, of our unique ethnicity.

Did I inherit my DNA from one individual ancestor?

It’s always hard to say whether or not your ethnicity came from one individual ancestor, or is a compiled amount inherited from ancestors on both sides, or even multiple lines of your family.  It doesn’t matter how high or low your percentages are, you still could have inherited your ethnicity from more than one direct ancestor.

Just as an example, my grandmother has about 15% Iberian Peninsula DNA (she tested on Ancestry).  This 15% is high enough that I immediately thought that she might have a 100% Iberian grandparent, and this would have been a huge surprised to our family.  The rest of the facts told a different story, however.  Her family tree is extremely well-researched, and she has verified DNA connections on every line of her family, eliminating the possibility of a surprise grandparent (or even great-grandparent) on any line of her family.  All of her ancestors going back at least 7-9 generations on each line show roots going back to the British Isles.  The only logical conclusion is that she inherited Iberian DNA from many different ancestors, leading to her 15% total Iberian.  (Read here about Colonial roots and Iberian DNA)

In my own ethnicity estimate, I have more than 45% Europe East DNA on my Family Tree DNA ethnicity estimate.  If I didn’t know my ancestry, I could immediately assume that one of my parents was 100% Eastern European.  In reality, I know that my mother has Eastern European on both sides of her family, and my dad has Eastern European on one side.  This means that I inherited smaller amounts from all of those lines, and it adds up to a whopping (and slightly misleading) 45% Europe East.

Sometimes, a particular ethnicity is indicative of a recent ancestor from that particular region, however.  For example, my husband is from Mexico.  If my child does a DNA test, they will likely show about 45% “New World” (Native American shows up under this category on FTDNA).  This is the same percentage as my Europe East (45%), but in contrast to my ethnicity, my child’s ethnicity will have been inherited from one ancestor (their father, my husband).

This leads me to my final comment on understanding ethnicity.

Is there a way to tell if my FTDNA ethnicity is from one recent ancestor, or many more distant ancestors?

The key to understanding whether your Family Tree DNA ethnicity estimate is displaying an ethnicity from a recent ancestor or several more distant ancestors, or even one distant ancestor, is found within your DNA matches.  If you have lots of relatively close (2nd-4th cousin or closer) on Family Tree DNA that appear to be of the ethnicity that you are curious about, then you just might have inherited your ethnicity from a recent ancestor, or a few recent ancestors (as in my case).

If you find no evidence of the ethnicity that you are wondering about on your 2nd-4th cousin matches, then this might mean that your ethnicity comes from an ancestor, or ancestors, much further back and you will have to do extensive research of your family tree in order to determine exactly how that ethnicity might have gotten introduced to your direct lines.

For certain ethnicities, there is always the big possibility that your closer DNA relatives have not DNA tested.  Maybe most of your 2nd-4th cousins on that line don’t live in a country where DNA testing is popular, affordable, or available.  Keep this in mind when you are looking through your matches.

As always, the best way to figure out where your ethnicities came from is to build a solid family tree, using your DNA matches as supporting evidence for your research.

How exactly does FTDNA tell your DNA ethnicity?

Family Tree DNA has collected around 3,000 DNA samples, through various DNA projects, from people all around the world who have verified ancestry going back several generations in their region.  According to their whitepaper, their samples are from people in more than 56 regions, and in order to make their reference panel, they eliminated “outliers”, compared the samples to those of respected research projects, and developed what can be described as a “model” of what DNA from each region looks like.   Your DNA is then analyzed against the reference panel models in order to determine where your DNA came from, geographically speaking.

Is the FTDNA ethnicity estimate accurate?

The ethnicity estimate is fairly accurate.  As with all ethnicity estimates, the output is as only good or accurate as the input.  The FTDNA reference panel contains samples from people who have deep ancestry in the following regions:

Source: Family Tree DNA, myOrigins Methodology Whitepaper, published 2014

As you can see from the countries and regions above, there are many areas that are not represented.  Many people who live in the regions/countries above have a similar DNA ethnicity profile when compared to nearby regions, so that’s why your results should look relatively accurate.  With that said, there are many parts of the world that are very underrepresented.  I’m sure that Family Tree is constantly working to improve their reference panel and add more regions to the ethnicity report.

Note:  The unique reference population that is used for each company is the reason why your results will be slightly different from company to company, if you have tested your DNA in more than one place.


I hope that this post helped you understand a little bit more about your ethnicity results from Family Tree DNA.  If you have any questions about your ethnicity estimate, or anything that you read in this post, please consider leaving a comment below –  I hope to hear from you!

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