Understanding DNA Ethnicity Testing

Ethnicity testing has been a popular feature of autosomal DNA tests. These tests offer a detailed ethnic and geographic breakdown of where your ancestors lived maybe 500 or even a thousand years ago.

Certain groups like Ashkenazi Jews and Native Americans have distinct genetic signatures.

To create this “admixture” report each company uses different population data for reference and follows different processes for reporting a percentage breakdown of your mix. As a result, your ethnicity testing reports will vary from one company to another.

The following DNA tests all provide an ethnicity breakdown in addition to other features:



Family Finder

Living DNA

MyHeritage DNA

NOTE: Siblings who do the same test are likely to see differences in ethnic ancestry. That’s because you each inherited a random mix of DNA from each parent. You may have a lot more or a lot less DNA from a certain ancestor than your siblings.

Ethnicity testing from autosomal DNA is a very new science and the labs have been periodically refining their reports. When that happens again, you will simply see revised results at no additional cost.

These reports may be especially useful for those with an unknown father. Anything in your ethnicity report that does not match your mother’s family background may provide a clue to your father’s ethnicity.

Can DNA Ethnicity Testing Confirm Native American Ancestry?

It seems like nearly every family in America has rumors of Native American ancestors. Autosomal DNA tests can detect Native American ancestry in their ethnicity reports. But you may not see that on your ethnicity testing report for three reasons:

1. It isn’t real. Many stories of a Native American ancestor in the family tree are myths.

2. The Native American ancestor is so far back that you don’t have enough of his or her DNA to be detectable.

3. The Native American ancestor may have had a lot of European ancestors. This is especially true for Eastern tribes, such as Cherokee, which have been mixing with Europeans for 400 years.

These tests will not identify a specific tribe. Any tests that claim to do that are based on tiny samples and should be avoided.

NOTE: Some of the autosomal DNA tests will check enough mitochondrial DNA and (for males) Y-DNA to determine your haplogroup. Certain haplogroups will confirm that your direct maternal or paternal line is Native American.

A DNA test alone does not guarantee automatic membership in a tribe. But if you really do have recent Native American ancestry, some of your DNA matches may already be tribe members with knowledge of where your family fits in.

To learn more about tracing Native American ancestry see this page on the website of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Genetic Communities

AncestryDNA has a feature called Genetic Communities. It combines DNA results with geographic information from your genetic matches to trace relatively recent migrations.

This may place a few specific parts of your family tree into more recent subgroups.  Results vary, but the technology has a sound, published methodology.

Ancient Ancestry

Some of the autosomal DNA tests provide additional information about your deep ancestry from tens of thousands of years ago. Such reports are fascinating. But they have no bearing on genealogy or what most of us think of as ethnic ancestry.

The Family Finder test includes an Ancient Origins report that breaks European ancestry into three groups of ancient people: Hunter-Gatherers, Early Farmers, and Metal Age Invaders.

For each group, they provide overview information and details from specific archeological dig sites.

23andMe includes a report on Neanderthal Ancestry. It shows you how much of your ancestry can be traced back to Neanderthals, an extinct population of ancient humans. It even compares your Neanderthal ancestry to others in the database.


Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing each confirm another type of ancient ancestry—your haplogroup.

A man’s Y-DNA haplogroup locates him on the tree of all human males. A mix of letters and numbers, it tells you where in the world your direct paternal line came from thousands of years ago.

Likewise, the mtDNA haplogroup tells everyone (male or female) where in the world your direct maternal line came from thousands of years ago.

As noted earlier, certain haplogroups will show that your direct maternal or paternal line is Native American.

Haplogroups can provide genealogical clues. If two people have different haplogroups, they cannot share the same direct paternal or maternal line in the era of genealogical record keeping. They can, however, share common ancestors somewhere else in the family tree.

The best company by far for Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing is Family Tree DNA.

NOTE: Paternal and maternal haplogroups use many of the same letters. So always confirm which one you or someone else is referring to.

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