Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, September 19, 2019

DNA, Genealogy, and Political Entities

One of the most visible and recognized results of taking a genealogical DNA test is the "Ethnicity Estimate." These ethnicity results are widely promoted by the various genealogical DNA testing companies as a benefit of taking their DNA tests. For some of those who take the tests, the results are surprising. To those of us who have been doing genealogical research for years, the results can also be surprising but in a different way. 

One of the most ways of reporting the results of a genealogical DNA test is to give a list of countries such as the one shown above in these results from Interestingly, the method of reporting uses currently established political entities for the percentages rather than anything that can remotely be classified as ethnicity. In the example above from my own test, I am shown to have 10% of my "ethnicity" from Norway and another 10% from Sweden. In all my years of doing genealogical research, I have never found one verified ancestor going back many generations from either country. My Scandinavian ancestors came from Denmark. The map outlines cover only a tiny portion of the map currently part of Denmark. That country is not mentioned.

68% of my ethnicity is identified as "England, Wales & Northwestern Europe." Likewise, the general outline of the space marked on the map for that grouping includes the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and a tiny part of Switzerland. Again referring to my extensive genealogical research, I do find generations of my family from England, Scotland, and Wales who ultimately immigrated to America and ended up in the United States but I have yet to find one ancestor who originated in any of the other countries covered by the map outline. 

Now let's suppose that I was a novice genealogical researcher and I believed the Ethnicity Estimate that I have Norwegian and Swedish ancestry. Is there a possibility that I would waste my time trying to find my nonexistent Swedish and Norwegian ancestors? 

What about this historical fact. Both of these currently existing political entities were part of the Kalmar Union between 1397 and 1523 or for 126 years. Here is a quote from a Wikipedia article entitled, "Kalmar Union."
The Kalmar Union (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish: Kalmarunionen; Latin: Unio Calmariensis) was a personal union in Scandinavia that from 1397 to 1523 joined under a single monarch of the three kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden (then including most of Finland's populated areas), and Norway, together with Norway's overseas dependencies (then including Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and the Northern Isles). The union was not quite continuous; there were several short interruptions. Legally, the countries remained separate sovereign states, but with their domestic and foreign policies being directed by a common monarch.
Obviously, the history of this part of the world is far more complicated than the simplistic political designations we have today. Would it help our reference to Sweden as an ethnic entity to know that during the 17th Century that Sweden took control of the entire Baltic region including the northern part of Germany and the modern Baltic states? The Swedish Empire collapsed when in the 17th Century, Russia took over those parts of Sweden known as the Baltic states.

Later in the history of this region, in the early 19th Century, Sweden lost all claims to areas outside of the Scandinavian Peninsula but in 1814, Sweden gained control of Norway from Denmark and Norway was part of Sweden until 1905. Sweden is currently a member of the European Union.

The history of each of the countries listed as part of my Ethnicity Estimate is equally, if not more, complex. Whatever the definition of "ethnicity" it does not fit comfortably into any of the present or past political boundaries of these and any other country of the world. For example, as a resident of the United States of America, what is my ethnicity? Does the fact that I live in the United States imply any particular ethnic derivation?

Even more importantly, does the information in my "Ethnicity Estimate" help me understand my origin or my "roots?" Especially when I have no demonstrable ancestors from much of the area designated as the countries of my origin? What about the effect of the North Sea Empire? The North Sea Empire refers to the time between 1013 and 1042 when there was a union between the kingdoms of England, Denmark, and sometimes Norway. By the way, the reason why the Shakesperian play, Hamlet, takes place in Denmark is because that is where the original story used by Shakespeare as a basis for the play took place.

What the DNA testing companies are really saying when they give you an estimate that includes a present political entity is that in their database, you have a match with people who they identify as coming from the area included in those present politically define countries. The matches really have nothing to do with ethnicity at all. It would probably be more accurate to call the estimates "Geographical Estimate" rather than use the word "ethnicity" that implies some cultural or social connection to those areas.

For example, I am supposed to be ethnically from England (now commonly called the United Kingdom or the UK) My roots in England in some ancestral lines, go back 400 years. While in other lines, my English ancestors arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s. I have two ancestral lines that came to America by way of immigration to Australia although all of my Australian immigrant families were born in England. What is the ethnicity of my ancestors that have lived in America for 400 years? How long does my family have to live in America before they become Americans?

Seven of my eight great-grandparents were born in the United States. One was born in Denmark. Going back one more generation, seven of my great-great-grandparents were born in the United States, five in Denmark, 1 in Wales, and four in England. Why isn't the United States a place of origin listed in the Ethnicity Estimate even though the map shows my relatives coming from the United States? Doesn't the US have any ethnicity?

Importantly, what is the time period covered by the Ethnicity Estimate? How long do my ancestors have to live in American before becoming ethnically American?

As a final note in this post, couldn't Ancestry have made the same "Ethnicity Estimate" from looking at my family tree without referring at all to a DNA test?


  1. Until DNA testing entities start digging up older and ancient grave sites and DNA testing everyone in them (Which will never happen), we will never have accurate ethnicity results.

    1. I don't agree. I think we can get accurate results with an expanded DNA testing project. If you can get a large enough sample of people for a large number of regions,