Which DNA Test Offers the Most Accurate Ethnicity Prediction for German Ancestry?

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article belong to guest writer Andreas West and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of SK Translations. Thanks to Andreas for this well-researched and informative post!

Meet Our guest author Andreas West:

Andreas West is a native German genealogist who has been researching his ancestors for over 25 years, and has used DNA tests for the past eight years. He is the author of the “Your DNA Family” app, which people can use to confirm their family tree or find out who their birth family is. Take a look at the many features of the app here, and be sure to head over to https://yourdna.family/ for a free trial. 

You Have German Ancestry: Which DNA Test Should You Take?

With a number of DNA companies out there – such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, and FamilyTree DNA – how do you know which is the right fit for you and your German ancestry?

In this article, I’ll walk you through my experience with the different DNA tests. As a genealogist with known German heritage, I have experienced a number of complications regarding the accuracy of my DNA results. Given the complex nature of German DNA, this is not surprising – but I hope that my story can help you to find the test that will give you the most accurate DNA results possible. 

As there is so much difficulty in identifying German DNA (see Your DNA Guide’s Diahan Southard’s post on the topic here),  I was curious to see which company’s test gives the most accurate and detailed ethnicity results. Read on to see what I discovered!

First – My Own Genealogical Research

Considering that most of my ancestors (over 80%) originated from what is nowadays Germany, I began my analysis by comparing the current known locations of my ancestors (based on 25+ years of genealogical research) against the ethnicity predictions.

While both my parents have shown traces of Scandinavian DNA, I have yet to find any evidence of it in my genealogical research. To understand this further, I dove into how exactly ethnicities are predicted in the tests. 

Predicting Ethnicities

Prediction of ethnicities are commonly referred to as “Ethnicity Estimates” on your DNA test. With many people turning to DNA testing to find out more about their ancestry and ethnicity, ethnicity predictions are largely based on two main factors:

  1. Samples of data collected from scientific databases (such as the 1000 Genomes Project) and customer data collected from customers who self-reported that all 4 grandparents originated in the same country/region
  2. Clustering of DNA segments inherited from countries or regions based on best fit

There are, however, several problems that exist with these methods:

  1. A lack of diversity in scientific databases, especially on the African and Asian continents (which are only marginally represented).
  2. Possibly ethnicity inaccuracy: For example, even though all four of my grandparents were born in the same town, it does not mean that their ethnicity, and therefore mine, comes from this city or even the same region. I know this from the fact that one of my eight great-grandparents was born in Asiago, Italy and has no German ancestry.
  3. A lack of precision: By putting DNA segments into categories like “European” or “Northern European”, that doesn’t always help identify the country, let alone the region, these ancestors came from.
  4. Recombination events during meiosis: This type of cell division results in a random inheritance pattern for DNA, so siblings can have very different ethnicity predictions, and some ethnicities may not be inherited by one or more siblings.
  5. In terms of self-reporting, non- paternity events (NPEs) can also lead to incorrect results, since the person testing is unaware of the ethnicity of the real birth parent(s). In hospitals, accidents like swapping babies may also have happened.

Despite the fact that the method of comparing ethnicity percentages between DNA-based estimates and genealogical resources isn’t perfect, in the absence of a better method, we will use it as our main quality assessment today in comparing the tests. 

It is also important to keep in mind that DNA testing companies are constantly updating their predictions, so always check back for their new updates and improvements. 

My DNA Test Results

In order to give you an idea of the different tests and what type of results they show, let’s take a close look at my ethnicity results for each company: 

AncestryDNA

2021 result:

23andMe

23andMe offers different confidence intervals (speculative, standard, conservative) decreasing in detail (conservative is the least detailed). This article focuses solely on the speculative confidence level.

2014 result:

Split view between my parents (2014):

2021 result:

Looking at the 5 predicted regions of Germany (2021):

The following two Belgian regions (2021) have been identified:

Chromosome view (2021):

MyHeritage

Ethnicity estimate and genetic groups (2021):

FamilyTreeDNA

My Origin v3 (2021):

Comparison with my father (2021):

Comparison with my mother (2021):

How accurate are these tests, really?

For a fair comparison of the current state of the tests’ accuracy and detail level, we will use the 2021 predictions collected. 

Summary of ethnicity predictions versus genealogical-based ethnicity:

The Comparison

Ancestry DNA

Ancestry DNA offers the greatest breakdown into countries, with six predicted countries listed. The 55% of predicted German ancestry, or rather of Germanic European ancestry, is the second lowest. In the case of Germany and France combined, it increases to 60%.

Since my genealogical research so far shows no evidence of British ethnicity, it could either be an NPE or, more likely, a misinterpretation or an inability to distinguish between Germans and British (due to the Saxon history of the British).

23andMe

At first glance, the prediction of 100% German (French & German) does not seem very detailed. A great deal of 23andMe’s value, however, is in the more detailed DNA-based regions that the company adds. Ancestry DNA and MyHeritage, on the other hand, mainly base their communities (Ancestry) and genetic groups (MH) on submitted family trees.

I only have a small family tree associated with my mother at 23andMe, so it doesn’t have any location information (based on the last update in December of 2020). Most of my German ancestors came from those four regions. The link to the two Belgian regions makes sense through my Calefice ancestors (most likely from Liege).

Currently, 23andMe is the only DNA testing company that offers their customers a chromosome map of their ethnicity prediction. In this way, we can determine exactly where certain ethnicities are present on our chromosomes!

My Heritage

While the 97% figure for North and Western Europe is quite vague, it seems they are focusing more on combining DNA with their large number of family trees on their site. The genetic group of people from Vicenza is correct. However, no DNA percentage is associated with this group or any of the other largely-overlapping genetic groups. This approach, however, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as NPE or incorrectly-researched family trees cannot be used to determine ethnicities.

Family Tree DNA

Even though FTDNA’s new v3 MyOrigins prediction (from a 100% Western & Central Europe prediction in 2014) shows considerable improvement, the percentages are still very far off from both other ethnicity predictions and my own genealogical research. While the 38% for Central Europe is too broad, the 33% for Britain is simply not supported by any genealogical evidence. 18% Scandinavian DNA is also likely too high, as that would mean that two of my eight great-grandparents were from the Scandinavian region (more or less).

ONLY FTDNA AND 23ANDME’S OLDER PREDICTION recognizes Italian heritage 

Only FTDNA recognizes my Italian DNA. It is even relatively close to the expected 12.5%. 23andMe identified my Italian heritage in 2014 and 2017 with 6.9% and 7.0%, but somehow stopped recognizing it in 2020 when they changed their algorithm.

However, FTDNA fails to tell me where my 10% Italian DNA comes from. It doesn’t understand that it’s from my father (whose predicted value of 0% was wrong), and with 0% from my mother, it came out of nowhere!

Verdict and Recommendations

With FTDNA’s predictions looking completely off for a large portion of my DNA – and that Italian DNA coming “out of nowhere”-, I would hesitate to recommend them as the most accurate DNA test. 

While MyHeritage builds on the most detailed number of genetic groups, their pure ethnicity prediction does not give you any hint of potential NPEs or give you an idea of where you should look for those brick walls that you’re surely facing.

23andMe and Ancestry seem to be the best fit for German DNA right now. However, although AncestryDNA provides many details, some of their countries also seem incorrect. 55% of German DNA is too low for me, whereas 15% of Scandinavian DNA is too high.

Therefore, I would recommend 23andMe as the best test for determining where exactly your German ancestors originated. When I compare their regional prediction to my existing genealogical research, it is the only one that is based on DNA and is very accurate. Only they recognized the Belgian DNA lead. Their  DNA tests have also shown the same detailed regional level for African and Asian countries, which is a huge improvement for those of African or Asian heritage.

But whichever test you decide is right for you, I wish you the best of luck with your German research!

Being Genetically German: Understanding the DNA Tests (Guest Post by DNA Expert Diahan Southard)

Good news: It is getting easier to be genetically German.

In 2007, 23andMe released the first commercial DNA test that could report on the origins of our ancestors on both sides of our family. At that time, they could break down your ancestry into just three categories: European, African, and Asian. And we were impressed. We were excited to get our hands on a technology that could see into our past and report information that may not have been previously known.

But now that DNA testing for origin information has become somewhat commonplace, we would scoff at a company who could provide so little information. That’s largely due to the fact that since 2007, our DNA testing companies have been setting aside significant resources towards improving their offering to give us more insight into our origins – and it’s working. 23andMe now boasts 175 population groups, a far cry from their original three. Even Family Tree DNA, who has the fewest population groups of the five major genetic genealogy companies, can break up the world into 24 pieces.

Where Does This Growth Come From?

Most of this growth comes in the form of companies increasing their reference populations. Reference populations are the groups of people the company is comparing you against. For example, when MyHeritage aimed to join the world of DNA testing, they turned to their vast customer base and their family trees and identified what they call their “Founder Populations”. These are individuals who have all four grandparents living in close proximity to each other.

Once identified, the DNA of these people is scanned for the unique DNA code that reflects their places of origin. Other DNA testing companies are following suit, gathering data from their own databases to help build their reference populations. Other strategies are to go out into the world and collect DNA from populations that are currently underrepresented. This has been a strategy of the company LivingDNA , as they have formed partnerships with other groups in order to build better reference populations.

Once a reference population has been selected and the DNA tested, it seems like it would be relatively easy to identify DNA that is specifically German, and then look for that same bit of DNA in anyone who was tested. Unfortunately, the process is much more complicated than that, especially when it comes to German DNA.

Why is German DNA Complicated?

Part of what makes genetically distinguishing a German from a Frenchman or an Englishmen is the simple fact that Germany is a very young distinction, culturally and geographically speaking. The area has long been a crossroads of cultures and people and therefore very difficult to pin down. In fact, out of our five major genetic genealogy testing companies (23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage DNA, and Living DNA) you CAN’T be genetically German at either Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage. So even if you are 100% German, testing at either of these companies will only place you in a broad Northwest European category at best, or assign you to a similar region like Britain, possibly leaving you with the impression that this DNA stuff doesn’t actually work. At the other three companies, the way they are reporting German differs, so let’s explore each one in more detail.

23andMe

The official category at 23andMe is called French and German, so even then, they are hedging their bets. Of this category, 23andMe says, “This dataset includes people of Austrian, French, German, Belgian, Dutch, or Swiss ancestry. At this time, this dataset cannot be broken down further because the people in those regions mixed through history or have shared history, or we might not have had enough data to tell them apart. As we obtain more data, populations will become easier to distinguish, and we will be able to report on more populations in the Ancestry Composition Report.”

Despite this, you can still dig deeper into that category to find that they are attempting to further break down Germany into its 16 administrative regions by telling you which region(s) your DNA most likely fits into. In the image below, you can see that they have placed my mother in the Baden-Wurttemberg and Brandenburg categories. I know from our family history that she did in fact have ancestors in Baden-Wurttemberg. 


23andMe DNA Report

AncestryDNA

While Ancestry does have a specific German category, the real power is not in being assigned to the large region of Germany, but to their Genetic Communities. These communities are not based on reference populations, but on DNA matching. Because of this different technology, these categories are highly accurate. In the image below,  you can see my mother has been placed in the very specific Alsace-Lorraine & North Dakota category, which is exactly where her 3X great grandparents were born and where their descendants emigrated.

Ancestry DNA Report 

It is actually a bit mind-boggling that her DNA can determine something so specific about her ancestry. Remember, membership in this community is entirely depended on her DNA, not on her family history.

AncestryDNA has 12 Genetic Communities representing different migration paths into the United States and other parts of Europe. 

Ancestry DNA Reports

Living DNA

Living DNA currently breaks up England into 21 different categories, and their goal is to do that all over the world. They are neck-deep in their German project, which may not boast as many categories as their western neighbors, but still hopes to have significant improvements over their current offering. They do have a portion of this research almost ready, and I was able to run my mother’s sample through their new German dataset. In the old estimate, they didn’t really have a way to talk about German origins, but with the new data, my mom is 43.6% German, likely nearly spot on to what she should be. 

Living DNA Report

As time moves on and the databases grow, all of our companies will be improving their offerings, allowing us even greater resolution when it comes to our DNA and our origins. But of course, the best way to determine if you are genetically German is just to do genealogy! Finding the paper trail that leads back to your ancestor is still the very best way to explore your German heritage.

Have you had your DNA tested? What percent German are you?

About the Author

Frustrated with your genealogy research? Diahan is the teacher you need. Her 18 years of experience in genetic genealogy shows that after just one class, you will find yourself believing that you can understand this science, and likely will even be excited to go home and try it out. Diahan lectures internationally, owns Your DNA Guide, and writes for Family Tree Magazine and Your Genealogy Today. She has a passion for this work, a love for people, and the best husband ever.

 

 

Facebook @YourDNAGuide

Twitter: @DNAdiahan

Instagram: @diahansouthard