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!

A Visit With Grandma is Worth More Than You Think – Here’s Why (Guest Post by India Young)

When’s the last time you called your grandma?

Maya Angelou once said, “The more you know of
your history, the more liberated you are.”

While studying history at the University of Utah about five years ago, I happened upon an article in The New York Times that changed my life. It not only reaffirmed my belief in the value of history, but also redirected my course of study within the field as a whole.

Families may want to create a mission statement similar to the ones many companies use to identify their core values.
The Family Stories That Bind Us, New York Times, 2013

Entitled The Family Stories That Bind Us, this article provides scientific insight on the connection between doing one’s own family history and an increased capacity to develop resiliency in the face of opposition, specifically in the case of adolescent youth. In discussion of a study conducted at Emery University in the United States, this article concludes that:

The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.

Grandma, Grandson, Generations, Love, Hold Tight

What an
insightful discovery! Having grown up in a society bursting at the seems with
childhood mental illnesses such as depression, ADHD, ADD, bipolar disorder, and
anxiety, I can affirm that the cry for psychological stability is literally
everywhere. Perhaps this is one way in which history, and more specifically our
own personal history, can have real, tangible benefits in the lives of everyday
people, children and adults alike.

How This Discovery Opened My Eyes…

After graduation, I began interviewing the elderly in my community. I listened to and recorded their life stories, and then made videos of their stories for their posterity to keep. The results were pretty incredible. My eyes were opened from behind the lens as I left each interview feeling inspired, strengthened and connected to something so much greater than myself. Their grit and tenacity, coupled with a greater perspective of life as a whole, changed me for the better.

It’s Bigger Than Me…

While I’d happily keep doing these 1-on-1 interviews for the rest of my days, I think that this is something bigger than just me. I believe with all my heart that every child, teenager and young adult need to have the experience of sitting with and really listening to someone much older and wiser than them.

I’ve come up with a way to make it easy and fun for young people to do just this; to interview and record their elderly relatives telling stories from their lives. (More on that here if you’re curious..). However, while COVID-19 is still a grave concern right now, I know we can’t physically visit our elderly loved ones in their homes. So! In the interim I’m instead encouraging  *virtual visiting* of the elders in our communities!

My Challenge to You…

This week I challenge you or your kids to do a video-chat with someone in your life who could use a visit today. This could be a grandma, grandpa, a neighbor, or a family friend. Pick up the phone and FaceTime or Skype or Facebook video chat with them and just SEE the magic as they light up at the sight of your face. It will mean the world to them, and here’s the secret, it will mean the world to you, too.

And, if you need a little help to get the conversation rolling and keep it interesting, I wrote an ebook called Grandparent Chats a few months ago when quarantine began. It’s a collection of 10 curated questionnaires with the two-fold goal of:

-lifting the spirits of the elderly by engaging with them on a regular basis, and;

-inspiring youth to see personal value in the lessons our elders have to share.

The questions cover themes like ancestry, career, love & relationships, and spirituality. I’ve included a link to download the first Grandparent Chat for free here, if you’re interested!

In a society so focused on ‘having more’ and ‘being more,’ perhaps one way to thrive today is to better understand how we fit within history as a whole. Maybe one key to knowing how to best move forwards with purpose and confidence is to lean on the lessons of the past to provide guidance and context. I love these words written by historian Frank Harper nearly 9 decades ago in 1936:

While the outside is altered, the heart of life is unaltered.

We are, after all, a sum of many parts, and perhaps so much of that which has come before us actually does reside in who we really are.

Happy chatting!

References:

“The Family Stories That Bind Us.” The New York Times

Hi, I’m India – a new mom, fitness junkie and avid family historian. I believe that history gives us context, and I fear that in the midst of today’s fast paced world, we don’t take the time to appreciate the valuable lessons our elders have to share. My husband and I launched my passion project, Narrativo, in late 2019. We promote bonding between generations while giving families a way to preserve their stories with lifelike quality at a reasonable price. We strive each day to help young people find strength in the stories of the past, feel a sense of belonging in a greater human context, and to develop and intergenerational self. Check us out at www.narrativo.co!

Three Tried and True Ways to Inspire Children to Love Family History (Guest Post by Shenley Puterbaugh)

Getting children excited about family history may sound intimidating, but the benefits they can experience from knowing their family history are worth every effort. Knowing family stories has been proven to result in higher self-esteem, resilience, a sense of place and security, a strong sense of control, lower levels of behavioral problems, and more successful family function (studies done by University of Wisconsin, Princeton University, and Emory University).

But how can we help children experience these benefits? According to Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch, our goal should be to help them “have a small discovery experience that invokes emotion…that’s what is going to spread…Discovery brings the spirit and emotion to it” (Trent Toone, “5 Questions with FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood,” Deseret News, 1 Mar. 2018).

This discovery experience will help inspire children to love family history themselves. So what should you consider when deciding what kind of discovery experience to create for your child or grandchild?

1. Age

Try to remember what it was like to be their age. Make it fun and unique to them. Traveling to cemeteries and churches may not interest young children and may even bore them but a bedtime story would engage them and ingrain the stories of their ancestors into their minds. In contrast, adults may not get as much excitement out of a picture-matching game as they would attending or planning an ancestor night or planning and going on a trip to the homeland of their ancestors.

2. Interests

Do they like acting, drawing, cooking, organizing? Do they find maps interesting or do they enjoy music? Let their interests guide you.

3. Learning Style

We all have different ways that we learn best. The three learning styles are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Consider the individual learning style of your child and choose any idea that will cater to that style. Some children will gravitate toward hands-on games and projects, and others will lean toward reading books about the time period ancestors lived.

Once you have thought about these three key factors, you are ready to choose an idea and inspire! Here are three fun ideas to inspire your children or grandchildren to love family history!

1. Generations Project

Let the child choose an ancestor to connect with. Think together about what you know about him or her. Where did they live? What did they do for a profession or hobby? What skills did they have? What traditions did they have? What did they eat?  

Once you have learned this information about your ancestor, choose a project such as:

  • Learn something or do something that they did such as fishing, using a washboard, knitting, gardening, going to an opera, or having a picnic in the mountains.
  • Visit a place they lived or frequented such as a lake, the ocean, or a park.
  • Do one of their traditions.
  • Make one of their recipes.

Children can consider what their ancestor may have thought during the activity— for example, did they find the activity difficult or relaxing? Was the place beautiful in their eyes? Was the recipe delicious?

2. Create an Ancestor Playlist

Psychologist Jill Suttie said, “Listening to music and singing together has been shown in several studies to directly impact neuro-chemicals in the brain, many of which play a role in closeness and connection… Playing music or singing together may be particularly potent in bringing about social closeness through the release of endorphins” (“How Music Bonds Us Together,” Greater Good Magazine, June 2016).

By listening to music your ancestors listened to and loved, these connections can even cross generations! Make a playlist of songs your ancestors might have enjoyed. You may be able to ask living relatives about the music that their parents and grandparents listened to. They may know specific songs or they may just remember a genre of music.

If there aren’t any living relatives to ask, then you can find out what music was popular during the time period and in the location of your ancestors. After you have the playlist together, listen to it in the car or at home and talk about the ancestors who liked those songs as they come on. No matter what the children think of the music, they will connect with their ancestor in a new way. 

3. Play Games

“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning” (Diane Ackerman). There are so many games you can play to help children connect to their ancestors. Make a trivia game with fun facts about ancestors. This can be done in the form of Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit, and Bingo. You can also make card games with the photos of ancestors and play games such as Go Fish and Memory. Make the difficulty level age appropriate. These games will make learning about ancestors fun and engaging!

For more ideas, visit inspirefamilyhistory.com. Like and follow “inspirefamilyhistory” on Facebook and Instagram for regular ideas and resources.

Shenley was inspired to love family history when her mom told her stories and helped her diagram her family tree when she was a child. For the past 16 years, she has spent many hours researching, interviewing relatives, digging through old boxes and records, and sharing what she has learned with others. While homeschooling their three children, Shenley and her husband, Brett, incorporate family history as much as possible. She has taught family history classes to children, youth, and adults, and strives to inspire her family, friends, and  everyone to love family history. Besides doing family history, Shenley enjoys going to the mountains, playing tennis, baking, reading, and traveling.

3 Reasons Why a Family Tree is Important for Your Children: Guest Post by Suzie Kolber

 

Suzie Kolber created Family Tree Templates to be the complete online resource for “do it yourself” genealogy projects.  The site offers the largest offering of free printable blank family tree charts online. The site is a not for profit website dedicated to offering free resources for those that are trying to trace their family history.

 

Tracing your family’s roots, even just a few generations back, can be a challenging experience. That being said, it’s definitely worth the effort – a family tree can profoundly impact your child’s life for years to come. Here are three reasons to create a family tree for your kids:

  1. It Gives Kids an Interest in World History

For a lot of kids, history is just a boring subject at school. It’s a list of facts about things that happened a long time ago, and kids are all about now and the future. However, when you study your own family history, it helps put things in perspective for your children.

Perhaps you have a great-great-great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War or a great-great-uncle who was a soldier in World War I. Suddenly, these aren’t just stories about people who are long dead. They are stories about your own flesh and blood. The soldiers who marched through intense heat and freezing cold aren’t strangers; they’re family. Learning about American or world history is a lot more fun if you’re involved in some way – and knowing your family tree can help bring history to life. 

  1. It Gives Kids an Interest in Their Own Background

When kids learn about their own family tree, it helps them understand more about who they are. They can see that their red hair and freckles go all the way back to great-great-grandmother Bonnie. Or perhaps your child is the only short person in the family – but so was great-great-great-grandmother Alice. Now they’re no longer alone.

Learning about their family history can help children develop a better sense of who they are and why they look and act the way they do. It also enhances their feeling of stability and security as they see they are part of something bigger than themselves.

  1. It Helps Them Remember People Who are Important to the Family

As children grow up, family members pass away. They may forget what great-aunt Anna looks like or how grandfather Bill laughed. While you can tell stories about family members who died when the kids were young or even before they were born, these stories become more meaningful if they can be placed in correct association.

For example, say your grandfather was one of eight children. Your child may only know or remember two or three of them. Without a family tree to help them keep track of who was who, other people’s names  lose their meaning and place over time. With a family tree, when Grandpa talks about Uncle Phil, your kids will understand exactly who he means and pay more attention to those stories. Instead of just words, they will be able to imagine their granddad as a boy, sitting on Uncle Phil’s lap and listening to his funny jokes.

You don’t have to create an extravagant or complicated family tree for it to be of value to the kids. A simple diagram will work wonders to help them make the right connections. However, the more information you can add (including photos!) will help them remember who this person was and why they are part of the family.