Before offering health reports and building massive databases of potential genetic matches, consumer DNA testing services were mainly marketed as a way to learn about your ancestors, ethnicity, and genetic underpinnings of traits and features. The technology has since evolved to provide much more information and can help decipher your specific ancestral homelands.

Traditional genealogy is a respected study for a reason - tracking the history of individuals is no simple feat. For as little as $40, you can discover just as much about distant relatives as you would through the building of a records-based family tree.

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How DNA testing calculates your ethnicity

First and foremost, it should be noted that creating an estimate of your ethnicity - directly from your DNA - can be as much an art as it is a science. Each DNA testing service employs different data, techniques, analyses, and genetic markers for assessing your ancestry. 

Attribution of ethnicity is based on modern ethnic groups - your DNA is not compared against ancient, ‘original’ samples. Therefore, the discovery of your exact ancestral homelands can only be as accurate as the records that connect modern ethnicity to the distant past. For most DNA-based ancestry determinations, this is facilitated by the self-reported ethnicities of individuals that make up their reference databases.

For this reason, you’ll likely receive slightly different results from each service. Submitting your raw DNA data to multiple services may help provide a clearer picture of your ethnicity - but this may also open the door to some confusing results. Thankfully, DNA testing services are continually updating their techniques and databases. Each advance in genetic genealogy and every customer who provides information on their ethnicity helps with this. 

Be sure to check your results every so often; if you’ve already had your DNA tested, try checking to see if your analysis has changed!

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Estimating ethnicity with ethnic databases

An excellent example of a genetic ethnic group concerns the Ashkenazi Jewish (AJ). The Ashkenazim has a well-documented homeland that ranges between modern-day France and Russia. This group also has strong cultural ties to their homelands.

Many families have maintained records that can trace their ancestors back thousands of years. In this example, DNA samples from a large group of self-reported Ashkenazi Jewish people would comprise the “AJ Reference Database.”

Unfortunately, this is effectively a best-case scenario, along with other ethnic groups with strong cultural elements. The only difference between AJ and ‘vaguely Eastern European’ is the ability for modern individuals to self-report on their ethnic history. Other factors that may not even be immediately apparent or even verifiable complicate this further. A database comprised of AJ Americans may have significant differences when compared to a database populated by AJ Ukrainians.

This problem is more evident in certain groups, but must be considered as influencing any DNA test for ancestry. For individuals with Asian heritage, it has prompted the creation of specific DNA testing services. While 23andMe may suggest an ‘East Asian’ descent, Asia-specific tests can narrow it down to the likes of particular countries or regions. 

Ultimately, US and Europe-based tests will usually provide more reliable and discrete information for those with generally European-derived genes. Some DNA tests - like LivingDNA - even boast the capacity to pinpoint specific regions within the UK and other countries. As expected, these results should be taken with a grain of salt for all the reasons mentioned above.

The power of relatives and close genetic matches

When it comes to genetic testing for ethnicity, it’s as simple as comparing your DNA to the DNA of different ethnic groups until you find one that matches. If there’s no obvious winner, then you break it down by which groups share the most similarities. This is usually represented by percentages of your ‘genetic makeup.’ In reality, it’s just an indication of how well your DNA matches particular groups.

What if we skipped the guesswork and estimation, and just worked backward? Instead of comparing your DNA to see how much it matches other ethnicities, it’s a lot more reliable and accurate to see how much your DNA matches other people. If you’re lucky enough to find some genetic matches, you can ask them about their ethnicity and history! Genetic matches - actual connections with relatives - are the best way to investigate the ‘self-reports’ that power ancestry estimates.

Genetic matches can educate you on your ethnicity and cultural heritage. They can also often offer a lot more. From stories of long-lost family members to a copy of a great-grandmother’s recipe - these are insights that a simple scan of your DNA can’t provide. On top of that, you may be able to gain access to actual historical records or even family trees. Both of these are indispensable for rigorous genealogical research.

To that end, the best DNA tests for ethnicity aren’t necessarily the services with the best algorithms or analysis. For a truly in-depth exploration of your ethnic history, increasing your chances of a match through a massive database - the most extensive being Ancestry - is often the best approach.

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A DNA test can help you find out where you’re from

A DNA test can help you find out where you’re from and may go much farther than that if you’re lucky. The estimates of ethnicity are just that - estimates - and usually rely on nothing more than guesses, albeit highly educated. In light of this new technology, it seems that old-fashioned research and human connection may still be the most effective and reliable way to learn more about the history of your ancestors.

Joel is a writer with a passion for the science of DNA and the power of its manipulation.

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