Sunday, June 7, 2020

Figuring Out Who We Are — Again

Just when I thought I had it all figured out again, the DNA testing companies—well, at least one right now—are back at revising their ethnicity estimates. Just yesterday, a note from Family Tree DNA popped into my inbox announcing, along with improvements to the "Big Y" test, the tripling of their reference populations used for ethnicity estimates on their autosomal tests.

Great. While I have no beef about my own ethnicity report at FTDNA, I have been wondering about the proportion set aside on my husband's results assuring him he was now Italian (or Greek, or something vaguely southeastern European). Granted, while I have the paper trail only back to his roots in the 1850s—he's Irish; give him a break—I was pretty sure that must have been an outlier.

Sometimes, I wish the DNA testing companies didn't put so much of a spotlight on that feature of their product. They know it's a nascent science—and sometimes more "art" than science—but if you ask the average "man on the street," that is what he presumes is the main utility of buying such a test.

I can say that from firsthand experience. When I offered a genetic genealogy class at a local lifelong learning organization, that was the constant question I received from potential students. When I say that DNA testing is a powerful tool for genealogy, the ethnicity report is not the particular component of the package I have in mind.

I have plenty of company with such an opinion. I recently reviewed an old series on ethnicity reports by Jayne Ekins, posted on Diahan Southard's website in 2019. The title to the lead article says it all: "DNA Ethnicity Changes: That's Not What it Said Before!"

Fortunately, the series goes on to explore just what goes into issuing ethnicity estimates, and how the various companies stack up on use of reference populations. Of course, the comparison chart from that post is almost exactly one year old, so the FTDNA email is good news for us, and a report to be added to the numbers showing in that chart.

According to the FTDNA email, the new update will include ninety reference populations, which involved 8,053 individual samples. Of those reference populations, thirty three come from Asia and Oceania, twenty seven from Europe and the Middle East, and twenty one from Africa and the Americas. And while I don't expect any surprises to my own readout—well, maybe a little fine tuning for my husband's "Italian" roots—this should be good news for anyone whose family history includes roots from around the rest of the world.

What it means for those of us who used FTDNA for our autosomal DNA tests is that the numbers will be updated soon—and sooner for those who have recently logged on to their accounts there. The first round of updates will include about 287,000 testers in the coming week, and then the rest will be updated "in waves," with an email sent by the company to alert customers when their update has arrived. Last in the sequence will be those FTDNA customers who haven't logged in for over a year.

My advice: if that's you, go sign in to your account. Now.


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