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Where’s My Ethnicity?!: Why an Ethnicity Might Not Show Up in Your DNA (and How to Find Evidence of It Anyway)

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Daniella Levy

Where’s My Ethnicity?!: Why an Ethnicity Might Not Show Up in Your DNA (and How to Find Evidence of It Anyway)

Most users already have some notion of what to expect when they take a MyHeritage DNA test, and for many, at least part of their results confirm what they already knew about their families.

For others, there can be real surprises.

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In some cases, a person may be absolutely 100% certain that they have an ancestor of a certain ethnicity, and be shocked and bewildered to discover that this ethnicity doesn’t show up in their genes at all.

Why would this happen?

There are two main reasons why an expected DNA might not show up in your results:

Blurry borders

MyHeritage calculates Ethnicity Estimates by comparing your DNA to that of the 5000 participants in the Founder Populations project, whose family trees show consistent ancestry from the same region or ethnicity going back many generations.

Historically speaking, ethnic groups came from a specific geographic region and drew from the local gene pool. Before modern times, people didn’t move around as much as we do today, because travel was difficult and dangerous. Most people were born, grew up, had children, and died in the same place as their own parents and grandparents, and the same was true of their children. As this continued for generations, a correlation developed between specific DNA sequences and various geographic locations.

Some ethnicities can be traced back roughly 2000 years, depending how isolated that population was. Over the course of history, borders and populations of countries were constantly changing, especially in regions that saw many wars. For this reason, it is more accurate to categorize ethnic groups by region rather than by country.

Despite the fact that most people stayed put most of their lives, there was a certain level of mobility, and genetic similarity did spread to neighboring areas. That’s why some ethnic regions have overlapping borders. Some ethnic groups have very similar DNA because of geographic proximity, migration patterns, and intercultural relationships.

For that reason, you might receive an ethnicity estimate from a neighboring region rather than the one you were expecting.

Luck of the draw

Each human being receives a random mix of DNA from his or her parents: 50% from the mother, and 50% from the father. Because of the random selection, a person will not necessarily inherit a clean 50% of each of the parents’ ethnicities. For example, if your father is 50% English and 50% Iberian, you might inherit 50% English ethnicity, while your sibling inherits 25% English and 25% Iberian. Both of you have Iberian heritage, but your sibling may have inherited the DNA associated with that ethnicity while you did not.

If the missing ethnicity was from a grandparent, there is an even greater chance that it will be “hidden” in a grandchild’s genes.

Where to find your missing ethnicity

Fortunately, MyHeritage provides a very easy way to find evidence of that missing ethnicity.

Hover your cursor over the “DNA” tab in the navigation bar and select “Overview.”

Scroll down to the “Ethnicities” section and check the number of matches for the ethnicity you were expecting to see.

In this example, the user was expecting to have some Scottish ethnicity and was disappointed when her results didn’t show any. But when we look at the number of her DNA matches with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ethnicity, we see that she has almost as many matches with people from that ethnicity as with people who share her Scandinavian ethnicity.

This indicates that she likely has an ancestor who passed down Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ethnicity to many of his or her descendants. She herself may not have inherited those specific genes, but apparently she has almost 8,000 relatives who did!

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