Friday, May 23, 2014

"Cocktail Party Conversation"

Last year I volunteered at an Ancestry Day event in San Francisco and earned a free AncestryDNA kit.  It took several months for me to receive my kit because of some unexplained glitches on the Ancestry site that prevented me from ordering (I personally think it's because I was using an American Express card).  Eventually, one of the nice people at Ancestry who kept suggesting other ways I could try to enter my information figured out it would be a lot faster and easier if she just input the information, and voilà!  My kit was ordered.

Of course, when I received the kit, I meant to send it back right away . . . yeah, that didn't happen.  I think it took me about a month or so before I finally had time to read the instructions, register the kit, come up with enough saliva to fill to the line, and send it off.  I can't say I was waiting with bated breath to see my results, but I was curious as to what Ancestry would come up with.

A week ago, I got a message in my inbox:  "Your AncestryDNA results are in!"  So I dutifully clicked the link and went to to learn what discoveries would be revealed.

Well, at least some of it is realistic.  Ancestry says I'm 48% European Jewish — check.  My mother was Jewish and solidly Eastern European as far as I know.  Not as much actual documentation as I'd like (with three family lines in Grodno gubernia, that's pretty much impossible), but very reliable otherwise.

I have much better documentation on my father's side of the family, going back several generations.  He is primarily English Quaker and other English on his mother's side, and German Lutheran on his father's.  Some of the English goes back to Belgium, and some of the German to Switzerland.  The paper trail is very strong, with no evidence of nonpaternity events or undocumented adoptions.  So what does Ancestry say the rest of my background is?

Western Europe 34%
Ireland 12%
Scandinavia 2%
English less than 1%
Caucasus less than 1%
Middle East less than 1%
Italy/Greece less than 1%
Africa, American Indian, Asia, Pacific Islander 0%

The 34% Western European makes sense in context of my father's strong German background, plus the Belgian and Swiss connections.  Some Scandinavian is plausible given our English ancestry, since it is well known that Viking raiders made it to Great Britain.  Anything below 1% can safely be ignored, but even the Caucasus and Middle East could be legitimate with my mother being Jewish.

But less than 1% English?  And 12% Irish??!  Trust me, I've always wanted to be Irish, but it just ain't there.  My mother — remember I said she was Eastern European Jewish? — claimed we were part Irish on her side of the family.  Even though there are Irish Jews, that was wishful thinking on her part.  I have everything on the island of Great Britain from my father's side — English, Scottish (though probably border reivers, otherwise known as horse thieves), Welsh, and even Cornish — but absolutely no Irish.  And Ancestry says I'm 12%?  Just where are they thinking it came from?

I'm actually amused by this, however, not concerned in any way, because I keep in mind what Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, says over and over:  These results are nothing but cocktail party conversation, because the algorithms are built on extrapolation of data that are insufficient to give reliable information.  The companies may never have adequate data to give accurate information.  It's all smoke and mirrors, guys.

But maybe I'll raise a glass to myself next year on St. Patrick's Day anyway.


  1. Any reason to celebrate, huh?

    If they ever do have adequate data to give accurate information, I wonder if you can resubmit your results and have the new algorithms fine-tune your supposed ancestry?

    1. I think they automatically apply the new algorithms to any submissions that are in their databases. If you click on the link from the word "algorithms", it will take you to Judy Russell's recent post discussing that very topic.

      And of course any reason to celebrate is a good one!


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