DNA Tests for Ethnicity

Updated December 23, 2018

This article was scientifically reviewed by YourDNA

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What Is The Best DNA Test For Ethnicity?

You may have seen friends or family members posting their ethnicity DNA test results online, many time shocked to see that they weren’t exactly what they thought they’d be.

On the other hand, many people are excited to show that their ethnicity DNA tests have matched up what they thought, or the research in their family tree.

What's in this Guide?

Disclaimer: Before You Read

It is important to know that your genes are not your destiny. There are various environmental and genetic factors working together to shape you. No matter your genetic makeup, maintain ideal blood pressure and glucose levels, avoid harmful alcohol intake, exercise regularly, get regular sleep. And for goodness sake, don't smoke.

Genetics is a quickly changing topic.

Does that mean some DNA tests are inaccurate, and that there are better DNA tests that you should be buying? Not necessarily. As DNA becomes more and more popular, more people are taking tests to find out more about their family’s ethnic histories.

And because more people are taking these tests, the accuracy is actually improving, since it gives genetic testing companies bigger DNA databases to analyze and pick apart, categorizing what makes up each ethnic group.

So, how do you pick out the best DNA tests for ethnicity, if you’re especially interested in learning where your ancestors came from? You should know that most popular DNA tests, such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA offer large DNA databases that are constantly being updated and tweaked for giving the best ethnicity results.

But, generally the test you choose depends just on what kind of information you’re looking for, and how you plan to use the test results.

How Does A DNA Test Show Ethnicity? How Is Ancestry Determined With DNA Testing?

Are you wondering how a DNA test can show your ethnicity, or how these tests can determine where your ancestors came from? Here’s how it works, step by step:

  • After purchasing a DNA test (offline or in store), you’ll register your DNA test kit, and prepare a saliva sample (often in the form of a spit collection tube). After that’s done — which is a pretty quick step — you’ll be ready to mail your DNA sample off to the company’s lab.
  • When the genetic testing lab receives your DNA sample, a specialist will digitize your DNA. This allows scientists to view the components of your DNA and pick out traits that make you uniquely you.
  • Next, scientists will look at these genetic codes — what looks like randomized, repeating lines of C, G, T, and A — to pick up on strings of DNA that match up with the DNA that people in other regions may have.
  • By comparing different parts of your DNA that scientists know particular ethnic groups share, DNA kits can determine how similar your DNA is. If it’s very similar, scientists can say that you share some ethnic background with this group. If it’s pretty different, they can move along to a different group to compare your DNA, seeing if there’s a better match.
  • Because humans are very much so blends of all different ethnic groups, it’s likely that the results you receive from the lab present to you several different ethnic groups with which you share some DNA. You should know that the percentages listed are really just estimates, but for some people, the amount of DNA you share with one particular group can be exceptionally high, or very low.

Based off this process, DNA testing companies can determine if your ancestors potentially may have been from some regions — giving you a larger view of the world your ancestors may have lived in. While this is pretty interesting, you should know that DNA testing for ethnicity can be a bit misleading.

That’s because modern DNA tests are done with modern DNA — your DNA is being compared to that of other modern people, who have may have just as much (or more) blended DNA as you.

So, if you take a Jewish DNA test or a Native American DNA test (though, to be clear, many popular DNA tests do not offer these specific options, though some kinds of genetic testing are more tailored to these groups), you’re having scientists compare your DNA to that of other living people who may also be of that same ethnic group.

Still, the results you get from the best DNA tests for ethnicity can be great clues when it comes to learning more about who you are. It’s possible for you to connect with other relatives you didn’t know you had, or to answer the big question about who your ancestors may have been and where they may have come from.

Which DNA Testing Is Best For Ethnicity?

When it comes to picking out the best DNA tests for ethnicity, there’s not cut and dry answer. That’s because each test company has its own private set of DNA data, and uses different algorithms to analyze your DNA.

That doesn’t mean that one company is more accurate than another; instead, it just means that what one test determines to be specific attributes of an ethnic group can be somewhat different than another test company.

That’s why it’s not unusual to see slightly different results for the same person when taking more than one test by a different company. Knowing this, you may be wondering which test is best for you when determining ethnicity. When making a selection, consider these factors:

Does the test have a large DNA pool? Because DNA companies do not share their databases of DNA, it’s important that the company you select has a larger pool of samples. That’s because your DNA is compared against this database, and the better and more diverse the samples, the more accurate your results may be.

Companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA are two commonly chosen genetic testing laboratories that have extensive pools, meaning that these are often good choices when it comes to finding the best DNA tests for ethnicity.

What resources does this test company offer me? Are you only interested in taking a Jewish DNA test to find out more about your ancestor’s history, or are you wanting to also build out a family tree? If genealogical information isn’t necessarily important to you, it’s better to choose a test that explores ethnicity, in comparison to a test that can also be linked to your family tree and help you share research results with other family historians.

DNA tests like Ancestry DNA, and FamilyTreeDNA can offer a wide berth of historical documents that help you take your DNA results and apply them to your family’s story.

Do I only want to know ethnicity information, or do I want to know more? For some people ethnicity is just all they care to know, while others want to know more about what makes them who they are. If you’re also interested in finding out how your genetics impact your health, tests such as 23andMe or MayoClinic’s GeneGuide can might be better options because they can help you hone in on your family’s health history.

That means it can help you identify certain inheritable conditions and traits, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.

Can A DNA Test Determine Which Indian Tribe I May Be From?

Many people claim to have Native American heritage, and want to be able to test for it. But is there a specific Native American DNA test? Not necessarily.

But, many popular DNA test kits that you can purchase online or in stores can still analyze your DNA if you’re trying to determine how much Native American heritage your family may identify with.

When it comes to taking a Native American DNA test, you should know that because the Native community in the United States has been heavily lost and impacted throughout history, DNA can be someone controversial.

That’s because many tribes have become lost to the pages of history books, essentially having their heritage and existence erased — in fact, many tribes are not even legally recognized by the U.S. government. Further, some tribes have looked towards using DNA testing as a standard for tribal enrollment, though without oversight and extensive data regarding the accuracy of DNA tests, this isn’t a highly recommended method.

In fact, some genetic scientists believe that when determining Native American heritage, other methods of DNA can be much more useful — such as DNA fingerprinting — when it comes to determining whether your ancestors were a part of the Native community.

Can DNA Tell The Race Of A Person?

It’s true that DNA tests can give clues as to what ethnic groups your ancestors may have been a part of.

For the most part, ancestry DNA kits will show a blend of different ethnic groups, because most humans have a blend of different genetic information from countless ancestors who belonged to different regions and ethnicities. But what about DNA race tests? It’s important to understand the difference between ethnicity and race, and how it places into ancestry and genealogical DNA testing.

When you hear about race, you think about people of different skin tones and from particular regions. Traditionally, race has referred to a person’s physical characteristics, such as hair and eye color, skin color, bone structure, and other outward features.

This is different than ethnicity, which instead refers to a variety of factors that make up how you identify with a group, such as your nationality, language, traditions, and shared ancestry within a group. Why does it work this way? It’s because DNA tests are able to compare your DNA to that of people who live in other countries and regions to determine just how related you are, and how much DNA you share.

So what does this mean? Are there really such things as DNA race tests? Well, it generally means that any DNA race test or test for ethnicity won’t necessarily express your “race,” but will explain your ethnic background. That’s because DNA can pinpoint generally what kind of traits — such as curly blonde hair and brown eyes — you may have because of your genetics, but it can’t detail for sure.

Instead, DNA tests can look at your shared genetics with people from different regions, and suggest that you share ethnicity — meaning certain traits that groups from certain regions share.

It’s also important to know that just because a DNA test tells you that have differing, non-Native American results after taking a Native American DNA test doesn’t mean that your family history or identity is wrong. In fact, it’s important to celebrate the culture that your family identifies as, even if it differs from what your test says, because that is a major component of your family’s story.

Which Ancestry DNA Test Is Best?

It’s hard to say exactly which ancestry DNA test is the best on the market. There are several major competitors, some of which you may have heard or seen commercials for.

But how do you choose between these different kinds of ancestry DNA tests when there’s only one of you, and multiple tests? If you’re trying to figure out which ancestry DNA test may be the best purchase for you, that gives you the answers you’re looking for, consider these options:

  • Ancestry DNA: This popular DNA test kit is known for having an exceptionally large DNA database, meaning it’s easier to match up with unknown relatives. The large database also makes it a great choice when it comes to determining what ethnic group you may be a part of, since more samples from people of different groups can help tweak the results for better accuracy. Ancestry DNA also can help you compile a family tree with historical documents.
  • FamilyTree DNA: As a family history research company, this testing kit can help you link up with relatives (known and unknown), create a family tree with a large database of historical records and documents, and learn more about your ethnic background.
  • MyHeritage DNA: Similar to many family tree-based research websites, MyHeritage’s DNA kit can help you build out your family tree, explore your family’s history and ethnicity, and link up with family members you may not know you have. It’s also a cost-efficient option that can help you get into DNA research without too much expense.
  • Living DNA: One of the biggest perks of Living DNA is that you can access more tests (such as Y-DNA and mtDNA tests) for a lower cost. While there aren’t necessarily family tree research building tools, you can still learn a lot about your ancestral heritage through this test.

Because there are so many different ancestry DNA tests, it really comes down to what you want to know about yourself and your family heritage. Honing in on what you want to learn can help you pick the best test for you, without spending too much on multiple tests from different companies.

Who Is An Ethnicity DNA Test For?

Anyone can take a DNA test to find out more about their ethnicity, though for some people, these tests can be more beneficial for them than others.

If you’ve always suspected your family was from one ethnic group, or had family stories that seemed far-fetched but still believable, an ethnicity DNA analysis can be helpful at showing you how likely your family history is accurate.

Many people choose to take DNA tests for the ethnicity results specifically, because they either feel that their family just doesn’t belong to a certain ethnic group, or because they think they might, but there’s no historical documentation to help prove that theory.

Many people choose to take a DNA test for ethnicity based on these situations:

You’ve hit a brick wall in your family tree research. Compiling your family tree isn’t easy, and everyone eventually hits a brick wall where they’re out of clues to keep stepping back in time. Some genealogists use DNA to help get over humps, because ethnicity DNA tests can point them in an unexpected direction.

For example, if you are researching your family and they suddenly disappear from historical documents, a DNA test might be able to clue you in on places to start looking — which can be very helpful if you suspected that your family may have made a major move to another region.

You have absolutely no idea where to start. For some people, family tree research doesn’t seem that interesting. But for others, they want to get started but have absolutely no idea what to do.

A DNA test that explores your ethnicity can not only inspire you to start researching your family lineage, it can also help you seek out organizations that specialize in certain kinds of genealogy research based on ethnic groups or regions.

You have conflicting family stories or histories. For some people, family knowledge that has been based down is exceptionally unclear, and murky family lore can make it difficult to know what’s real and what isn’t. If your great aunt has always claimed that you were Jewish, but your family doesn’t practice, taking a Jewish DNA test can help you figure out if she was right, and what that means for your family in terms of celebrating that heritage.

You’re adopted. Many people who are adopted long to know more about themselves, including their family history and ethnic background. For that reason, people who are adopted often opt into taking ethnicity DNA tests to learn more about their cultural heritage; and sometimes, DNA tests can even help them link up with unknown family members.

You’re just curious. Really, if you’re just curious about your ethnic background, there’s nothing wrong with taking an ethnicity DNA test! Many people just want to know more about themselves and their families, and often want to celebrate the ethnic and cultural traditions that their families have long forgotten.

What Are The Different Types OF DNA Testing?

There are three main types of DNA testing: Y-DNA, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and autosomal DNA.

These three kinds are used by genetic scientists to analyze your DNA, and can be used with DNA test kits to determine so much about you, like if you’re related to other people who have submitted DNA samples, what kinds of physical traits you likely have, genetic conditions you may have inherited, and potential health issues you could be at risk for. If you’re wondering how these types of DNA are different, here’s how.

Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) are considered sex-based genetic information. That’s because Y-DNA is passed through the Y chromosome, and mtDNA is passed through the X chromosome.

Y-DNA: Fathers pass on the Y chromosome only to their sons, and this genetic code is helpful for genetic scientists at tracking paternity as well as paternal ancestry. But, you should know that Y-DNA is sex-specific, meaning that only men carry Y-DNA.

So, if you’re a woman and interested in tracing your history through your father’s side specifically, you may need to have your father or another close male relative such as a brother complete the DNA test.

Mitochondrial DNA: Also known as mtDNA, this kind of genetic code is passed from mothers to all of their children through the X chromosome, regardless of gender. Everyone has this kind of DNA, and if you’re interested in learning more about your mom’s side of the family, you can take an mtDNA test to explore this kind of genetic information.

While Y-DNA and mtDNA are passed along from the X and Y chromosomes, the third kind of DNA, autosomal DNA, has nothing to do with this one pair of gender-related chromosomes. When genetic scientists are analyzing your DNA, they’ll also look at this third kind, which comes from your remaining 22 pairs of chromosomes, called autosomes.

This kind of genetic information can provide all kinds of clues about what makes you who you are, such as your ethnic background, genes that impact how your body responds to health conditions and medications, your personal risk factor for disease that are passed along genetically as well as those that you may have heightened chances of developing, and more.

All three of these kinds of DNA are helpful tools that are analyzed when you submit a DNA test. They let genetic scientists determine how you are related to other people with whom you share DNA, and also how you fit in with different groups of people around the world.

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