Ancestry’s 2019 Update: Back on Track Again?

Backontrack

Map showing all the regions available on Ancestry after its 2019 update. For Trans Atlantic Afro-descendants the most impactful changes seem to be that: “Nigeria” has been brought back to life again! But “Ghana” has been derailed. “Mali” is no longer overpowering “Senegal”, but it does include both Sierra Leone and Liberia now! See this link for a complete list of regions and genetic communities. Photo credits for top picture showing a train passing by a railway station in Ghana.

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Starting in October 2019 Ancestry has been rolling out a new update of their Ethnicity Estimates. As I have said before your DNA results are only as good as the next update. So it is best not to get too attached to them 😉 Given scientific advancements and a greater number of relevant reference samples one always hopes that a greater degree of accuracy may be obtained. But naturally no guarantees are given that this will indeed be the case. After all Ancestry’s update in 2018 arguably was a downgrade rather than providing any meaningful improvement! At least when it comes to the African breakdown. In regards to the European, Asian and Amerindian breakdown Ancestry seems to have made steady progress on most fronts. Continued also with this 2019 update.

From my experience the best indication of predictive accuracy is obtained by looking at how Africans themselves are being described when tested by Ancestry. Which is why I have performed a comprehensive survey among 136 African Ancestry testers from all over the continent to establish a more solid basis for judgement. In addition I have also looked into a representative array of 55 updated results from across the Afro-Diaspora. These findings will be described in greater detail further below. The outcomes are mostly positive for Africans themselves but more ambivalent for Afro-descendants. Probably because Ancestry’s algorithm is less adequate when describing the mixed and therefore more complex African lineage of the Afro-Diaspora. My overall verdict about this 2019 update: a step in the right direction but no substantial improvements for the most part. At least not when compared with the original African breakdown from the 2013-2018 version.

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Table 1 (click to enlarge)

Stats Afro

Based on the updated results for 121 African AncestryDNA testers from 30 countries, across the continent. Take notice that the predictive accuracy in most cases is quite solid. Although in a few cases it is still clearly in need of improvement. This goes especially for “Ghana” and “Eastern Bantu”. Follow this link for my spreadsheet containing all the individual results.

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Due to wild fluctuations in just two years many people might experience update fatigue. Some people will even be tempted to bash their DNA test results and admixture analysis in particular. But an overtly dismissive stance will be self-defeating and deprive you of informational value yet to be gained! As I have always argued that regional admixture DOES matter and Ancestry’s Ethnicity Estimates are of course NOT randomly determined.1 Ancestry’s predictions may not be 100% accurate but still in most cases they are reasonably well-aligned with the known backgrounds of my African survey participants. As can be verified from the overview above.

For those perplexed by all the changes do at least make an attempt to inform your self properly. Given how wrong Ancestry got it in 2018 (see this blog series) it is only natural that some grave flaws had to be rectified. Regrettably it seems in some aspects an over-correction did take place. Still depending on your background this update certainly also can be beneficial. Furthermore when considering your African breakdown in a macro-regional framework the changes have actually not been that drastic. And many things more or less remained consistent as I will discuss in section 3 of this blog post.

It has always been my belief that regional estimates require correct interpretation. And each updated version as well as each separate DNA testing company should therefore be judged on its own terms. Then again these admixture results can only take you that far. My advise is to also look into your African DNA matches, as well as historical plausibility and just plain genetic genealogy for greater combined insight. See also these links:

For those seeking deeper understanding of Ancestry’s 2019 update this blog post will attempt to take things further by having a closer look at:

  1. African breakdown for Africans before and after the 2019 update
  2. Ancestry’s Reference Panel & Algorithm
  3. African breakdown for Afro-descendants before and after the 2019 update
  4. Getting back on track again
  5. Screenshots of African updated results
  6. Poll on whether this update has been an improvement or not, please vote!

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Did Ancestry kill their African breakdown? (part 3)

Last month Ancestry finally rolled out the updated version of its Ethnicity Estimates for all its customers. In this three-part blog post I have argued that Ancestry’s pioneering analysis of especially West African DNA has been downgraded rather than upgraded! In the first part I evaluated the accuracy of Ancestry’s new African breakdown by analyzing the before & after results of 130 African customers. I found that in most cases the informational value to be derived from their results is showing a decrease rather than any improvement. For more details see:

In part 2 I had a closer look at the newly added African samples within Ancestry’s Reference Panel as well as its new algorithm. And I found some structural flaws which most likely are responsible for the inflated “Cameroon, Congo & Southern Bantu”, “Benin/Togo” and “Mali” scores showing up for Afro-Diasporans. For more details see:

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The update experience of the person who made this Youtube video is probably quite typical for other African Americans as well. Her main African region before the update was 21% “Nigeria” After the update only 2% remained. Understandably she assumes that Ancestry’s update has lead to greater accuracy. After all Ancestry’s samples have been increased from 3,000 to 16,000, right? However based on my evaluation in this blogseries I’d say it’s very likely that she’s still part of the Naija club!

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The title of this blogseries was sort of meant to be tongue-in-cheek 😉 . However ultimately I do not see much benefit in taking a demoralizing stance. I do still believe that Ancestry offers opportunities for those wanting to learn more about their African ancestry. As always however it is essential to be fully informed about both strengths and weaknesses for each separate aspect of DNA testing. This particular update by Ancestry has arguably been a failed one for people of African descent. But this does not mean that improvement may still be forthcoming, if not on Ancestry than elsewhere! I am specifically referring to admixture analysis a.k.a. ethnicity estimates. As my previous AncestryDNA survey findings have demonstrated that potentially this tool can be very useful in unlocking the secrets of main African regional lineage for Afro-Diasporans.

In this final part of this blog series I will try to outline some promising developments, both on Ancestry and elsewhere, when wanting to Trace African Roots. I will also look into some common reactions & frequently asked questions about this disheartening update for Afro-Diasporans & Africans. Providing my own perspective. My main advice for achieving optimal insight in regards to your African breakdown can be summed up as follows: stick with your previous AncestryDNA results and combine with follow-up research (DNA matches, genealogy, relevant historical context, other types of DNA testing, etc.).

  1. FAQ / Common Reactions
  2. What’s next?

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Did Ancestry kill their African breakdown? (part 2)

Earlier this month Ancestry finally rolled out the updated version of its Ethnicity Estimates for all its customers. Sadly the concerns I raised in July have become reality. Many people are now left confused by their revised African breakdown as reported by AncestryDNA.1 Understandably so given the often drastic and seemingly incoherent changes compared with the previous set-up. In this three-part blog post I will argue that Ancestry’s pioneering analysis of especially West African DNA has been downgraded rather than upgraded! In the first part I evaluated the accuracy of Ancestry’s new African breakdown by analyzing the before & after results of 130 African customers. I found that in most cases the informational value to be derived from their results is showing a decrease rather than any improvement. In the upcoming last part I will discuss FAQ’s about this update as well as look into promising new developments. See also:

 

Table 1 (click to enlarge)

Updated Reference Panel++

Source: Ancestry’s White Paper 2018. Text in red added by myself. Compare also with this overview of Ancestry’s previous Reference Panel. The number of African samples included in Ancestry’s Reference Panel has increased considerably. However take note that this increase of African samples has been disproportionate. Mostly benefiting the “Benin/Togo”, “Mali” and “Cameroon, Congo & Southern Bantu people” regions.

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The title of this blog series was sort of meant to be tongue-in-cheek 😉 as I do believe that Ancestry still offers opportunities for those wanting to learn more about their African lineage. Nonetheless it seems very clear to me that Ancestry’s update may indeed have “killed it“, but only with their new Asian & European breakdowns! However not so with their African breakdown which has taken a big step backwards instead of forwards. At least in most aspects.

In this part 2 I will explore how the changed composition of Ancestry’s Reference Panel as well as Ancestry’s new algorithm may have contributed to this very disappointing outcome. Main topics:

  1. More is not always better: over-sampling for “Cameroon, Congo & Southern Bantu”, “Benin/Togo” and “Mali” causing inflated scores?
  2. What are the ethnic backgrounds of Ancestry’s African samples?
  3. New algorithm has issues with describing mixed/complex lineage?

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Did Ancestry kill their African breakdown? (part 1)

Last week Ancestry finally rolled out the updated version of its Ethnicity Estimates for all its customers.  Sadly the concerns I raised in July have become reality. Many people are now left confused by their revised African breakdown as reported by AncestryDNA.1 Understandably so given the often drastic and seemingly incoherent changes compared with the previous set-up. In this three-part blog post I will argue that Ancestry’s pioneering analysis of especially West African DNA has been downgraded rather than upgraded!

Establishing the accuracy of AncestryDNA’s African breakdown has been the focal point of my AncestryDNA survey which I started five years ago already. From my experience the best indication of such predictive accuracy is obtained by looking at how Africans themselves are being described when tested by Ancestry.2 Which is why I have performed a before & after analysis of 130 AncestryDNA results of African customers from across the continent. Regrettably it turns out that Ancestry’s African breakdown has indeed taken a turn for the worse. In most cases the informational value to be derived from their results is showing a decrease rather than any improvement. See also this overview which contains all their individual results, before and after the update:

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COMPIL1

This is only a small selection but it illustrates some wider patterns I have observed for other Africans as well. It is not only southern Nigerians who are getting a bad deal from this update! Also people of Senegambian/Guinean descent, people with Akan or Kru lineage, Northeast Africans and also northern Nigerians will see drastic changes in their results. But mostly not for the better…

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I am a guy who prefers to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. Which is why I have been surveying AncestryDNA results for so long despite imperfections. After all when Tracing African Roots most people do not have the luxury to be snobbish about admixture analysis. Instead they will want to maximize informational value from any promising source available, again despite shortcomings. Combining research findings in order to achieve complementarity rather than putting all your eggs in just one basket. But right now after this long awaited update my main feeling is that Ancestry has simply broken the glass 😉 . At least in regards to their African “Ethnicity Estimates“. I find it very regrettable to say that currently I do not see much added value in Ancestry’s updated African breakdown and I will not be surveying it any longer. Nonetheless in this three-part blog series I will attempt to point out some redeeming features as well. As I do still also believe that being overly dismissive may deprive you of valuable insights yet to be gained.

Main topics I will cover in this first part:

  1. African breakdown for African AncestryDNA testers
  2. Implications for Afro-Diasporans
  3. Screenshots of updated African AncestryDNA results

Without wanting to give away the cliffhanger ( 😉 ) these will be the topics for part 2 & 3 of this blog series:

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Suggestions for improving the African breakdown on AncestryDNA

In previous blog posts I have demonstrated how the current African breakdown on AncestryDNA can be very insightful to gain a greater understanding of the regional African roots for people across the Afro-Diaspora as well as actual Africans themselves. Despite several shortcomings as well as the continued need for correct interpretation. My survey findings on a group level have still been reasonably in line with either historical plausibility or actual verifiable genealogy.

A new version of AncestryDNA’s Ethnicity Estimates has been provided gradually (and quietly..) to a subset of Ancestry’s customers for at least since April 2018. I do not have all the needed information in place yet to make a proper assessment. Therefore I reserve my final judgment on this intended update for later. However in this blog post I will discuss some suggestions on how to improve on the current African breakdown hopefully ensuring that Ancestry’s update will be a step forward and not a step backwards. Below a short summary of these suggestions. If you continue reading I will provide more details.

  1. Maintain current coherency of African breakdown and improve by creating less overlapping and more predictive regions
  2. Add more historically relevant African samples to Ancestry’s Reference Panel. In particular from Angola, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau/Conakry, Liberia, Madagascar, Mozambique and Sierra Leone.
  3. Create new regions and/or migrations centered around these historically relevant samples.
  4. Bring back the continental breakdown display (subtotals specified for each continent)
  5. Create new African “migrations”, a.k.a. genetic communities. In particular for Nigeria & Ghana, as sufficient customer samples may already exist.
  6. Mention the “aggregate ethnicity estimates” for each migration/genetic community.
  7. Enable the Ethnicity Estimate Comparison feature for all customers and not just USA-based smartphone users. [DONE as of October 2018]
  8. Show ethnicity/admixture of shared DNA segments with your matches.
  9. Avoid misleading labeling of ancestral regions. Providing a false sense of accuracy.

Updated results for a Nigerian (Bini, Itsekiri, Urhobo & Isoko)

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NAIJA updatea

Even when these are only individual results this outcome for an actual Nigerian could possibly imply that also for other people of (southern) Nigerian descent Ancestry’s update may lead to a substantial decrease of “Nigeria” amounts. While the “Benin/Togo” as well as the “Cameroon, Congo, and Southern Bantu Peoples” regional scores may drastically increase. Undoing the imperfect yet still reasonably predictive accuracy of the “Nigeria” region in the current set-up. See also: Nigerian AncestryDNA results.

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Update: Afro-Diasporan AncestryDNA Survey (part 1)

In 2013 AncestryDNA updated their Ethnicity Estimates to include a detailed breakdown of West African DNA. Pioneering when compared with other DNA testing companies. Soon afterwards I started collecting AncestryDNA results in an online spreadsheet in order to conduct a survey of the African regional scores being reported by AncestryDNA. At first only for people of the Afro-Diaspora and later on also among Africans. My main research goal has always been to establish how much the AncestryDNA results on an aggregated group level can already (despite limitations of sample size and other shortcomings) be correlated with whatever is known about the documented regional African roots for each nationality. As well as to improve correct interpretation of personal results.

In May 2016 I published my first summary of my Afro-Diasporan survey findings based on 707 results for 7 nationalities (see this blog post). My survey has been ongoing ever since. Right now an update of AncestryDNA’s Ethnicity Estimates seems even more imminent than it was in 2016 (when it was canceled in the beta phase). So that’s why I will yet again provide a “final” overview of my survey findings 😉 . Mainly based on 1,264 results for people from 8 nationalities. Although the total number of results and nationalities in my survey is even greater.

A major addition is the inclusion of 45 Brazilian results. Their predominant Central African profiles (as measured by both “Southeastern Bantu” and “Cameroon/Congo”) are quite striking when compared with my other sample groups. This outcome reinforces how the African breakdown on AncestryDNA has been reasonably in alignment with historically documented origins of the Afro-Diaspora. Unlike any other DNA testing platform I’m aware of and therefore not to be lightly dismissed despite inherent imperfections.

In the second part of this blogseries I will also provide an overview of the non-African regions (Amerindian, Asian, Pacific etc.) being reported for Afro-Diasporans. As well as a more detailed analysis of their European breakdown.

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This frequency of regions being ranked #1 (regions with the highest amount in the African breakdown) is perhaps the best indicator of which distinct African lineages may have been preserved the most among my sample groups.”

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Chart 1 (click to enlarge)

Afro piechartsa

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