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Kimberly Powell

What Exactly Can DNA Testing Tell You About Your Ancestry?

By November 13, 2008

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Public interest in genetic ancestry analysis as a means of supplementing traditional genealogical research methods has grown dramatically in recent years. The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) estimates that a half-million Americans will purchase a genetic ancestry test this year. But what exactly can this ancestry testing tell us about our race, ethnicity, ancestry and inherited traits? Answering these questions is the focus of the ASHG Ancestry Testing Task Force Committee, which will unveil it's recommendations for ancestry testing in a live Webcast on Thursday, November 13, 2008 from 1:15 - 2:15 p.m. from the annual ASHG Meeting in Philadelphia.

Recommendations for Ancestry Testing by the American Society of Human Genetics: "

  1. Because the science of ancestry determination has limitations, greater efforts are needed on the part of both industry and academia to make the limitations of ancestry estimation clearer to consumers, the scientific community, and the public at large. In turn, the public has the responsibility to avail themselves of information regarding ancestry testing and strive to better understand the implications and limitations of these assessments.
  2. Additional research is required to further understand the extent to which the accuracy of genetic ancestry estimation is influenced by whom we have sampled in existing databases, geographical patterns of human diversity, marker selection and statistical methods.
  3. The complex consequences of ancestry estimation for people, families, and populations need to be assessed and guidelines should be developed to facilitate explanation and/or counseling about ancestry estimation in research, DTC and health care settings.
  4. Scientists inferring genetic ancestry should consult or collaborate with scholars who have expertise in the historical, sociopolitical and cultural contexts needed to inform the processes and outcomes of their research and commercial efforts.
  5. Mechanisms for greater accountability of the DTC ancestry testing industry should be explored.
Implementation of these recommendations is likely to have many benefits, including an improved understanding of human evolution and demographic history (an important story applicable to all humans), more accurate ancestry testing with quantifiable limits, better informed users of ancestry information, and the establishment of a framework for interpreting ancestry information in a culturally appropriate and socially sensitive manner." --See the complete ASHG Ancestry Testing Statement

How do you feel about the various ancestry tests offered by genetic testing companies these days? Have you ever had yourself tested? Did you learn anything useful? Surprising? Personally, as genealogists I feel that most of us use DNA tests as yet another source of evidence to supplement our family history research. But maybe some people do expect a bit too much...

November 13, 2008 at 3:34 pm
(1) Pearl Duncan says:

As an African-American who found ancestors in the Colonial Americas, I did DNA comparisons in 1999 to confirm the descendants of ancestors I identified in Ghana, West Africa. I also found records of Scottish and English ancestors dating as far back as 1726. When I shared the records with a court in Scotland, I’m sure the records for taken seriously and reviewed carefully because I had DNA results confirming the Ghanaian ancestors I’d found in Medieval Africa. The Scottish court, in 2005, granted me the coat of arms of the medieval Scottish ancestors noted in our Colonial American records and in Scottish archival records. I’m sure the DNA results confirming my family’s ancestry gave confidence to the officials who reviewed our records. http://www.clan-duncan.co.uk/duncan-armorial-arms.html. DNA is a useful addition to individuals and groups who do not have traditional genealogical records or who have gaps in their historical records. DNA is also useful for all who do not know their ancient ancestry.

November 15, 2008 at 11:36 pm
(2) Craig Manson says:


Blaine Bettinger has written a reasoned and cogent critique of the ASHG report here. He puts the matter in its proper context.

April 16, 2012 at 12:55 pm
(3) Voice of Reason says:

Ancient Ancestry you say? As an African-American it is important that we learn our “real” history before readily accepting any other means of determining our ancestry.

If there is one culture that has been dismantled from there origin and scattered physically & psychologically that would be what we call African-American.

I wish we all took initiative to learn of our past , because our true history has been cloak from us for some time.

How Ancient is 1726? Genetic engineering is an interesting topic for it determines the activities in the world more than we think. If you ask me the testing facilities available to the public is flawed, that why knowing the history around your ancestry (researching scottish and ghanian relations) can lead you a few steps towards that ancient understanding.

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