Thursday, April 23, 2020

More evidence that Ancestry.com’s formula for Italian ethnicity is skewed

It’s official. Ancestry.com’s formula for determining Tuscan ethnicity is seriously fouled up—and I now have DNA ethnicity tests and genealogical data I needed to prove it.

I’ve written about this before in Are new Ancestry algorithms ignoring northern and central Italians? But even as I criticized the company, I wondered what would happen if one of my Italian cousins from Tuscany took the test. I and all of my first cousins in America can be considered tainted because each of us has one parent who came from somewhere other than Tuscany. All of our parents who were born to Tuscans Michele Spadoni and Anita Seghieri have passed away, so we can’t test them.

Most of my Italian American cousins come out more French than Italian, which is confusing, since I’ve researched most of Michele’s and Anita’s family lines back to Tuscany from at least the 17th century, and many lines much further—some even to the 1200s. I have found birth records for every Italian ancestor on the Italian side of the family going back to all 16 of my third great grandparents. Each one was born in the same valley in Italy, the Valdinievole (roughly between Lucca and Montecatini), or just a few miles away. All of the surnames are common to our little region of Tuscany. All of my first cousins should be approximately half Italian, but none test more than 11%. One tested 0 percent Italian and 45% French.

Anna Giuntoli Hughes
However, I recently made contact with Annamaria Giuntoli, a second cousin of my dad. She was born in Italy, and her parents were also from families rooted in Tuscany. Names in her family history fill up the Valdinievole regional archives: Giuntoli, Magrini, Grassi, Capocchi, Montanelli, Pinelli, Pieretti, Bellandi, Pucci. Six of those names are also in our direct line of ancestry.

So what does Ancestry.com say about Anna’s ethnicity, which should be close to 100% Tuscan Italian. It says she is 49% Italian and 51% French. The ethnicity estimate becomes even more inaccurate with her son Marco’s test. Anna married a British man, so one would think that Marco would test around 25% Italian and 25% French, right? Nope, his Ancestry.com test says he is 54% British, only 2% Italian and 35% French—indicating that the genes he inherited from Anna were actually much more French than Italian.

Another cousin who should be close to pure Tuscan is Joan (Seghieri) Reiling, born to Dante Marcucci Seghieri and Maria Luisa Togneri. Both surnames have long roots in Tuscany. Joan tests 50% Italian, 44% French and 6% from Greece and Balkans. Her grandson Michael tests as 0% Italian and 10% French.

Still another cousin, now deceased, was born to Gabriella Montanelli of Montecarlo and Giuseppe Ferranti of Villa Basilica, both small towns in the province of Lucca. Her results: 44% French, 54% Italian.

This explains a lot about why the ethnicity results for me and my cousins are so skewed toward French. Somehow, Ancestry.com’s algorithms find Tuscans to be roughly a half-and-half mixture of French and Italian. History does not support this odd admixture. Except for the invasion of the Gauls in the years 200 to 400 BC, inland Tuscany has never received an influx of French immigrants. If anything, the opposite is true, as social scientist Robin Cohen reports: “About 5 million French nationals are of Italian origin, if their parentage is retraced over three generations.” And according to official Eurostat data for 2012, the number of Italian citizens residing in France was 174,000. Wikipedia says of Marseille, France, that “in the first half of the 20th century, up to 40% of the city’s population was of Italian origin.”

Why is this discrepancy important? I find it disturbing that so many Italian Americans with Tuscan roots, most of whom speak proudly of their heritage, are disappointed and shocked to be told they are more French than Italian. No offense meant to our French neighbors, who also have good reason to be proud, but isn’t it better to know the truth of our origins and have our pride placed in the right country?

Another sad result of the problem is that some people now wrongfully suspect their grandparents of infidelity. One of my cousins commented, “My mom and several of her siblings have had their results come back as French, with no trace of Italian. It has us all flummoxed. We we were thinking my grandfather must have had a different father (out of wedlock).

I’ve experienced a lot of pleasure from my hobby of genealogy, and I give credit and high ratings to Ancestry.com for its researching tools. It has been a kick connecting with new relatives that I’ve found through DNA matching. But I sincerely hope the company irons out the problems in its methods of determining Italian heritage.

14 comments:

  1. Thanks for this article, Paul. It's been the same for my family's Ancestry.com tests. We were so confused to be classified as French. Our family hails from the Lucca region, and my 1st cousin, Sandi, sent me here to read your article.

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  2. My 3 x Great-Grandfather was from Tuscany, which means I'm only 3.125% Italian.

    But my test came back with nothing at all from Italy.

    71% England, Wales and North-Western Europe

    24% Ireland and Scotland

    1% other regions.

    I was disappointed not to show any Tuscan heritage (albeit small).

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    1. You might get different results from 23andMe, which actually has a category for Tuscan Italian.

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  3. My gradparents (on my dad's side) were from Sicily yet NO Italian showed up in my DNA test results!! WTH??

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  4. My question would be were the ancestors of all these families all living in Italy 500 years or more prior. My own heritage varies depending on the DNA test. There was a great deal of migration in Italy and this may be the reason why some Tuscans show as french unless of course you know all of your ancestors from the past 1500 years....https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_history_of_Italy

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    1. I've done a lot of research on my ancestors in the parish archives in Pescia and found many ancestors--but obviously not all--back 300-500 years. They all had surnames common to that region, which is a relatively isolated area, not near a port city. I've also studied the history of the area, and see no evidence of much migration. For roughly half of the population to be considered French is totally unbelievable. In fact, I read the link you gave me, which says: "It is generally agreed that the invasions that followed for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire did not significantly alter the local gene pool, because of the relatively small number of Germanics, or other migrants, compared to the large population of what constituted Roman Italy."

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    2. Same here, my ancestors, Filippi & Parisi, go back 800 + years or more, as recorded in church records. Despite the fact that they lived in the remote and isolated high Dolomites, A.com makes me Spanish and French, broadly referencing all of the coast from the Adriatic to the Rock of Gibraltar. I guess they made us sailors not shepherds, haha

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    3. Yes, it would seem that 800 years in the same area should be considered Italian! However, in your case, it is a little ironic that one of the surnames is Parisi, so there should be at least a tiny bit of French. But if a person from France moved to Italy and he and all his ancestors married locally, the French DNA would mathematically be less than 1% within 7 generations.

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  5. Yes, I had the same thing happen to me. My father's side of the family have all been traced back to Italy, but instead of my DNA showing close to 50% Italian, it shows me as 27% Italian and 22% French. Glad to see I'm not the only one!

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  6. Some of my Italian Family came from Provence in the South of France when they fled to Italy during the Spanish Inquisition, this is what I learned about my French influence in my Italian Family.

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  7. On the surface, it sounds reasonable that this would have happened. However, about 14 generations have passed since the Spanish Inquisition. A single ancestor who moved from France to Italy in 1490 would have passed on about .006 percent of his/her dna to you. So you must have had a LOT of ancestors who moved from France to Italy!

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  8. Paul HollingsworthMay 19, 2020 at 3:08 PM

    I took the Ancestry.com DNA test several years ago and it was relatively accurate in mapping with my DNA what I knew to be my family history on both maternal and paternal sides. That included a nexus in Tuscany through my maternal grandparents (Ada Seghieri nee Pantera and Severino Seghieri), both of whom were born in Montecarlo near Lucca. However, in summer 2019 Ancestry sent me an email with "updated" results based on what they said was refined techniques. That wiped out the Italian part of my ancestry and placed it in southwestern France. I wrote for an explanation and was simply informed that this was new and better information. So I took the 23andMe test and it pegged my family tree perfectly, right down to pretty close locations in Tuscany for my mother's side and elsewhere for my father's side. I do not understand the mathematics involved, but I do know that I would not recommend Ancestry based on my experience. (I gave 23andMe tests to many of my relatives and they all came back with very similar results.)

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  9. Paul, I apologize that only today I saw your comment and moved it to public status. But thanks for adding to the evidence that Ancestry needs to re-do their metrics to stop putting those of us with Tuscan blood as having French bloodlines! And you didn't mention that you and I are distant cousins (I'm guessing you knew that?). I'd like to ask you a few questions, but it would be better if we could write by email or Facebook. Can you contact me?

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  10. Hello, I have also had the same issues with Ancestry DNA giving me (originally) only 2% italian dna first, when my grandfather and his family have come from Firenze and villages around Siena traced back to 1400's. As with others it changed last year to no Italian dna and my dna (other than British & Irish...was French and German.
    I found a way to download my raw data to LivingDNA.com.
    I was so happy when my results came back 25.1% Southern Europe - Italian..this was broke down to 22.6% Tuscan and 2.5% Sardinian. :)

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Comments welcome.