Sunday, October 14, 2018

Are new Ancestry.com algorithms ignoring northern and central Italians?

What is wrong with Ancestry.com’s new algorithm for determining a person’s Italian ethnicity?  The company offers few explanations as to how data is compiled and decisions are made. However, it seems that people who live in central and northern Italy are now barely considered of Italian origin, while those from the south are regarded as more Italian than they were previously.


My dad was born to Italian parents from Tuscany, so I’ve always loosely considered myself half Italian. When I first had my DNA tested in December of 2016, my results showed 27% “Italy/Greece.” In 2017, Ancestry changed the Italy/Greece designation to Southern European, and my percentage was unchanged. I had no problem with this, since I understand that people who live in Italy share DNA with people from many other countries, and probably no Italian citizen would test at 100% Italian.


But in September of 2018, I received notice that Ancestry had updated and improved its algorithms, supposedly to make its designations more precise, but as far as Italian ethnicity is concerned, the effort is problematic.


My ethnicity has changed from 27% Southern European (SE) to 16% Italian and 15% French. My brother has been changed from 37% SE to 5% Italian and 27% French, and my sister from 31% SE to 9% Italian and 12% French. One of my cousins changed from 40% SE to 0% Italian and 45% French.


OK, I’m sure you are thinking that since Italy is a melting pot of ethnicities, I’m just unaware that my grandparents or other ancestors immigrated relatively recently from France to Tuscany. I would probably have accepted this hypothesis—if I hadn’t done the genealogical research to know that this is untrue. I’ve spent many weeks in city halls and parish archives in Tuscany developing a paper trail of my genealogy. I’ve traced my grandfather Michele Spadoni’s line back to the mid 1400s, and the Spadoni family never moved more than 15 miles from Stignano, a tiny city in Pistoia. Every single marriage was to a local family with deep roots in the same small area.


On grandmother Anita Seghieri’s side, the family has lived in the same rural community of San Salvatore (a suburb of Montecarlo and about five miles from Stignano) since the 1200s. Once again, every marriage I’ve found has been to a local person, judging from the familiar surnames that date back hundreds of years in the neighborhood.


I’m fully aware people grab different sections of DNA from their parents and that siblings will always have different results. I know that borders change, and that Italy has been invaded dozens of times in the last millennium (I’ve even written articles on this: How Italian is the average Italian).


But the borders of Tuscany have not changed significantly, and most of the invasions left our little neck of Tuscany untouched. We are not near the sea, nor near a large city or a major trade route. Quite likely, most of my Tuscan ancestors have been in the same area since the time of Christ, and some even before that. After all, the name Tuscany is derived from Etruscan, a culture that flourished there from 700-100 BC. Sergio Nelli, noted Tuscan historian and author, and my next-door neighbor in Montecarlo, has traced his family line back one generation at a time to the year 300. His earliest known ancestor is from Tuscany.


One could point out that Napoleon successfully invaded Tuscany and gave his sister Elisa the title of grand duchess of Tuscany from 1809 to 1814. Could it be that my more recent ancestors married some of the French nobility that moved down to run the government? This is unlikely, given that my ancestors, all farmers, were relatively poor and would not have intermixed with wealthy French rulers. Indeed, during the short period of French domination, records show that my ancestors continued to marry people with names common to their region.


And consider for a moment that even if one of my great great grandfathers had married a French woman during the time of Napoleon’s rule, my generation would receive only 6% of those French genes. For me and my siblings and cousins to be from 12-45% French (and only from 0-16% Italian) would mean that most of the people living in Tuscany are actually more French than Italian, and I can’t buy that. While I have no doubt that some people of French descent have settled in Tuscany, surely the native Tuscans would vastly outnumber the French.


I find it more likely that Ancestry’s confusion between French and Tuscan genes is the result of vast numbers of impoverished Tuscans moving to France in the 1800s and early 1900s. World Population Review states: “At the end of the 19th century, Italians and Greeks began immigrating to Marseille, with about 40% of the city’s population being Italian by the 1950s.” With that in mind, it is no surprise that our family’s genetic makeup is similar that of people currently living in France, but that doesn’t mean that we are actually of French origin.


These southern areas were also once
part of Magna Grecia.
While I can only speak knowledgeably of my own family’s heritage, I belong to several Facebook genealogy interest groups for Italians, and there has been much discussion on the new Ancestry designations. Descendants from the southern area once called the Two Kingdoms of Sicily (Abruzzo, Molise, Campagnia, Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily) in general now are designated as 70-90% Italian. Inhabitants of central and north regions often test less than 30% Italian. Many of the members of the group Northern Italian Genealogy are irate concerning the changes in Ancestry’s algorithm. Here are just a few sample quotes (names are not used for privacy reasons):

Ancestry.com seems to regard areas in today's Italy that were once considered
Magna Grecia to be more authentically Italian today.
JP: I went from 33% Italian down to 10%. Then the French shot up from 4% to 35%


LS: My updated results were ridiculous. The old DNA report was at least plausible. No idea how they decided I was suddenly 70% Irish when I have traced thousands of my dad’s northern Italian ancestors at least as far back as the 1400s.


RC: My father is Northern Italian and has lots of French, Italian (32%) German and even British. But I have no French, German or British, and I show up as 48% Italian. My kids have no Italian but have French and German. I don’t understand how this is possible. I understand that Italians can have German and French DNA. But how can I have 48% Italian DNA, and my two kids have 0% Italian DNA? I hope Ancestry explains this eventually.


MG: My mother (with 2 Northern Italian grandparents) is showing 34% France (new to her results) and only 4% Italy. My results now show 0% Italy.


ES: My grandmother was born in Italy to a northern Italian mother and a Sicilian father. I was previously showing 11% Italian DNA and I am down to nothing. My mom is at 37% Italian still and my uncle is at 35%. So, somehow I inherited none of this Italian DNA? I guess it is possible, but something is not right.


AD:  I always thought my Italian was too high (it was 33% and I “should be” 25%) but now they say I’m 0%.


JF: I went from 38% Italian to 1%. My maternal grandparents are from Northern Italy and my ancestors were there for generations.


A major reason for the confusion is that Ancestry.com’s DNA testing is currently not available to people living in Italy and France, so the company’s database is relatively limited. The other half of the issue is that Ancestry seems to have designated people of Greek and Southern Italian origin more Italian than northern people. I have no problem accepting that the DNA of Southern Italians and Northern Italians differs. But both areas had indigenous prehistoric civilizations. Both areas suffered numerous invasions. So how did Ancestry arrive at the decision to consider one area very Italian and the other not so much? Most likely, the situation will be resolved in the future, when the database increases and the algorithms are refined enough to divide the ethnicity designations into North and South (and maybe even Central) Italy. Until that happens, many of us from the center and north are going to be unhappy with our results.


2 comments:

  1. My Sant'Angelo dei Lombardi, Avellino, Campania, Italy estimates are disappointingly low since the ethnicity estimate was changed on Sept. 12, 2018. My Italian grandfather's parents were both born in Sant'Angelo. My paper trail proves all of my 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, most of my 5th, and 3 couples of my 6th Italian great grandparents, all were from Sant'Angelo dei Lombardi.
    Also, my DNA relative lists, which are filled with Sant'Angelo dei Lombardi relatives, support my proven Sant'Angelo heritage.
    Ancestry needs to take a second look at the ethnicity estimates for Italy. In my case, they are inaccurate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed! I am looking forward to the day when they will be able to come closer to where in Italy a person's DNA is from.

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