Thursday, January 16, 2020

Which company is best for DNA testing for Italian Americans?

Testing for Ancestry? 23andMe? Family Tree DNA? Which of these companies—and many others that have joined the DNA testing game—are the best for finding relatives and determining one’s ethnic background, especially for those of Italian heritage? I’m an amateur genealogist and have now been tested by four different companies. Based on my experiences, I have some recommendations.

Ancestry is the best for finding relatives—by far. And, it’s the worst for determining Italian ethnicity—also by far.

It’s great for finding cousins because it has the largest database. Some 15 million people have submitted their genetic samples to the company as of May 2019, and the number nearly doubles each year. It has an option to let you search for people who had DNA tests matching yours by surname and by geographic region. Of course, this only helps if matching people have attached a family tree to their test results, but some have, and it has enabled me to find many previously unknown relatives.

It’s the worst for determining ethnicity for the simple reason that southern Italians and Northern Italians have different DNA patterns, and, in my experience, Ancestry seems to have decided that southern Italians are pure Italians, while northern Italians (and Tuscans) are only Italian to the extent that they have genes in common with southern Italians. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I have friends with Sicilian roots who have tested as 100% Italian, something I previously didn’t think could be possible. This seems especially ironic given that Sicily has been invaded more than 17 times by outside groups.

Sicily native Alfio Di Mauro, science PhD and former researcher at the University of Catania, said, “You’ll never find such a genetically diverse place in Europe as Sicily.” Indigenous residents have had their genes mixed with Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Islamic Arabs, Normans, Borbons, Spaniards, Jews and a host of other seafaring traders and invaders.

I also have Tuscan friends and relatives who can trace their ancestry back 200 years or more who test less than 20% Italian. Ancestry may be quite accurate in other areas, so their analyses are not worthless—my only complaint is with their Italian labeling. Perhaps I wouldn't be so inclined to complain if my ancestors were from the South, but I still think it's a shame that so many northern Italians and Tuscans were being informed that they are more French than Italian.

So what is the most accurate ethnicity service for Italians? This is not an easy question, because as Lynn Serafinn of Trentino Genealogy observes, “no two companies have the same test people in their reference panels, no two companies have the same number of ethnic groups, no two companies label their populations with the same names and no two companies define these populations with the same geographic boundaries.”

I can only speak for the four companies I’ve used, but I have some facts that make my situation worth considering. I’ve spent days in Italian archives researching my Italian ancestry, and I have found birth records for every Italian ancestor on my dad’s side of the family going back to all 16 of my third great grandparents. That takes into account 31 ancestors in total. Each one was born in the same valley in Italy, the Valdinievole (roughly between Lucca and Montecatini), or just a few miles away.

I’ve done the same from my mother’s mother, who came from Holland. All eight of my third great grandparents (and all successive ancestors until my mom) on my grandmother’s side were born in Amsterdam or no more than 10 miles from there. Theoretically, this should make me half Italian, and one quarter Dutch.

My mom’s dad is not so easy to classify, since his ancestors had settled in Ohio and Indiana many centuries before he was born. The best I can determine is that he was about 65% German and 35% British. That would make me about 16% German and 9% British. German ethnicity is a little hard to pin down, because travel and borders between what is now Germany, Switzerland, Holland and even France have varied through the centuries.

I never expected any DNA test to show me as 50% Italian, because Italians have mixed with other countries over the centuries, and the specific genetic segments selected for comparison could also have more of my mom’s genes than my dad’s.

With this in mind, 23andMe comes the closest to replicating my genealogy data. While 30% Italian seems a bit low, I accept it as a reasonable variation, and I’m impressed that the company pinned most of this down to Tuscany (CRI Genetics was the only other company that named Tuscany as a gene source). If you add my researched Dutch and German, the combined 41% comes close to 23andMe’s 46%, and then the British/Scandinavian mixture is fairly close as well (many British people have Scandinavian roots anyway).

Ancestry not only has me low in Italian but much too high in British roots. They have me as more French than Italian, and this result comes out much worse for my brother Roger, whom Ancestry claims is only 4% Italian and 26% French. Meanwhile, sister Linda is also only 4% Italian and 17% French, and some of my cousins (also half Italian by genealogical standards) come out as 0% Italian. In case you are thinking that maybe we had some unknown French ancestor, I have covered this topic in another blog post, and I am certain this is not so. Even if I had a French fourth great grandparent, I would only have inherited 1.56% of French genes from him or her. See also Are new algorithms ignoring northern and central Italians?

Family Tree DNA is in some ways the broadest and least helpful. It’s hard to argue it’s not accurate, since the maps they include for Southeast Europe and West & Central Europe overlap such that both include Tuscany—but really all that it tells me is that I’m mainly from Europe. The one interesting tidbit is that they credit me with being 7% Sephardic (Hispanic) Jew. Large numbers of Jews left Spain for Italy and France when they were forced out in the late 15th century. A substantial admixture between Jewish and Tuscan genes in the 1500s and beyond could be the reason I’m not closer to 50% Italian—and also why Ancestry thinks we have some French genes (which could actually be from Sephardic Jews who settled in France).

CRI Genetics has me too high on German and too low on Italian, but it’s interesting that they give me 7% Spanish and 3% Jewish and French. This would lend credence to the theory that I had Sephardic Jewish ancestors who left Spain and immigrated to Italy and France. However, my Dutch grandmother reportedly also had some Jewish roots, so where my Jewish DNA came from is far from certain.

In summary, one should remember that just because 23andMe most closely matches my known family tree doesnt mean others will find the same level of accuracy. While the actual genetic code is hard science, the interpretations of cultural origins is fraught with assumptions, extrapolations and educated guesses.

I should also note that genealogist Serafinn has extensively researched her father’s northern Italian ancestry and also received analyses from four companies: Ancestry, 23andMe, CRI Genetics and MyHeritageDNA. Of these, MyHeritageDNA—a company I’ve not yet tried—matched  her genealogical research most closely.

Recently one of my Italian America Facebook friends, Jim Pantaleno, posted a simple but brilliant message that is always good to remember: “If the Italian culture is the only one you know because generations of your family trace back to what is now Italy, then you are Italian. Period. Whatever else might be mixed in, like spices in a classic dish, only adds to the flavor.”

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Updates: Both 23andMe and Ancestry have revised their estimations, and they are closer to being accurate when compared to my actual ancestry. 23andMe now lists me as 43% Italian (mostly central). Ancestry upped my Italian percentage from 11 to 16 and called it Northern Italian, a step in the right direction but still far from accurate.


  1. The DNA-ancestry soon only becomes a small part of the genealogical-ancestry and that means you do not share an equal amount of DNA from all ancestors in the Medieval time for example. So just by that "ethnicity predictors" can never be accurate and true to a deep genealogical ancestry unless the ancestry is only from one ethnicity and the predictors have a good reference sampleset of that ethnicity.
    The best reference I found is Bob Jenkins 2014 and Graham Coop 2013: Only up to the 4th ancestor generation (16 ancestors), all are genetic ancestors, after the percentage decreases rapidly to become just over 1% at the 16th generation (65,536 ancestors).
    Ciao :-) Chris R. (

  2. One of the more interesting sites that I have found is "MyTrueAncestry" You can send in your DNA for a free trial and then upgrade to various levels for more in depth results. They match your DNA with ancient samples from archeological digs. I've done several reviews on them and will most likely be doing my next upgrade soon. I've sent in the whole family. What's very interesting is that as my children are adopted we all have vastly different results.

  3. My husband is first generation Scottish, both parents having emigrated with their families to Scotland as children. His father’s family has been in the High ValTaro (due East of Genoa) for over 500 years, and that’s where we live now. His mother was from between Naples and Rome, but I think that family moved around Southern Italy more over the centuries. I’m still working on that ancestry. Ancestry gets the ethnicity spot on, and maybe because he really is “all Italian”, and there is not even the slightest hint of Northern Europe, Great Britain, etc. He has not tested with 23andMe, but has uploaded raw DNA to just about every other site available. Ancestry shows 88% Italian, 8% French and 4% Greek (although we assume that’s just general Mediterranean as we know of no specific Greek heritage). The French is not unexpected, since indeed this part of Italy “was French” for a short time, and family lore seems to indicate some French in his direct family line. We’ve found more new living relatives in Italy through MyHeritage than through Ancestry.

  4. pinpointing heritage by "country" becomes difficult when border villages (like my grandparents' town of Pasjak, Croatia) had at times been classified as Pasjak, Austria then Pasjak, Italy then Pasjak, Yugoslavia, etc. Ancestry smooths this over by the classification "southern european"

  5. Finally -- I find something that really addresses this. I knew Ancestry's Italian estimates couldn't be right. I am a quarter Italian and got only 8% and my other quarter-Italian cousins also got very low amounts. My great-grandparents were from Abruzzi (my great-uncle claimed that Abruzzi had the "purest Italians") so while I knew I may not have been 25% I thought I'd get at least 15-20%.

    My father, who should be closer to 50%, got only 23% and also had France, Greece, Sardinia among other things. I get that I could have inherited less dna than from my paternal grandfather than from other grandparents but my father should have received 50% of his father's genes and I couldn't buy that his Italian would be so low.

    I did some of my Italian family tree. For one branch I could get only as far as second great-grandparents, but I got further with others, up to 5th great-grandparents. All Italian names there. Of course that doesn't mean they'd be 100% Italian, either, but still, I thought if my father truly had that much French and Greek that I'd see a non-Italian name at some point. But nope.

    So thank you for researching and writing this post. I really appreciate this information!

    1. Julia, you might be interested in this post as well:
      I'm happy to hear that you appreciate what I have found and written!

    2. Paul -- thank you for replying -- I am just seeing this now! Thank you for the link to your other post, too. I see you updated it after Ancestry did their most recent updates.

      Speaking of which, I'm still scratching my head. My father lost all his Greece but now I'm 5% (and there is no Greece on my mother's side). And I'm only 4% Southern Italy while my father is at 12%. And he has 22% Northern Italy and I have a whopping ZERO. He also lost France and I gained it -- 2%. I assume you can put Greece/Albania, Italy and France together and assume that's my "Italian" dna, but still that comes to only 11%. I know it's possible but it seems so unlikely.

      And you would think that Ancestry might check parent/child relations. I mean, how do I have 5% Greece/Albania when my parents have none?

      My other ethnicities are all the British Isles (from both parents) as well as Jewish (from my mother). So there's nothing else in my DNA results that I think could be considered part of my Italy background.

      Having such low amounts of Italian has bugged me for so long but after that last update I felt I just had to laugh and realize I can't take it too seriously.

      Thank you for your posts. I really enjoy them.

    3. You sum it all up well in the second to last paragraph! We are really doing this for the fun of it anyway, and I have to remind myself of that as well when I am frustrated with weird results.

    4. I cried when I got my DNA results. Hard. I felt like Ancestry cold heartedly "stole" my beloved Italian Heritage, by not even mentioning it. My Mother and Uncle and both Maternal Grandparents, Lorenzini's and Peretti's (all have passed) came to America from Central Northern Italy. I have been working on my tree for 20+ years and am struggling with my Italian Branch. Mainly, this reply is to thank you for changing my outlook and putting a bandaid on my broken heart. I know of, am proud of and hold dear my Italian blood. That is good enough for me. Thank you also for helping me decide to do another DNA test. I will do 23 and Me when I can afford it.

    5. I'm glad my research was able to comfort you a bit. Both Lorenzini and Paretti are names more commonly found in Northern Italy, so I'm not surprised that Ancestry's (flawed, in my opinion) data base would attribute to you a low percentage of Italian heritage. You likely know this already, but the true surname of the author of Pinocchio is Lorenzini. If your ancestors are from Tuscany, there is a good chance you have a common ancestor, though so far back in history that you will not be able to track it.

  6. You might have some ancient Etruscan,Latin & Lombard DNA in you. The Etruscans were from the Steppe of Central Europe. I think their haplogroup was U and their subclade, U5. The Etruscans and Latins pretty much have the same DNA. The Lombards were not indigenous to Italy as you already know. Match your German subclade with the Lombards and see what you get. Your relatives were from Italy but some of their ancient DNA were not originally from Italy. However, the Etruscans were indigenous to Italy after leaving from the Steppe. Good luck!

    1. Quite likely you are correct in your surmise that I have some ancient Etruscan, Latin & Lombard DNA. All of which brings up the interesting question and dilemma of how long does a civilization need to live in an area to be considered indigenous. If I have Etruscan DNA, does that make me Tuscan or Central European? And at what point does Lombard DNA, mixed with centuries of "indigenous" DNA, become considered just characteristic Northern Italian? These are almost unanswerable questions.

  7. aiuto! My father was a rolling stone in Eastern Sicily. I would like a data base that would include the most people from there to connect with half siblings. Any advise?

  8. Genealogy and Ancestry testing is meant to help uncover family history. It can even tell you where your ancestors came from thousands of years ago. Great blog! This blog very helpful. We are also offering DNA test at Virginia.


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