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 Ancestry.com 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 doesn’t 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.