How Often Does Ancestry Update Ethnicity Estimates?

You probably know that Ancestry updates your ethnicity estimates from time to time. But how often does this happen? And what kind of changes do they make to your results?

This article looks at updates in the last few years to predict when the next change will happen in 2021. We’ll also explain why your results keep changing…and why that’s a good thing!

How Often Does Ancestry Update Your Ethnicity Estimates?

Ancestry has updated its ethnicity estimates at least once a year since 2018. Each update may change the regions in your ethnicity percentage breakdown or may change your assigned genetic communities. The updates can take several months to roll out across all Ancestry DNA customers.

Ancestry starts its ethnicity updates by rolling out the changes to a smaller group of customers. This is the beta phase of the updates where the company evaluates the impact of the changes.

The table below is a timeline of the major updates to ethnicity estimates since 2012. Each rollout has either added new or refined ethnicity regions, or additional genetic communities.

However, each update tends to impact Ancestry customers with heritage from specific areas. Your own estimates may not change with every update. The links in the table are to sections of this article which describe the targeted changes.

You can see that the updates have been coming more frequently in recent years. The next section tries to predict what’s coming.

DateAncestry Ethnicity UpdatesMore Details
2012Ethnicity Estimates launched with 22 regionsLink
2013New ethnicity regions including West AfricanLink
2017Beta launch of genetic communitiesLink
2018New ethnicity regionsLink
2019New ethnicity regionsLink
Apr 2020New genetic communitiesLink
Jul 2020New genetic communitiesLink
Oct 2020New ethnicity regionsLink
Feb 2021New genetic communitiesLink

When Is The Next Ancestry DNA Update Of 2021?

Ancestry has occasionally announced upcoming updates at one of the big genealogy conferences. But they usually roll out an update to beta groups without notable publicity. In that case, the word gets out fast on genealogy forums.

I attend the conferences, and I also hang out in the forums! Since the last update of February 2021, I haven’t seen signs that one is brewing. I’m watching out for Ancestry’s next move. This section will be updated the moment I find out when the next update is coming in 2021.

My prediction, based on the pattern of recent years, is that there will be another ethnicity update on or before July 2021.

How Do I know when Ancestry Will Update Ethnicity Estimates?

The company doesn’t publicize the beta phase, but customers are free to discuss their results publicly.

I’m based in Europe, which tends to be one of the last sections of test kits that receive Ancestry’s updates. But I get wind of the upcoming changes from independent Facebook groups that discuss Ancestry and the other big consumer DNA companies.

Some Facebook DNA groups have over 100 thousand members, and at least one of these members will likely be part of the early rollout.

If you’re allergic to Facebook, then you can try other websites, blogs, and forums that keep up with Ancestry updates. For example, I keep an eye on this Irish genealogy news website which collates news of interest to the Irish and their diaspora. I also dip into the genealogy subforum of the biggest general interest message board in Ireland.

There will be similar websites dedicated to other regions and communities that are of interest to you. Some internet searching should throw them up.

Ethnicity Updates In The News

When Ancestry first launched their ethnicity estimates, their reference panels were skewed towards European heritage. Some of their subsequent updates focused on improving and refining African or Asian regions. This garnered a few news articles, but not a whole lot of media attention.

In contrast, more recent updates have made significant changes to European origins. Plenty of Ancestry customers commented on Facebook and Twitter about the big updates in 2019 and 2020. The stories were covered in national news media.

Here’s an example from a national UK newspaper in 2019 and one from Wired in 2020. I go into more details in their dedicated sections.

Why Does My Ethnicity Keep Changing On Ancestry?

The ethnicity estimates include two major components:

  • ethnicity regions and percentages
  • genetic communities

Either may change over time. But why does your Ancestry DNA keep changing?

Of course, your DNA stays the same. What changes is Ancestry’s interpretation of your results.

Growing The Reference Panel, Growing The Regions

Ancestry has a reference panel of DNA samples that it uses to determine your ethnicity regions.

Ideally, the panel would have hundreds of samples for every possible ethnic grouping in the world. In practice, there are as many samples as Ancestry has been able to gather up to that point. I have a detailed account of how they fill the reference panel in our article on interpreting your Ancestry ethnicity results.

I’ll summarize here by saying that it is much easier for Ancestry to assemble DNA samples with a documented European heritage. It takes more effort and money to grow the panel with more diverse samples.

But this growth has been slowly occurring since the original Europe-heavy panel.

The later sections in this article track this growth through the appearance of new genetic communities.

Growing The Genetic Communities

Your genetic communities are based on your Ancestry DNA matches.

So, there’s a good reason why your communities can be refined, or new ones can appear with an update. The Ancestry database is growing all the time!

Statistically, most new DNA kits will have a profile that already matches an existing community. But the occasional new customer won’t fit into any predefined slot.

As these “undefined” kits grow in number, Ancestry’s algorithms continue to analyze them for new patterns. The emerging clusters will form new genetic communities.

Ethnicity Estimates: The Early Years (2012-2016)

The next sections are a more detailed breakdown of the timeline I listed in an earlier section. It should give you an idea as to how Ancestry is continually progressing to more refined regions and additional communities.

Ancestry had dabbled with DNA testing well before 2012 but got out of the market fairly promptly. If you’re curious about ancient history, we have an article that covers Ancestry’s discontinued attempts at DNA tests back in 2002.

But here, we’ll move quickly to 2012 when Ancestry launched their current DNA tests to the North American market.

Original Ancestry Regions

The first ethnicity estimates were based on 22 possible ethnicity regions. These regions included

  • British Isles
  • Central European
  • Middle Eastern
  • Scandinavian
  • West African

Pretty broad, eh? If you’re thinking of your own results now, you’ll notice there was no distinction between England and Scotland (lumped into British Isles), or France and Germany (that was Central European). 

And what about Middle Eastern and West African? The latter huge category was particularly disappointing to African Americans.

“Uncertain” Category: I Like It

Their original display included an “Uncertain” category. Blaine Bettinger’s review at that time has a pic of his results, where “Uncertain” is at 10%.

That “Uncertain” category is no longer shown on our ethnicity estimates. Instead, we may have a bunch of tiny percentages where the confidence level starts at zero. Here’s a current example:

Ethnicity estimate for Southern India at less than 1 percent

These are precisely the regions that disappear in the next update after you’ve gone down a rabbit hole to find any supporting evidence.

So, I say: bring back the Uncertain category. Unfortunately, I don’t think the marketing department would allow that to happen. Those extra small percentage regions make the display more “interesting”.

2013 Update To African Ethnicity Estimates

I mentioned how unhelpful the early ethnicity estimates were to African Americans.

The first major update to the feature went some way to address the issue. Ancestry broke the broad West African region into the six smaller areas:

  • Benin/Togo
  • Cameroon/Congo
  • Ivory Coast/Ghana
  • Mali
  • Nigeria
  • Senegal

Here’s the before-and-after of the break-up.

It’s better, for sure. But “Cameroon/Congo”? That’s a mighty big space!

2017 Launch Of Ancestry Genetic Communities

The genetic communities feature was launched in beta in 2017 to a small number of customers. It gradually rolled out to all customers by 2018.

I was one of the later customers who got the update in 2012. I will tell you that I had been very unimpressed by my ethnicity estimates. But I was blown away by the genetic communities.

My eight maternal great-grandparents were from the same county in Ireland. Ancestry narrowed the communities to the correct quarter (province) of my small country.

In contrast, my east African heritage had no genetic communities (still doesn’t). And ethnic regions were “pinpointed” by a blob that covered a third of the continent.

2018 Update To Ancestry Ethnicity Estimates

The 2018 updates seemed to take longer to roll out across Ancestry’s customer base. Chatter started in the genealogy forums in April 2018 but it was well into September before everyone was updated.

This update greatly increased the number of distinct regions and impacted a significant portion of customers.

The two massive categories that represented The Americas were divided into 11 regions. People of Japanese and Philippines heritage also got an extra region.

European Heritage

People with European heritage saw major changes:

  • Western Europe split into distinct countries, including France and Germany
  • Scandinavia split into Norway and Sweden
  • “England & Northwestern Europe” is still wide, but at least separated from the Celtic areas

Ireland and Scotland were still in an indistinguishable lump. Some people with Welsh heritage saw the Celtic grouping, while others weren’t entirely pleased to be assigned England & Northwestern Europe.

African Heritage

One change that impacted me was the complete disappearance of Nigeria from my results. This region was previously assigned 12%.

Think about it: the percentage pointed to a possible grandparent from that region. Or two great-greats on one line. It could have sent me down a fruitless rabbit hole if I’d given it more credence.

To give you an idea of the level of changes, here is a side-by-side of my before-and-after estimates. As you can see, Nigeria is gone from the 2018 results.

Margaret’s ethnicity estimates

To be fair to Ancestry, the sudden appearance of Eastern Africa made my results more credible. But given that I’d only DNA tested the year before, I was concerned about the apparent volatility of these results.

Who was to say that the estimates wouldn’t be reversed the following year? Read on to find out.

2019 Update To Ethnicity Estimates

Ancestry’s DNA reference panel kept growing, and they rolled out another ethnicity update in 2019. Once again, customers started chatting about it in April – almost exactly a year after the prior update.

This update rejigged several European regions, and plenty of customers weren’t happy about it. The percentages were sometimes reversed amongst Euro regions.

National newspapers picked up on the discord. This was the headline in a British newspaper:

Ancestry.com under fire as update to its database drastically changes the ethnicity of many users overnight

Daily Mail

And an Australian newspaper interviewed a disgruntled customer who was “so disappointed with the new results she’s refusing to accept them”.

The response from an Ancestry spokesperson in the British article is interesting. Remember, this was another update only a short year since the last. It was also possible that some customers got their first update in September 2018, but was in an early tranche in the 2019 update.

The spokesperson suggested that some users may not have checked their ethnicity estimates since before the first update. That would mean that they were experiencing the impact of a double whammy.

April 2020 Update To Genetic Communities

April 2020 saw the first of two big updates to the genetic communities for specific regions.

This rollout provided 75 new communities for people with heritage from areas including:

  • Africa
  • The Caribbean
  • Eastern Europe
  • Mexico
  • Central and South America

Personally, I didn’t receive new African communities. I wonder if Ancestry is focusing on West African heritage, which would be more prevalent amongst African Americans. That’s understandable from a commercial viewpoint, and I hope that people are getting good results from the western areas.

July 2020 Update To Genetic Communities

Three months after the prior community update, July brought a new bounty to some Ancestry customers.

This update created new and refined communities for people with heritage from areas including:

  • Australia
  • East China
  • East Asian
  • South Asian
  • Southeast Asian
  • Polynesia
  • South Africa

October 2020 – The “Scottish” Update

Ancestry rolled out an update to the ethnicity updates in the second half of 2020. The major change was the refinement of the two regions representing British and Irish heritage.

 At last, Irish and Scottish ethnicities were separated. This has been a bugbear for many Scottish customers. Although the region’s full label was “Ireland and Scotland”, my memory is that it was shortened on the Ancestry display to just “Ireland”.

Ancestry seemed a little nervous about how it would be received. Their previous communication campaigns had focused on the benefits of additional regions and communities.

This time they warned about the most obvious change that was coming down the tracks. This would be a major increase in Scottish percentages. And, of course, a corresponding reduction elsewhere.

But most people don’t watch the Ancestry corporate website to get informed about ethnicity updates. They get the news of a new drop from other people talking about it on social media. And there no escaping the chatter about this particular update.

The general reaction was a mix of bemusement and amusement. Even Wired covered the story with a focus on the tweets and kilt memes from Ancestry customers.

February 2021 Update To Genetic Communities

The February 2021 update gave additional genetic communities to smaller sections than in rollouts.

Ancestry targeted customers with heritage from:

  • Germanic Europe
  • Mid-Atlantic (U.S.)
  • Midwest (U.S.)
  • New England (U.S.)

The reaction on social media seemed broadly positive.

Supplementing Your Ancestry Results With MyHeritage Ethnicity Reports

Ancestry’s competitor, MyHeritage, rolled out a major ethnicity feature in December 2020. They produced their equivalent of Ancestry’s genetic communities.

Ancestry customers can transfer their DNA for free to MyHeritage and see their DNA matches.

However, the ethnicity features require a one-off fee of about 30 bucks. Is it worth it? You can check out my review and walkthrough of MyHeritage genetic groups. The article includes a video so you can see the display format.

Personally, I wouldn’t pay the premium fee solely for the ethnicity features. But that’s because I’m looking for more analysis of my African heritage, which neither company does very well with. MyHeritage may offer interesting details for other regions.

However, the ethnicity features are just one component of the premium payment. If you’re interested in researching your DNA matches, then MyHeritage offers more features than Ancestry. Fewer DNA matches, but more features.

You can check out my brief review of using the MyHeritage Chromosome Browser on your Ancestry results. This is what I’d pay for, and get the additional ethnicity analysis as a bonus!

What About DNA Matches?

You may be wondering how often Ancestry updates their DNA database i.e. adds more matches to your match list page. We have an article that reviews how often Ancestry updates your DNA matches. I tracked the total counts of ten kits across a few days to get the answers.

More Articles And Tutorials?

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Margaret O'Brien
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