Small Ethnicity Percentages are Sometimes Real

by Kevin Alan Brook

Small ethnicity percentages reported by the major genetic genealogy companies are periodically dismissed as mere noise (false readings), and sometimes they are, but there have been many cases where they are definitely real - and sometimes their carriers can find the paper trail of vital records tracing back to their mysterious ancestor.


Euphrosine Madeleine Nicolet,
a half-Amerindian woman among French-Canadians in Canada

       Euphrosine Madeleine Nicolet was born circa 1628 in Ontario to a Nipissing tribal woman named Gisis Bahmahmaadjimiwin (later called Jeanne) and a Frenchman named Jean Nicolet. Mixed people like Euphrosine were called "Métis", meaning "mixed", in the French language. Euphrosine has many descendants in today's Québec.

       Titane, a French Canadian, wrote here that 23andMe detected that she carried 0.2% of "Native American" DNA in her genome. She subsequently learned that she inherited it from Euphrosine, who was 10 generations before herself.

       Suzanne Lesage similarly explained that 23andMe found she carried 0.2% of "Native American" DNA. Euphrosine was 12 generations before herself on her family tree.

Marie-Olivier Manituoabeoich,
an Amerindian woman among French-Canadians in Canada

       Manitouabeouich (later called Marie-Olivier Sylvestre), a member of an Algonquin tribe, married the Frenchman Martin Prevost in Québec in 1644.

       Mark Deutsch, who has some French Canadian heritage, wrote that he was estimated to carry about 0.5% "Native American" DNA by 23andMe, even while Family Tree DNA's MyOrigins and AncestryDNA did not detect any for him. He believes that the 0.5% stems from his 8th great-grandmother Manitouabeouich.

A Mi'kmaq woman,
an Amerindian in Acadia

       Bart O'Toole, descended from Acadians from northeastern Canada, wrote that his family's records indicate that he has a 7th great-grandmother who came from the Mi'kmaq (Micmac) people. 23andMe estimates that he has a "slight amount" of "Native American" DNA, while the two other sites he tested with did not detect any in him.

Chief Tarhe,
an Amerindian in the United States of America

       Tarhe was a leader of the Wyandot (Wyandotte) tribe in Ohio who lived from 1742 until 1818.

       The American Tim Janzen wrote that many members of his family have tested with 23andMe and, while they are predominantly European by descent, they have confirmation of their American Indian ancestry in their ethnicity results. Tim's mother is known to be one of Tarhe's descendants; Tarhe is either her 4th great-grandfather or her 5th great-grandfather. She inherited her 9 "Native American" autosomal segments from Tarhe, and her brothers inherited 9 and 10 segments from Tarhe respectively. These siblings and their cousins from that side of the family score "Native American" percentages of 1.9%, 1.6%, 1.6%, 1.5%, 1.3%, 1%, 1%, 0.8%, and 0.3% so that's 9 of them who show signs of it inside 23andMe.

A Mohawk woman,
an Amerindian in New York

       Lindsey Britton wrote that she scores 2% "Native American" in 23andMe. She has a paper trail tracing her ancestry to a full-blooded Mohawk woman who lived in the Mohawk Valley (in today's northern New York) in the late 1600s.

A Cherokee person,
an Amerindian in the United States of America

       "AncestryGuy" wrote that he, like generations of his ancestors, is an enrolled citizen of one of the official Cherokee nations and that he carries a card showing his Cherokee blood quantum to be 1/128th. His other ancestors were of European origin. He decided to test his autosomal DNA with AncestryDNA, which reported back that he's about 1% "Native American". He inherited it from his full-blooded Cherokee ancestor who's about 8 generations up his family tree.

Hans Jonathan,
a Caribbean man of half-West African heritage in Iceland

       Hans Jonathan was the son of the Danish man Hans Gram and the black woman Emilia Regina. In 1784, Hans was born as a slave on a sugar plantation on the island of Saint Croix, which was then part of the Danish West Indies. He escaped the island and moved to Iceland. In the 1820s, Hans was married to the Icelandic woman Katrín Antoníusdóttir and they had two children who lived into adulthood. There are approximately 800-900 of their descendants alive today.

       A 2018 genetic study by Anuradha Jagadeesan, et al. entitled "Reconstructing an African Haploid Genome from the 18th Century" (published in Nature Genetics vol. 50, no. 2 on pages 199-205) tested the autosomal DNA of 182 of Hans' living descendants in order to reconstruct Hans' mother's genome as fully as possible. They succeeded in identifying about 38% of it. Hans' mother had genetic affinities to the peoples of Nigeria, Benin, and Cameroon.

       One of Hans' descendants, an Icelandic woman, tested her DNA with 23andMe, which reported that she carries 1.2% "West African" DNA. Zionas/MsA quoted her message indicating this here and here.

A Senegambian man,
a West African in Virginia

       The predominantly European-American Lee Canipe a.k.a. "NCroots" wrote here and inside GEDmatch Forums' defunct thread 2943 that his father has a paper trail of descent from a black man from Senegambia who was brought into colonial Virginia in the 1660s. He was Lee's father's 8th great-grandfather and thus Lee's 9th great-grandfather. 23andMe estimates that Lee's father is 0.1% Sub-Saharan African and this is also picked up on GEDmatch's calculators at levels between 1% and 1.5%. Lee himself also shows 0.1% Sub-Saharan African inside 23andMe. This ancestry is located on particular areas of two of Lee's father's chromosomes.

       Lee further noted that he has multiple male cousins who patrilineally descend from this Senegambian man and who tested their Y chromosomes. Their Y-DNA haplogroup is E1b1a8a (E-U209), a branch of E-M2. E1b1a8a is particularly common in Cameroon and also found in other West African countries including Benin and the Ivory Coast.

A man from the western coast of Africa,
a West African in an English colony of North America

       "MattL" wrote here and here that his predominantly European-American mother carries between 0.5% and 1.5% of "Sub-Saharan African" autosomal DNA, according to 23andMe. Much of it came from her father but a little bit came from her mother, who carries an "extremely small sub-saharan segment" that showed up at the 90% confidence level inside 23andMe. MattL's mother's longest Sub-Saharan segment measures 20 centimorgans (cM).

       MattL has cousins who have tested their Y chromosomes. Their results confirmed that MattL and they share a male ancestor who was born on the western coast of Africa and was transported to Virginia or South Africa in the late 1600s or early 1700s.

A freeman from western Africa,
a West African in an English colony of North America

       Teresa Lewis' ancestry is predominantly European-American plus about 3 percent Amerindian. As she told GEDmatch Forums, Family Tree DNA's MyOrigins and AncestryDNA estimate that she has approximately 3 percent of West African DNA, even while MyHeritageDNA did not report any amount of West African. AncestryDNA's population samples place the closest affinity for Teresa's West African portion as coming from the Benin/Togo region, but AncestryDNA previously placed it on the Ivory Coast.

       Teresa has a paper trail to her 5th great-grandfather, who was a free African, not a slave.

A Mbuti woman from the Congo region,
a Pygmy in New York

       "Natural Lefty" wrote of his discovery that he carries 0.4% "Sub-Saharan African" autosomal DNA and that his brother carries 0.3% "Sub-Saharan African", both according to 23andMe's "speculative estimate" screen. The brothers are overwhelmingly of European-American heritage. They learned that they both inherited a Sub-Saharan African autosomal segment on chromosome 10.

       Searching old records, they determined that their mystery African ancestor was a Mbuti Pygmy woman who married a Dutch man. The pair had a mixed-race daughter who was born circa 1680 in an area that's part of New York state today.

A man from western Africa,
a West African in Jamaica

       For an episode of New Zealand's television series The DNA Detectives, Ray McVinnie tested his autosomal DNA through 23andMe and it reported back that he carries 2.2% Sub-Saharan African DNA. He was previously unaware of its existence and hadn't known it came through Jamaica.

       In Jamaica, Ray met distant genetic cousins of his who had kept a family tree. They were able to find not only surnames in common between their two sides, but also to identify the ancestor from Africa, who lived in Jamaica in the 1700s.

       Ray also carries a trace amount of Jewish DNA that came from Portuguese Jewish settlers in Jamaica.

A woman from India,
a South Asian who married a Scotsman

       For an episode of New Zealand's television series The DNA Detectives, the New Zealand media personality Jack Tame took the autosomal DNA test through 23andMe and confirmed that he carries 1.4% "South Asian" DNA. This component is easily visible on his chromosome browser.

       Jack had been previously aware that he had potential South Asian ancestry but did not know the details. Kelly Wheaton, a genealogy researcher on the show, was able to trace Tame's ancestry back to a native woman from India who married a Scottish surgeon who moved to India in the 1600s.

A woman from India,
a South Asian who married a British man

       The English businessman Richard Branson never knew he had partial roots in India before he got tested via 23andMe for the American television series Finding Your Roots. He learned that 3.9% of his autosomal DNA is "South Asian", while the rest of his genetic ancestry stems from Europe (as he expected).

       Richard's South Asian DNA was traced using paperwork to a woman who married the European man Luke Reddy. Luke's wife's name wasn't specified on the baptismal certificate from the Indian city of Madras (today's Chennai) for their daughter Eliza Reddy (born 1817) because Eliza's mother wasn't white but instead must have been a native Indian. This mystery woman was Richard's 3rd great-grandmother. Eliza married Harry Wilkins Branson and subsequently Eliza's descendants along Richard's lineage moved to Australia and then to England.

Sephardic Jewish people from Spain and Portugal
who became Catholics and married other Catholics

       I have personally done genetic research for dozens of people whose recent ancestors were Catholics in Latin America, Portugal, and Italy. Some of my clients scored small percentages in the "Ashkenazi Jewish" and "Sephardic Jewish" categories in the major direct-to-consumer DNA companies and were wondering if they were real. By using GEDmatch's extensive database, I was able to find actual Sephardic Jewish autosomal DNA segments in most of them and to confirm their authenticity using multiple rounds of triangulation and parent-child phasing. These segments matched my clients to living Jews whose recent ancestors lived in such places as Poland, Syria, and Morocco.

       On occasion, my clients were able to discover the names of their mystery Jewish ancestors using vital records or other sources. Several of them got officially recognized for Sephardic ancestry by Jewish organizations.

  • Genetics of ethnic groups around the world
  • Excess IBD Regions - another essay by Kevin Alan Brook receives monetary commission payments from Family Tree DNA and Viglink from sales generated through links.