The 7 Best Ancestry DNA Tests
This wiki has been updated 19 times since it was first published in March of 2017. If you've ever wondered where you come from -- and how that may influence who you are -- then an ancestry DNA test can help you fill in the gaps of your heritage. These work by taking samples of your genes (usually via a painless saliva swab) and then analyzing them to identify your cultural makeup. In just a few weeks, you could find out more about yourself than you ever thought possible. When users buy our independently chosen editorial selections, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
August 04, 2020:
While there hasn't been much of a shakeup in the available DNA tests out there, we did see fit to add Basic American Indian to our ranking. It's something of a niche test, but there are likely enough people in the US who suspect they have some native blood that it would be worth their investigation, especially considering the fact that the databases for the most popular services are heavily influenced by European and Asian sets, where the Basic American Indian offers a database explicitly tuned to the lineage of dozens of tribes.
Speaking of databases, another immensely important thing for people to keep an eye on is if, and how, certain DNA test companies will share your data. There's been a largely successful push to make privately acquired genetic data available to law enforcement, which is all fine and dandy when it helps to catch the bad guys, but there's no guarantee that these companies are handling their samples with a degree of security that could meet chain of evidence requirements. In a worst case scenario, your DNA gets mixed up with a killer's and you go to jail forever. So, take a look at the offering you've got your eye on and if they are part of a national legal database, see if you can opt out before submitting your sample.
A safer route you can use to scratch the lineage itch without endangering your personal privacy might be to investigate the makeup of your dog.
July 01, 2019:
Ancestry tests are a great way to discover where your genetic roots lie. If you are interested solely in your ethnic makeup and the history that goes along with it, then you'll want to look at the AncestryDNA Kit, DNA Consultants Premium Male, 23andMe Personal Genetic Service, and MyHeritage DNA Kit. DNA Consultants Premium Male deserves special mention for being one of the only kits to test 25 markers on the Y chromosome. This allows it to give men some of the most comprehensive information about their paternal family line.
Those who want more detailed information about their medical predispositions, in addition to genetic makeup, will want to consider 23andMe Health + Ancestry Service and TellmeGen Kit. It is worth noting that the TellmeGen Kit gives customers free updates for life. This means that if a new technology allows them to get more in depth results about your ethnic makeup or information on additional medical predispositions, you'll get access to those, too.
Ancestry DNA tests are generally more detailed from companies that have tested more people, since every test adds information to their database, which they can use to compare your results with. This is why we made sure to only include tests from companies that already have a large database.
Living DNA Tracking paternal and maternal ancestry, this test kit is a good choice for someone who is equally interested in both sides of their genetic makeup. It can go back up to 15 generations, and it will even put your results into an engaging context that shows the likely geographic spread of your forebears at different points in history. livingdna.com
How Ancestry DNA Tests Work
All tests begin the same way: with the collection of a DNA sample.
There are a few different types of ancestry DNA tests on the market. Generally speaking, they fall into three categories: autosomal, mitochondrial, and Y-chromosome tests. Each type works a bit differently, and some methods are better than others at detecting certain traits and origins. All tests begin the same way: with the collection of a DNA sample. This can be done using a cheek swab, a spit sample, or with a special mouthwash or chewing gum. If collected at home, the sample must then be sent to a lab for testing.
Autosomal tests look at the 22 pairs of chromosomes not associated with gender, in order to trace both matrilineal and patrilineal ancestries. These chromosomes carry traits from distant relatives on both sides of a family. The data collected from them enters a database used to find similar patterns among other individuals, called matches. Testing companies typically set thresholds for the length of a DNA strand that constitutes a match.
The primary purpose of an autosomal test is to determine whether you are related to another specific individual, or to find relatives you don't know about. Some companies also provide ethnicity estimates based on your matches and where in the world the patterns found in your DNA are most common.
Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mothers to their children, which is why services testing it are often called maternal origin tests. Most cells in your body contain hundreds of mitochondria or more. Mitochondrial DNA contains far fewer base pairs than the full human genome, so it's easier to pinpoint differences between two individuals' tests. The tests can be used to find one's maternal ancestors or locate their ancestral heritage on their mother's side.
Y-chromosome tests are only available to men, as women have two X chromosomes. As a result, they track patrilineal ancestry, and are often called paternity tests. These tests are some of the most accurate when it comes to determining a person's lineage, because the Y-chromosome barely changes when it is passed from one generation to the next. They can be used to determine whether two people are related on their father's side, as well as how many generations prior a common relative existed. Like maternal origin tests, Y-chromosome tests can also be used to determine the pre-colonial ethnic groups of which one is a descendant based on the haplogroups found in their DNA.
Many commercial tests combine some or all of these methods to give customers a more nuanced understanding of their lineage. Only by analyzing both sides of your family can you determine your true heritage, and the more data you test, the more accurate the results will be.
Why Get Your DNA Tested?
DNA tests of all kinds have exploded in popularity in recent years. The reasons for getting tested vary widely from one individual to the next, but generally fall into one of two categories: an interest in personal ancestry or an attempt to find a common relative with another individual.
An ancestry test can help their descendants determine where their families lived before being forcibly removed from their homelands.
Americans tend to take a particular interest in DNA tests because, with the exception of the roughly five million people who know of their Native American heritage, the vast majority of people in this country came from somewhere else. Even those with native ancestry have more than likely been displaced by American colonialism, and so determining to which of the over 500 recognized tribes they belong may be a priority for them as well.
While Americans whose families emigrated to this country in recent generations may know a fair bit about where they come from, it's safe to say that many people don't. Even among those who think they know everything about their own heritage, there is a good chance that there is information they don't know, or that's been lost in intergenerational translation.
Of course, there is also a sad history of people brought to this country with their family histories intentionally erased. There were roughly 12.5 million African people brought to the Americas between 1525 and 1866 under the slave trade. An ancestry test can help their descendants determine where their families lived before being forcibly removed from their homelands.
Whether it's the impetus for taking a test or an added bonus, many DNA tests can also help people find relatives they don't know about. If someone you're related to has taken a DNA test, for example, your results will more than likely match with theirs, and most services will let you know. They can also be used to test whether or not you are related to a specific individual.
The Complicated Politics Of Heritage
Everyone has a different understanding of the question, "Where are you from?" The intention behind the question also varies based on who is asking.
The key to knowing where you're from is actually understanding that you're not really from anywhere.
To use myself as an example, I am from New York City, but I was born in Jerusalem. My father's parents are Holocaust survivors from Poland, while my mother's family has been in America for a few generations. I believe they came over from Eastern Europe, specifically Russia, but I am not sure exactly where. To make matters more confusing, Russia looked quite different 150 years ago than it does now.
Beyond the intricacies of family history, the biggest problem with understanding heritage is that the human race has been moving around since its formation. Even the borders we've drawn to designate countries change frequently. If you go back far enough, for example, there was no Europe, so what does it mean to call yourself European?
The truth is that, if you go back far enough, we're all from the landmass now known as Africa. The best DNA ancestry tests attempt to combat the confusion of race, ethnicity, and countries of origin by focusing on historical migration patterns. The key to knowing where you're from is actually understanding that you're not really from anywhere. Your relatives have been all over the place, which is why your ancestry test results might be all over the place. as well.