DNA ethnicity tests: A journey or a destination?

LISA BRAINARD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER A new look at DNA results show a decline in Irish ethnicity and a shift to a stronger Norwegian heritage. What?
By : 
Lisa Brainard
Journey vs Destination

If you’ve ever considered taking a DNA test to see what it says about the ethnicity of your ancestors, come today and take a journey with me.

I’m always quite excited for St. Patrick’s Day due to my heritage. Why, I’ve even joined an online discussion group about researching one’s Irish ancestors.

I do know they came to America way before the potato famine. Brothers fought in the Revolutionary War while their father – a township officer – managed to collect funds sent off to help feed horses used by the troops. That much I know of my McShane relatives from previous research done by family members. I’d just like to know more about the situation in which a mother and son came to the United States.

Other family names in my history include Lamborn, Smith, Swayne, Jones, Roderick, Degraw, Burnham, Bailey, Carson, Durr, Warman, Carhart, Slater, Fogg, Rosegrans, Myles and more. I won’t guarantee you they’re all correct, since I grabbed some from other family trees without personally checking out ties – and everyone knows a good journalist should dig into sources. (Oh, and, for your information – Brainard is my ex-husband’s last name.)

So, looking at that list, you might think I’d have a strong DNA component from Great Britain – and you’d be correct. My family history back into England is well researched and in a nice hardcover book. My original Ethnicity Estimate report from my DNA sample sent to Ancestry.com a couple years back showed these results:

England, Wales and Northwestern Europe: 70 percent

Ireland & Scotland: 12 percent

Europe West: 8 percent

Europe East: 5 percent

Iberian Peninsula: 3 percent

Scandinavia: 2 percent

I have to say that looked pretty much as I thought it might – other than the Iberian Peninsula. That had me puzzled. First, I had to find out where that is. It ends up it’s comprised of Spain and Portugal. Hmmm, it seemed like one of those twists – in this case a fun and mysterious twist – that DNA test companies warn you might show up.


Recently, I checked my DNA results to recall the percentages of this and that. Well, low and behold, my results had been updated, unbeknownst to me. It seems the DNA results are something of a moving target depending on the continuous gathering of more DNA in origin countries and areas. Or, as Ancestry.com put it, “Your DNA doesn’t change, but the science we use to analyze it does. Your results may change over time as the science improves.”

All that said, suddenly it looks like I might want to quit digging into my Irish so much and instead head to Giants of the Earth Heritage Center in Spring Grove, or Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah to dig into my Norwegian-ness. Wait! Say what?

Here are my latest Ethnicity Estimate results with some origin regions grouped differently than in the first one:

England, Wales and Northwestern Europe: 84 percent

Norway: 10 percent

Ireland and Scotland: 4 percent

Germanic Europe: 2 percent

Darn, that cute little Iberian Peninsula thing is gone. But more importantly – and to my mind, much more crazily – this now says I’m more Norwegian than Irish/Scottish? (Picture a very shocked emoji face here.)

Well sure, I seem to have always lived in communities with strong Norwegian backgrounds from my youth through today, anchored by 20 years in the bastion of Norwegian-ness that is Decorah. And yes, I served on the Nordic Fest Board and even had a replica bunad (costume dress) and a metal piece of jewelry called a solje, a brooch worn at the center of the neck. (Looking online for the word, I found this information: “Sølje is Norway’s traditional silver jewelry. Its dangling spoons once were thought to reflect evil away from the wearer, protecting one from trolls and other dangers, especially in times of transition.” I don’t know that mine was silver, but it was sparkly and pretty and purchased at the Norwegian import shop that used to operate in Decorah.

I haven’t put my hands on that solje for a long time. But with this new turn of ethnicity, I may need to look harder. And one more thing is for sure, it seems there’s no way to know with certainty what my DNA may hold as the future unfolds. So, I best keep an open mind and, as always, enjoy the journey.

Lisa Brainard still enjoys lifelong pursuits of the outdoors, history and travel as able following a serious accident and stroke in September 2012. She’s written this column weekly for over 15 years.