A new analysis sheds light on some customers’ Indigenous genetic ancestry from North America

23andMe added eight new regions within North America reflecting Indigenous genetic ancestry. The addition is in response not just to requests from thousands of customers, but also as part of an ongoing effort to create a 23andMe Ancestry Service that better reflects the diverse genetic ancestries of our customers.

With guidance from experts including Indigenous scientists, our team worked to provide some customers who have Indigenous ancestry from what is now the United States and Canada with more detailed ancestry results. In parallel, we created an experience that is both educational and transparent, in which we explain why genetic ancestry results cannot be used to seek or confirm any form of Indigenous belonging such as membership in a Tribe or Nation. 

In 2019, we added a feature called “Recent Ancestry in the Americas,” which offers clues about our customers’ ancestry from Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. With this update in North America, we are now able to offer more detail about some customers’ Indigenous ancestry from what is now the U.S. and Canada, as well. Some customers will be seeing this update over the next several weeks as it is rolled out.

Customers can view their Ancestry Composition here.

What are the new regions? 

 

A map of the bio-geographic ancestral regions that include the Columbia River Basin, the Great Basin & Colorado River Basin, Great Lakes& Canada, the Northeast, South Central, the Plains and Southwest.
You may notice that the regions are primarily reflecting bio-geographic ancestry from what is now the United States of America, with little geographic representation within northern Canada. That is because there is an over-representation of 23andMe customers who have consented to participate in research who are from the United States compared to Canada.

How was this analysis done?

  1. To determine our reference groups, we selected customers with Indigenous American genetic ancestry who consented to participate in research and indicated in their Family Origins survey that at least one of their grandparents was affiliated with one North American Indigenous Tribe, Band, Sovereignty, First Nation, or other community. We excluded from the analysis any DNA predicted by our Ancestry Composition analysis to be inherited from a European, Asian, or African ancestor. In this way, we can ensure that the shared ancestry we are identifying was inherited from an Indigenous American ancestor. 
  2. Next, to uncover geographic patterns of Indigenous ancestry in what is now the US and Canada, we removed individuals from the analysis who shared large amounts of DNA with people whose grandparents were born in Mexico, Central America, South America, or the Caribbean.
  3. Then, we used a technique called genetic clustering to identify potential groups of individuals who share higher levels of DNA with each other than they do with others in the analysis. These genetic groups became our reference groups for this feature, and we then are able to compare customers’ DNA to the DNA of individuals within these reference groups.  
  4. Finally, we generated maps based on where the individuals in these groups told us their grandparents who identified as Indigenous American were born.

For a more detailed explanation of the methods used in this analysis, visit our Indigenous American ancestry FAQ page.

 

Will customers’ percentages update?

No. For a given Indigenous North American region match we indicate our confidence in the result, reported as “likely match,” or “highly likely match.” This works the same way as our Recent Ancestor Locations feature. If we are not able to detect a genetic match to a region with confidence, we report this as “not detected.” 

This update will only affect customers who already have Indigenous American genetic ancestry as estimated by 23andMe’s Ancestry Composition algorithm. In other words, if you did not already have some percentage of DNA predicted to match our Indigenous American reference population, then you cannot receive a match to one of these eight new regions. 

Furthermore, not everyone with Indigenous American ancestry will receive a match to a region at this time. 

How many customers can expect to get a match to one of the new regions?

Fewer than 10 percent of customers with some Indigenous American genetic ancestry will receive a match at this time, though this number may be higher for customers with known Indigenous ancestry from North America. The science behind this update is both rigorous and conservative, meaning we focused on ensuring that there were as few false matches as possible. As a result of this approach, there will be some individuals with known Indigenous American ancestry from North America who do not receive a match to any region at this time. We understand that not seeing an expected match can be confusing, but our ability to match someone to a region based on DNA is only as good as the size and diversity of the reference groups and algorithms used to predict them. Over time, as more people with Indigenous American ancestors join 23andMe, customers’ results may change.  More information about unexpected results can be found in our FAQs

What are the new regions?

  • Alaska: Grandparents of individuals within this genetic reference group were primarily born in what is now known as Alaska, as well as some parts of western Canada.
  • Columbia River Basin: Grandparents of individuals within this genetic reference group were primarily born in what is now known as Washington, as well as some parts of southwestern Canada, Idaho, and Oregon.
  • Great Basin & Colorado River Basin: Grandparents of individuals within this genetic reference group were primarily born in what is now known as Nevada and California, as well as parts of Arizona and southern Idaho.
  • Great Lakes and Canada: Grandparents of individuals within this genetic reference group were primarily born in what is now known as the Upper Midwest of the U.S., including Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, as well as some parts of North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, and central and southern Canada.
  • Northeast: Grandparents of individuals within this genetic reference group were primarily born in what is now known as New York, as well as other U.S. states in the Northeast, including Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maine. Some individuals’ grandparents were born in parts of Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Oklahoma.
  • Plains: Grandparents of individuals within this genetic reference group were primarily born in what is now known as South Dakota, as well as some parts of Oklahoma, North Dakota, Montana, southern Minnesota, and Nebraska.
  • South Central: Grandparents of individuals within this genetic reference group were primarily born in what is now known as Oklahoma, as well as parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, and Mississippi.
  • Southwest: Grandparents of individuals within this genetic reference group were primarily born in what is now known as New Mexico, as well as parts of Oklahoma, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona.

Here’s why we took our time getting this right

There are a few reasons we’ve been unable to provide additional geographic clues about our customers’ Indigenous American ancestry through DNA to date, including:

  1. There has been a centuries-long eradication of Indigenous peoples by the settler-colonist societies of North America (including cultural assimilation and forced resettlements). This history makes it difficult for geneticists to distinguish biogeographic ancestry from different parts of North America.
  2. Having observed decades of exploitation of Indigenous peoples at the hands of researchers from a host of biomedical disciplines, many Indigenous American leaders, activists, and scientists have advocated for greater community involvement in research, and cautioned their communities to require reassurances from scientists who seek to work with them, such as through collaboration, data sharing, and education about consent. In an effort to protect their communities, some Indigenous scientists and Tribal leaders have even called for outright moratoriums on genetic research.   
  3. Furthermore, as explored in greater detail in this blog post, many Indigenous scientists and activists are concerned about how the genetic ancestry testing industry creates an environment that implicitly allows and sometimes encourages consumers to misunderstand their DNA results and use those results to claim belonging or kinship with an Indigenous group. In large part, these concerns are centered on the potential for genetic ancestry tests to impact the sovereignties of North American First Nations and Tribes, such as when consumers attempt to access tangible or intangible benefits of membership through their DNA results, undermining an Indigenous Nation’s sovereign right to determine membership in the manner they choose. 

What steps did our team take to mitigate potential harm to Indigenous sovereignties while providing additional geographic detail?

  1. With guidance from experts including Indigenous scientists, we created an educational page with answers to common questions about this update, and information about how 23andMe defines Indigenous American genetic ancestry. This page is easily discoverable to customers through their results, and it is also viewable by the public.
  2. In providing these new regions, and following recommendations by advisors, we did not use information about Tribe or Indigenous Nation affiliation to curate the genetic groups. Furthermore, because cultural, Tribe, Nation, or ethnic affiliation was not used to curate these groups — and because Indigenous peoples are not discrete genetic groups — each of the eight regions likely reflect ancestry from many Tribes or First Nations. 
  3. To create the region maps, we used only the customers’ reported grandparent birth locations, minimizing biased data curation. 
  4. We are transparent about the methods that were used to determine these regions as well as the methods used to provide customers with matches to these regions. 
  5. We have published educational material available to the public about how genetic ancestry testing can impact Indigenous sovereignties and peoples, including this recent blog post

We hope that this update will inspire many to learn more about the complex histories and diversity of Indigenous Peoples in North America in a manner that respects the ways in which Indigenous Peoples define themselves.