New Maps Reveal "Real" Ethnic Make-Up Of The U.S.

Published: Apr 09, 2014

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April 7, 2014

The science team at has mapped America based using the science of DNA to provide new findings on U.S. migration and ethnicity.

They have put together an interactive map that visualizes the real ethnic make-up of our nation based on 26 ethnicities AncestryDNA currently tests for, way more than the 15 that are accounted for on the current U.S Census.

The map allows you to select an ethnicity from a drop-down menu and hover over parts of the U.S. to unveil the prominence of that ethnic group in various states. For example, largest community of Irish descendants are concentrated in Massachusetts.

A genetic census of America

Using AncestryDNA results from over a quarter million people, the AncestryDNA science team set out to perform a “genetic census” of the United States.

Where did the ancestors of today’s Americans come from? Do Americans in the Midwest hail from similar places of the world as in the Northeast or as in the South?

So to start, AncestryDNA estimated the genetic ethnicities of over 250,000 U.S. customers* as percentages in 26 regions across the world. These percentages show where a person’s ancestors may have lived hundreds to thousands of years ago. People of the United States, a nation settled by immigrants, often have a surprising diversity of ethnic backgrounds and collectively have ancestors who lived nearly all over the globe.

Then, they explored the spatial distribution of customers’ ethnicities across the 50 states—using maps to visualize where in the U.S. we often find people of different ethnicities.

Pull down on menu to select location.

Plot Source Attribution: googleVis-0.4.7, R version 2.15.1 (2012-06-22).

Take a look at the maps of the U.S. above, one map for each of the 26 ethnicities AncestryDNA currently tests for. For every state, a map shows the average percentage of a particular ethnicity among all customers born there. If a state is dark green, it means that people there often have more of that ethnicity than in other states.

As you scroll through the maps using the drop-down menu, find a genetic ethnicity that has a high average in your state. Does it match with what you know about your ethnicity and the immigration of your ancestors to the U.S.?

Solely using ethnicity estimated by DNA, these maps reveal spatial patterns that are telling of the ancestral origins of present day Americans: where they came from and where they eventually settled.

Chain migration

“Chain migration” was a common strategy for many groups immigrating to the United States. Often, one family member would journey to the new land funded by family savings. Once there, they found employment, helping to pay for other relatives to make the same journey. This new wave of immigrants often lived with the sponsoring relative as they earned money for even more members of their family and community to join. As a consequence, families and friends ended up living in close proximity, and if they moved to another area of the U.S., they often did so as a group. If these communities continued to live in the same region of the U.S. over many generations, you can begin to imagine how individuals of particular ethnicities might end up clustering together. That’s what we see in the maps.

Scandinavian ethnicity

For example, let’s look at the Scandinavian map. Scandinavian immigrants— from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark—tended to settle in the upper Midwest where geography, culture, and local economics felt familiar to life in the old country.

On the map, these are the greenest regions: the states with the highest amounts of Scandinavian ancestry. In other words, DNA also suggests localized migration of individuals of Scandinavian origin to North Dakota, Minnesota, and neighboring states, with little migration to other U.S. regions. History agrees with genetics!

Irish ethnicity

Look at the Irish ancestry map as another example. The highest statewide averages are concentrated in Massachusetts and other states in the Northeastern U.S.—where many Irish immigrants, forced to leave their homes and lands, settled in the 19th century. Growing numbers of Irish that arrived after the 1820s were often poor and common laborers, and took jobs in the construction of buildings, canals, roads, and railways in cities in the eastern United States.

Many of these cities still show the highest average amounts of Irish ethnicity in the U.S. today! DNA affirms that many descendants of Irish immigrants still live where their ancestors initially settled—in the Northeast.

Great Britain and Western Europe ethnicity

If you look at the maps for Great Britain and Europe West, you see that other ancestries are more widespread across the whole country. Leading up to the Boston Tea Party and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, large numbers of Europeans arrived in what is now the U.S., in some cases to escape religious persecution. While there were subsequently many waves of immigration, individuals primarily from Western Europe and Great Britain were our first Americans.

That we see British ancestry in many people of the U.S. may be evidence of the long history of individuals from Great Britain migrating to the United States and far and wide across those states.

Native American ethnicity

Finally, other patterns in the ethnicity maps reveal less about immigration and more about America’s native peoples. Take a look at Native American ancestry, which is present in high amounts in people born in New Mexico and other Southwestern states—a signal of both the large Native American and Latino populations that live there. And while Polynesian ancestry is nearly absent across the entire continental United States, it has a high average in Hawaii. Genetics confirms that most native Hawaiians live in— you guessed it—Hawaii.

With that context, take another look through the maps. What other patterns surprise you? Which ones don’t?

In most cases, you’ll find that the genetics lines up neatly with history. This is pretty remarkable considering that AncestryDNA hasn’t used any information about history or one’s self-identified ethnicity (though equally significant in defining one’s heritage) to make these maps. DNA from all 50 states can tell us a great deal about the family histories and stories of the people within them.

Just over a decade ago, the very first human genome was sequenced. Today, from aggregated results of over a quarter million AncestryDNA customers, they’re deciphering the genetic information that individually and collectively holds the secrets of individuals’ family histories, our nation’s history, and the history of the whole human family.

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