Where Do We Come From?

A new generation of DNA genealogists stand ready to unearth our ancestors. We may not like what they find.

By Katy Grannan and Kat McGowan
May 1, 2003 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:00 AM
Nineteenth-century Melungeons were stigmatized for their dark looks and mysterious ethnic origins. Melungeon "was the worst thing you could call somebody when I was growing up," says Denver "Bud" Osborne (A), who volunteers at the Wise County Historical Society in Virginia. Osborne believes his ancestry is mostly European and American Indian. Sharon Bolling (B) of Coeburn, Virginia, was constantly teased about her appearance when she was in high school. Now, she says, most people are more open-minded: "It's great to know you've got that many heritages." Suzette Robinson (C) adds that being Melungeon is "like Heinz 57, a lot of different bloodlines." She says her husband Steven Robinson (D) doesn't think he is Melungeon, but she's not so sure about herself: "I guess I am." Osborne, Bolling, and Steven Robinson all donated DNA as part of a study to probe Melungeon origins.


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Brent Kennedy's 19th-century ancestors stare out from his photo albums with dark eyes, high cheekbones, olive skin, and thick black hair—a genetic riddle waiting to be solved. It comes as no surprise that Elvis Presley, Ava Gardner, and Abraham Lincoln may be among their kin, yet the members of this tribe have never fitted properly into American racial categories. Depending on the census taker or tax man, they were classified as white, "free persons of color," or mulatto, often drifting across the color line as they moved from county to county.

Kennedy calls himself a Melungeon, but no one knows exactly what that means. There are perhaps as many as 200,000 Melungeons in the United States today, all descended from a mysterious colony of olive-skinned people who lived for centuries in the foothills of the Appalachians. Some say the Melungeons can be traced back to Portuguese sailors, shipwrecked in the 16th century, or to colonial-era Turkish silk workers. Others point to Gypsies, to Sir Francis Drake's lost colony of Roanoke, or to the ancient Phoenicians. It's not even clear where the word Melungeon comes from: It might be derived from the French mélange or even a corruption of an Arabic or Turkish term for "cursed souls."

One of the keys to unlocking the mystery, Kennedy believes, lies in DNA analysis. Three years ago, he and the other leaders of the Melungeon Heritage Association enlisted the help of Kevin Jones, a biologist at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, and began rounding up genetic samples from local families. Now, on a steamy June afternoon in Kingsport, Tennessee, at the fourth Melungeon reunion, the results of the study were about to be revealed. Brent Kennedy and his people were finally going to find out what they were made of.

Up on the dais, Jones looked sweaty and miserable in a coat and tie. A wry Londoner with a brush mustache, he was used to spending most of his time researching fungi, bacteria, and the evolutionary relationships among slime molds. He had thought this project would be fun, maybe even medically important. But just now he looked as if he would rather be contemplating a patch of glop in the woods.

Genetic analysis seems to promise a final answer to the bottomless question of identity, a straightforward explanation of our species' hundreds of thousands of years of wandering the globe. Instead, Jones had inadvertently discovered, research like his has a way of stirring the ancestral pot, of upending rock-solid theories, of shredding individual identities and national origin myths alike. In short, as the Melungeons were soon to find out, DNA breaks hearts.

The human genome stashes its secrets away like a dotty great-aunt, wrapping heirlooms in rags in the attic, burying prized family portraits beneath stacks of newspaper clippings. It's hard to find meaningful patterns amid clutter, but by the early 1980s molecular biologists began to do so. The mutations that our genomes have accumulated over the millennia aren't just junk, they realized. They can be read like a ledger.

Most of the time, the 3 billion nucleotides in the human genome reproduce just fine. Occasionally, though, one of the nucleotide base pairs that make up the molecule gets switched, or a short stretch of genetic code is duplicated. Figuring out who is related to whom, scientists have realized, is just a matter of comparing these mutations. People with recent ancestors in common will have many of the same mutations. Distant relatives will share fewer of them. 

To determine who donated which genes, molecular anthropologists look at two sections of the genome passed directly from parent to child. In men, that's the famous Y chromosome, which every father gives to his son. In women, it's mitochondrial DNA—small loops of genetic material tucked away in the mitochondria of most cells. Everybody has mtDNA, as it is known, but only women pass it on.

Mitochondrial DNA is the more tractable of the two molecules: It's short—only 16,569 nucleotides long—and can be isolated from strands of hair. It also mutates frequently, leaving a rich record of ancestry. Y chromosome studies are trickier and more labor-intensive because the chromosome is huge (about 60 million bases long) and not as well cataloged. As a result, mtDNA research took off first, booming in the 1980s and 1990s. Y work caught on only a few years ago.

The analysis was sheer drudgery at first, but as DNA technology improved, reading history from genes became automatic. Anthropologists now isolate the Y chromosome DNA or mtDNA from the rest of the cellular gunk and feed the purified, prepared DNA into a machine. They then read out the nucleotide sequence of A's, C's, T's, and G's that comes out on the other side and compare the pattern of mutations with those in various public genetic databases. These patterns are known as haplotypes, and sets of similar haplotypes are organized into haplogroups. A haplogroup tells where a given line came from on a global scale (sub-Saharan Africa versus eastern Asia, for example). Often—but not always—a haplotype will point toward a more specific geography, like Japan or southern India.

In the past few years, genetic analysis of this sort has become so affordable that it has given rise to a cottage industry of "recreational genomics" companies. For $150 to $500 you can now send off a cheek swab or hair sample and find out if you have American Indian ancestry, if you're related to others who share your surname, or if you're part of the Jewish priestly Cohanim line. One firm even promises to tell clients their precise racial makeup—in percentages—for just $319.

Genetic analysis is good at showing which living populations are most closely related. But going back in history to figure out more precise relationships requires mind-bending math. "We have this nice snapshot of who is related to whom," says Peter Underhill, a population geneticist at Stanford University Medical Center. "But you probably have three or four different stories that would all lead to the same genetic landscape. The debate is always, Which story is more plausible?" 

In the United States, where the proverbial drop of blood was once enough to distinguish a freeman from a slave, telling such stories is far more than a pastime. Less than a century ago, for instance, the Melungeons' hazy racial status was enough to win them a long list of enemies. Virginia townspeople once hauled them into court for attempting to vote and hung them for marrying white women. One crusading Virginia state registrar launched a campaign in the 1930s and 1940s to hunt down all Melungeons and reclassify them as "colored." 

The term Melungeon was a slur until recent decades. "The Melungeons were always some other family who lived over on the other ridge," says Jack Goins, a retired glass cutter and television technician who has spent decades researching his ancestors. Darlene Wilson, a 50-year-old administrator and history teacher at Southeast Community College in Kentucky, says that when she was a teenager in the 1960s, working at a lunch counter in Norton, Virginia, her boss made her scrub the booth after the Melungeons had finished eating. 

Growing up in Wise, Virginia, Brent Kennedy had no clue that he was related to those shy-looking people who kept to themselves up in the Appalachian hills. He didn't look particularly Gaelic, with his cornflower blue eyes and bronze skin, but Melungeon roots were something polite people didn't talk about. After he began his genealogical research in the late 1980s, one great-aunt torched a collection of family photos and letters, and other relatives stopped speaking to him. 

When Kennedy approached scholars with his questions, they couldn't be bothered. Anthropologists and historians like Virginia DeMarce of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., had already settled the Melungeon question, they said. Kennedy's people were an insular group like the Louisiana Red Bones and the South Carolina Brass Ankles. They were a "triracial isolate" with white, American Indian, and African-American blood—a footnote in history.

So Kennedy did his own research instead. His book, The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People, is part memoir, part manifesto. It draws on his family story and genealogy to show how the Melungeons, like African-Americans and American Indians, have been victims of vicious racism—and how they have struggled to protect themselves through assimilation. Kennedy's thesis became a rallying cry for many Melungeons, but historians scoffed at his less-than-rigorous approach. Kennedy "essentially invented a 'new race,'" DeMarce wrote in the National Genealogical Quarterly in 1996, a "historically nonexistent oppressed minority that belies his own ancestry."

In 1998 Kennedy's research took a more urgent tone. After struggling for most of his life with inexplicable fevers, he was finally diagnosed with a hereditary disease. Familial Mediterranean fever, as it's known, causes intermittent high temperatures and crippling stomach pains. It's common among Syrians and Turks—and the Melungeons of Tennessee and Virginia. Thanks to the drug colchicine, Kennedy was eventually able to keep the disease at bay. But the experience left him convinced that he must have Mediterranean roots. Why else would a white boy of Scotch-Irish ancestry have this genetic disorder?

A DNA study offered the best hope of an answer, but it was controversial from the start. Some Melungeons opposed it. Others hoped it would finally bury age-old theories about African ancestry. Still others were less interested in escaping their racial impurity than in celebrating it. At the reunion, several white-looking men proudly proclaimed their African-American roots; others bragged about Saponi Indian or Sephardic Jewish ancestors. Onstage Kennedy made an emotional case for the DNA project. Handsome and articulate, with a Ph.D. in communications research and a gentle Southern accent, he has become a celebrity among Melungeons—both admired and shunned. "We've been marginalized and shoved out, and I point the finger at academia," he told the crowd. Many nodded in assent. Melungeon history is too broad, too messy for historians, Kennedy said. "That's the reason for the DNA study. It was forced upon us."

Unfortunately, biologists have little power to right history's wrongs or comfort its victims. They say the very concept of race, on which some Melungeons have hung their hopes, is biologically meaningless. Compared with other mammals, all humans are practically cousins. One troop of chimpanzees has more genetic diversity than all 6 billion humans. Moreover, any large human population has about 85 percent as much genetic variation as the species as a whole. An average Greek probably has as many genes in common with a Mongolian as he or she does with another Greek. In fact, recent genetic evidence suggests that all of humanity descends from a few thousand hunters who wandered out of sub-Saharan Africa less than 150,000 years ago. 

What little light DNA can shed on race is often unwelcome. Three years ago, for instance, at the University of Arizona, geneticist Michael Hammer studied the Y chromosomes of Jewish men from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Their genes had more in common with one another than with most of their non-Jewish neighbors, he found. But they were indistinguishable from those of Palestinians and Syrians. In a similar study, geneticist Michael Bamshad of the University of Utah examined DNA from Asian Indians of various castes. He found that the higher the caste, the greater the proportion of typically European genetic patterns—especially among men. His team's data support the anthropological and linguistic theory that the Indian caste system was established thousands of years ago by Western invaders, perhaps from Anatolia and Caucasia.

Molecular anthropologists like Underhill and Hammer are used to the controversy such research causes. But it came as a nasty surprise to Kevin Jones. "I went into human genetics being horribly naive as to what that meant," he says. "Nothing prepared me for the hype side of it." After the study began, some Melungeons called to see when they would see his results; others called to say that he had sampled the wrong people. Jones even received a death threat from a Melungeon repelled by the possibility of having African-American blood. "I don't think many of us have a sense of how dangerous this is," he says. "It stirs the hornet's nest. We are driven, through the purity of science, to support or reject hypotheses, but it's a terribly naive, pure, God-like approach. And, my God, does it stir the mortals up."

As Jones approached the podium that afternoon in Kingsport, the Melungeons were fanning themselves. Jones had been billed as the person who would finally provide some unambiguous answers to the Melungeon question, yet he began by telling them that their DNA didn't prove much of anything at all. After looking at 120 mtDNA samples and about 30 Y chromosomes with the help of geneticist Mark Thomas of University College London, Jones concluded that the Melungeons are mostly Eurasian, a catchall category spanning people from Scandinavia to the Middle East. They are also a little bit black and a little bit American Indian. Among the mtDNA haplotypes Jones examined, four were unusual. They matched only one of the 20,000 sequences in the global database, from an Indian group called the Siddhi that may have originated in North Africa and given rise to Europe's Roma, or Gypsies. A few other Melungeons had a haplotype common to Syrians and Turks but not unknown in northern Europe.

Among the Y chromosomes, a few were completely inexplicable. When Jones searched a database of European populations at University College London, the samples matched none of the 4,500 entries. As for Kennedy's familial Mediterranean fever, it remained a mystery. Although some patterns definitely were similar to ones found in Turkey, there was no proof of either Portuguese or Turkish ancestry in the Melungeon DNA. The study as a whole offered proof that multiracial ancestry is commonplace, even in a part of the country where racial divisions have historically been deep. "If anyone ever called you inbred," Jones quipped, "they're lying." Still, that wasn't much to go on. The DNA data told people who felt a deep connection to American Indians that their ancestors were mostly white. It informed a lot of blond-haired, blue-eyed people that at least some of their forebears were black. And it delivered a particularly cruel message to Kennedy: That his deeply cherished sense of himself and his community might never be proved, and the origins of the rare genetic disease that nearly killed him might never be known. What did it all mean? "Whatever you want it to," Jones told the audience. "If you were hoping for a DNA sequence that says you're Melungeon, forget it." 

The crowd asked a few questions and then drifted off for lunch. Many didn't come back, although the reunion still had two days to go. "They're trying to say that there's not a whole lot of Native American, and that's a pure joke," one reunion attendee said at the Shoney's restaurant down the street. Some shrugged their shoulders, but others seemed truly disappointed. "An awful lot of people were hoping something exotic would be presented, and it was not," Darlene Wilson later said. "There were also those who wanted the African aspect thrown out, and it was not."

The reaction would have come as no surprise to other molecular anthropologists. Y chromosomes and mtDNA leave a deep but very narrow record of ancestry, says Douglas Wallace, a geneticist at the University of California at Irvine and a pioneer of molecular anthropology. Imagine that your great-great-great-great-grandmother was North African, and just by chance, her daughters and their female descendants all married Frenchmen. Five generations down the line, you'd still have purely African mtDNA, but most of the rest of your genome would come from the French side of the family. "So are you African or are you French?" Wallace asks. "People imagine one portion of the genome is representative of all of them, but it's clearly not the case. You are more what you think you are than what your genes tell you."

When people assume that genetic information supersedes culture, language, and upbringing, they are bound to be disappointed. "I don't subscribe to people baring their arms [for a blood sample] to find out whether they are Phoenician," Wallace said, when asked about the Melungeon project. "It can only end up with people getting hurt." Jones wasn't so sure. "Should I have done this?" he wondered, after his presentation. As a scientist, he had to say yes—if only for the potential medical benefits of the information. But beyond that he couldn't say. "It's a strange business. Slime molds are so much safer."

Early the next Sunday morning, seven Melungeons piled into a minivan and trundled up Newman's Ridge into the heart of Tennessee's Melungeon country. The sycamores were draped with mistletoe, and many of the houses along the way had small plots of tobacco growing. Sitting at the wheel, Jack Goins joked that the switchbacks were so sharp that "you meet yourself coming back," while others made wisecracks about whose outlaw ancestors killed whose.

This was why they had come to the reunion—to see the valleys and hilltops their forebears had farmed, to share lore and take pictures of each other in front of gravestones and crumbling cabins. Others may have looked to DNA for identity, but to this group of Melungeons, a summer morning in the sweet air of Hancock County was more meaningful than any pattern of genetic blips.

In the valley below Newman's Ridge, the Melungeons clambered out and headed for the little whitewashed Primitive Baptist Church. Seven Gibson, who can trace his roots through several major Melungeon families, was preaching. In front of the church, a fountain collected the springwater that ran off the razorback hills above. It was little more than a low stone trough with a roof and a spigot, but the sign above it read: "This water will satisfy the thirst of your body. Only Jesus can satisfy the thirst of your soul."

Goins passed out some Styrofoam cups, and each of the Melungeons drank in turn.

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