Compared to the sophistication of genetics in the second decade of the 21st century, Melungeon DNA testing in the 1990s was rather simplistic. Brent Kennedy based his primary genetic proof on a 1990 study of blood samples from 177 Melungeon descendants taken in 1969. 1 It is now known that DNA samples can be contaminated by contact by other persons with the sample, or even DNA attached to moisture in condensed human breath. There is no way of knowing the procedures of the nurse, who took the blood samples or even her own ancestry.
The geneticist, who carried out the above tests, stated that “The results were consistent with their belief that they were Portuguese.” 2 “Among the populations showing no significant differences with the Melungeons were the Galician area of Spain and Portugal, Canary Islands, southern Italy, North Africa, Malta, Turkey and Cyprus.” The geneticist reported that the Melungeon DNA showed a 10% similarity to Native American DNA. He did not say which Native American tribe or that if he was absolutely certain that the Native Americans sampled carried DNA from other ethnic groups. The geneticist also stated that the Melungeon DNA showed no similarity with Sub-Saharan African DNA.
Anthropologists and geneticists were, in particular, puzzled by what they thought was non-Indigenous DNA showing up in the Melungeons of eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. The Native American DNA component of the Melungeon samples showed “a significant genetic relationship to certain Indian populations in South America and Cuba. 2 Many anthropologists interpreted this to mean that some ancestors of the Melungeons, probably African slaves, had lived first in these regions and intermarried with local Indians, before moving to the Appalachians. Critics of Kennedy’s book stated that because the 1990 genetic study listed Caribbean indigenous DNA in Melungeons, this was proof that the lab work was inaccurate.
Recent anthropological studies by the People of One Fire Native American research alliance provide an alternative explanation to that made in 1990. 3 De Soto visited a Taino-Arawak province on the Ocmulgee River named Toa in March of 1540. Toa was also the name of a Taino province in Puerto Rico. A Taino stela was found in the early 1900s on a hilltop shrine overlooking the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. 4 It portrays a deity, identical to those portrayed in caves around Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Seventeenth century French and Dutch texts state that prior to the European Contact Period, there was an invasion of Caribbean peoples into the southern Appalachian Mountains. In the 1600s some Caribbean peoples still lived in the Southern Appalachians, but they were now vassals of the Apalache.
The human genome was not completely deciphered until the year 2000. There has been an explosion of knowledge about the genetic history of mankind since then. If a scientist in 2009 postulated that homo sapiens mated with Neanderthals, he would have been ostracized as a heretic and quack. Now that mixing of species is accepted as fact. The understanding of the past is changing constantly. Interpretation of any genetic tests must be accompanied by the knowledge that the test results might be different within a few months or a year.
In 2002 a more sophisticated DNA analysis of Melungeon families in Wise, VA and Hancock County, TN was completed. The percentages of Mediterranean populations were not as high as expected, but were still there. Also, the European DNA test markers were grouped together as a whole. A Melungeon ancestor from Iberia was lumped together with a Melungeon ancestor from England. Afterward, Brent Kennedy issued the following statement:
“In addition to Native American (approximately 5% of the sample), African (approximately 5%) and European (approximately 83% of the sample, but representing Europeans from north to south), the study also showed approximately 7% of the samples matching populations in Turkey, Syria and northern India. In other words, the surviving genes from Middle Eastern and East Indian ancestors are in equal proportion to those of Native Americans and Africans. My gut feeling is that the original, seventeenth-century percentages of all three groups (i.e., African, Native American, and Middle Eastern/East Indian) were higher than what we’re seeing today. Time, admixture, and out-movement of some of our darker cousins into other minority groups have likely lowered the genetic traces of their earlier presence. But enough of them were there to still be traceable among the Melungeons of today. The long discounted Mediterranean and Middle Eastern heritages are irrefutably there.” 5
In 2005 a Melungeon organization and the Family Tree DNA lab in Houston, TX entered into a partnership to thoroughly explore the genetic profiles of Melungeons. 6 Melungeon leaders felt that the never-ending hostility to Melungeon research in some segments of the academic communities prejudiced general genetic research.
The Family Tree DNA lab is currently sponsoring a Melungeon Core Y DNA Project. The Melungeon Y DNA Project is a study of males who have proven known Melungeon ancestors, according to old records, and agreed on by some of the top Melungeon researchers. The goal of the project is to obtain a broader understanding of the Melungeon heritage. Previous genetic studies have focused on the maternal DNA kits (MtDNA). Historians have correctly pointed out that the Melungeons probably began as the offspring from males and females of different races. Therefore, studies of paternal and maternal DNA will probably give very different results.
One of the more interesting results of the Melungeon y-chromosome study is the appearance of the Kohenim Modal Haplotype. It is associated with Tribes of Aaron and Levi, who before the Jewish Diaspora in 79 AD furnished all priests for the Temple in Jerusalem. An unexpectedly high percentage of Melungeon male descendants carry this gene. To be precise, the Jewish heritage was not surprising to Melungeon researchers, but was to those historians who believe the official version of Appalachian history. According to orthodox history, the Southern Appalachians were first settled in the period between 1770 and 1838 (Cherokee Removal) by English speaking settlers, who were predominantly Scottish, Ulster Scots, English, Irish and German. What genetics cannot answer is WHEN people with Jewish ancestors settled the Southern Appalachians.
DNA Consultants, Inc. carried out a DNA study of 40 self-identified Melungeon individuals. 7 The study found that the individuals were primarily of western European and African heritage. Persons tested had relatively small levels of Asiatic (Native American) DNA or none at all. Of course, the Spanish and Portuguese are western Europeans. The peoples of the eastern Mediterranean share many DNA indicators with those of the western Mediterranean basin.
There is also a historical caveat to consider when genetically evaluating modern Melungeon descendants. Eyewitness accounts and family histories from the late 1700s and early 1800s are filled with stories of inhabitants with substantial Native American features migrating OUT of the Appalachians. They moved west with the frontier or south to communities containing many Native American descendants. Many Creek families in Alabama, Georgia and Florida have always been puzzled by the stories of ancestors, who left North Carolina to live in predominantly Creek communities. This is because the State of North Carolina tells the public that only Cherokee Indians lived in their mountains.
The author’s own family experienced similarly motivated out-migrations. A sudden eruption of persecution in their community of mixed-blood Creek families in the early 20th century caused those, who looked the most “Creek” to migrate to communities where they blended in. My grandmother’s oldest half-brother (28 years older) took a Creek allotment in Oklahoma in 1905. A full brother closer to her age moved to Tampa, Florida in the 1930s, where there were many residents with black hair and tan skin.
Forty persons out of a probable population of 250,000 is hardly a statistically reliable sample. Furthermore, the Melungeons were scattered across about 400 miles of mountainous terrain. The isolation of mountain valleys before the late 1800s would have insured that individual Melungeon communities would have varying ancestries. Nevertheless, the anti-Kennedy faction in academia “hyped up” results of the DNA tests in order to prove that they were right and Kennedy was wrong. The national media jumped onto the band wagon to fan the opinions of a few academicians and individuals into a “national controversy.” The purpose was to increase TV viewership and newspaper readership, not the seeking of truth. The journalists involved knew little about genetics and so focused on the “opinions” of individuals to imply that they represented all Melungeons.
In 2012, DNA Consultants issued this report about its autosomal DNA study of Melungeons:
“After many years in development, the results of a DNA ancestry project enrolling 40 Melungeons were published and made public, marking the end of an attempt to solve the mystery of a Southern U.S. ethnic group with autosomal DNA.
Seeming to lay to rest an old controversy in American history about Melungeons, the scientific data supporting a genetic mixture of white, American Indian and Sub-Saharan African were placed online today by the organizers of DNA Consultants’ Melungeon DNA Project.
Any media coverage in 2012 purporting to show Melungeons as shocked by evidence of sub-Saharan African DNA conflicts with this evidence, but also with more than a hundred years of testimony from Melungeons themselves.” 8
- Kennedy, Brent, The Melungeons, The Resurrection of a Proud People, Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997; pp. 147-149.
- Guthrie, James L. Melungeon Comparisons of Gene Distribution to Those of Worldwide Populations, Tennessee Anthropologist, 15/1 (Spring 1990).
- The Paracus, Taino and Calusa Peoples of Georgia & South Carolina, People of One Fire, 2012.
- Thornton, Richard. Experts solve mystery of ancient stone monument near Atlanta. Examiner.com. 11 April 2011.
- Melungeon Heritage Association. 2002 and 2010 DNA studies confirmed tri-racial roots of Melungeons. 25 July 2012.
- Campbell, Helen. The Legend of a Mountain Girl and her Baby. Archived version.
- Panther-Yates, Donald & Hirschman, Elizabeth Caldwell, Towards a Genetic Profile of Melungeons in Southern Appalachia, September 16, 2010
- DNAConsultants. Melungeon Riddle Solved by Autosomal DNA Project. 16 September 2010.