GENEALOGY-DNA-L ArchivesArchiver > GENEALOGY-DNA > 2002-06 > 1024535690
From: "Dennis Maggard" <>
Subject: [DNA] Melungeon DNA Study Results
Date: Wed, 19 Jun 2002 21:14:50 -0400
The Associated Press having mistakenly released a story about the
Melungeon DNA study results a day early, I have received permission
to go ahead and post the results of the study here, see below, preceded
by a statement correcting the Associated Press story.
Melungeon-L List Owner
Statement by Wayne Winkler,
President of the Melungeon Heritage Association................
The Associated Press mistakenly released the story of the DNA study a day
early. We regret that, after two years of hard work, Dr. Kevin Jones was not
permitted to break the news of his study himself. The story by Chris Kahn
also contained a few inaccuracies. First, the hair samples taken to study
mitochondrial DNA, tracing the maternal lines, were taken from men as well
as women, contrary to the statement in the story. Secondly, Brent Kennedy
quoted out of context in saying that Melungeons weren't much different from
other Americans. In context, he was saying that ALL Americans are mixed to
some degree, although not necessarily as much as are Melungeons. And
think the story missed the important news: that women were a part of the
original Turkish, Mediterranean, and northern Indian population that came to
America. We've always heard the stories about shipwrecked sailors or
explorers being the source of our overseas genes; it's now obvious that
came, at least in part, from family units of men and women who were
establish themselves in a new land. As the DNA study shows, they succeeded.
Press release of the Melungeon Heritage Association..................
Kingsport, Tennessee, June 20, 2002 - Some of the veil of mystery
surrounding the "mysterious" Melungeons was lifted today when the results of
a two-year DNA study were announced. New questions have been raised,
however, concerning females potentially from Turkey and northern India who
are a part of the Melungeon ancestry.
The Melungeons are a group of people of unknown origin first documented in
the mountains of Appalachia in the early 19th century. Many believed they
were of mixed racial ancestry and the Melungeons faced legal and social
discrimination. As a result, they tended to live in remote areas, most
notably Newman's Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee. In the 1940's and 1950'
s, sociologists and anthropologists labeled the Melungeons and other similar
groups as "tri-racial isolates."
Over the years, numerous myths, legends, and theories evolved to explain
the Melungeons' mysterious origins. These legends often involved sailors and
explorers from Spain, Portugal, Carthage, or Phoenicia who were stranded on
the American continent and intermarried with Indians. The Melungeons
themselves often claimed to be "Portyghee." Most researchers believed they
were a product of intermarriage between English and Scots-Irish settlers,
Indians, and free African-Americans, and discounted their claims of
The DNA results announced today confirmed that the Melungeons have
European, African, and Native American ancestry, as well as genetic
similarities with populations in Turkey and northern India. More surprising,
however, is the fact that some of these Turkish- and northern Indian- like
sequences have been passed through the Melungeons' maternal lines,
indicating that their overseas ancestors included not only male sailors and
explorers, but females as well.
The results were announced today at Fourth Union, a Melungeon conference in
Kingsport, Tennessee sponsored by the Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA).
MHA is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting research and
understanding about Melungeons and other multi-racial groups in the United
States. Dr. Kevin Jones, a biologist at the University of Virginia's College
at Wise, conducted the study.
The presence of Turkish and northern Indian haplotypes within the
mitochondrial DNA samples taken from modern-day Melungeons indicates that
women of European/Asian origin were a part of the original mixture that made
up the Melungeon ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA comes from the female side of
an individual's ancestry. Previous researchers had assumed that European
males intermarried with Native Americans and African-Americans to produce
the Melungeons. Although Native and African genes are definitely a part of
the Melungeon genetic mix, women were among the overseas settlers who
contributed to the Melungeon gene pool.
Dr. N. Brent Kennedy speculated that the Melungeons were of Mediterranean
and Middle Eastern ancestry and published his theories in a book entitled
The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People, published in 1994 by
Mercer University Press.
Dr. Jones, a native of London, England, studied at the University of
Reading, and did post-doctoral research at Louisiana State University. He is
currently a professor of biology at UVA-Wise, teaching courses including
cell biology and genetics. Dr. Jones undertook this DNA study in 2000 at the
suggestion of Dr. Kennedy, then vice-chancellor at the University of
Virginia's College at Wise. Kennedy asked Jones to analyze DNA samples taken
from members of known Melungeon families. Such a study would utilize
technology not available to earlier researchers.
"Brent Kennedy... explained the controversy that surrounded the origins of
the Melungeons [and] realized that I had the DNA expertise to look at that,"
Jones related in an interview with Wayne Winkler, president of the Melungeon
Heritage Association and author of an upcoming book about the Melungeons.
"The subjects were largely chosen by Brent Kennedy on the basis of pursuing
as many of the known Melungeon lineages that existed in the area and taking
advantage of his genealogical expertise. People were then asked to donate
samples to the study, and in the majority of cases they kindly did so."
Single hairs were taken to study the mitochondrial DNA which traces the
maternal lines of the subject. In other words, the samples represented DNA,
which could be traced to the subject's mother, grandmother,
great-grandmother, and so on. "We also have a smaller number of samples
which are cheek cells for looking at male inheritance," said Jones.
"What we get from those is a DNA sequence which we can think of as being
about an 600-long letter code, and we can take that string of 600 letters
and compare those to what now is literally thousands of samples from around
the world. We're interested both in the number of different sequences that
we get from the population and also how they appear to relate to other
About 100 hair samples were studied for mitochondrial, or maternal, DNA,
and about 30 samples of cheek cells were taken to study the Y-chromosome, or
male, DNA. While more samples might have been taken, Jones said, "That's the
beauty of science: one can always subsequently refine and extend the
analyses." The technology available to Jones allowed him to study only the
mitochondrial DNA samples; the Y-chromosome samples were sent to University
College in London, England, for study. "The 'Y' is technically far harder to
do, and indeed, relies on expertise in some other labs in the world to do
it, so we're partly dependent on their cooperation and collaboration."
Such testing is not perfect, of course, and does not tell researchers
everything about an individual's inheritance. For example, neither test will
give genetic information about a subject's paternal grandmother. However,
the study was not particularly concerned with individual genealogies. "We're
looking for patterns that exist in the population as a whole," according to
Jones. "Now, obviously, each individual sample contributes to that, but I
think that for an individual you can say relatively little. Looking at the
patterns that occur throughout the population becomes important. And that
means the number of samples that are looked at is also significant, and
we've tried to do as many as is reasonably possible."
Jones compared these samples to the thousands available through GenBank, an
international genetics database, published scientific literature and the
Mitochondrial DNA Concordance, databases containing DNA sequence
information. Looking at the maternal lines of the Melungeons who were
tested, Jones found considerable variation in ethnicity among the samples.
"It's comparatively straightforward to link particular sequences to
particular ethnic groups and different Continental areas of the world," he
noted, "and the majority of those Melungeon-derived sequences were European
in origin. Within those European samples, though, there is significant
diversity, and some seem to reflect areas outside the traditional northern
"The ability to tie a sequence to a particular area is dependent upon the
historical occurrence of any given haplotype somewhere, and the places that
are easy to track are where we've had populations existing for a long time,
and not being affected by a lot of different people coming in. So some,
perhaps more isolated, areas of Europe are easier to track than more
While the Melungeons are predominantly European in their genetic
backgrounds, they are indeed tri-racial. "The appears to be a small
percentage of both Native American and African-American sequences in there,
too," Jones stated, "although they are certainly both in the minority. They'
re both in there in about equal levels of representation as well."
The long-held belief that the Melungeons originated in Portugal is neither
borne out nor negated by Jones' research. "To date we've found no sequences
that can be definitively traced back to uniquely Portuguese sequences. That
doesn't mean that they don't exist. A large number of the European sequences
are now widely spread throughout Europe, and if one of those genetic
sequences happened to come from Portugal we would not detect that. We can't
dismiss that theory at the moment, but we can't provide additional support
Jones finds a stronger possibility for a Turkish or Middle Eastern ancestry
for the Melungeons. "The relatively unusual European -type sequences seem to
reflect, perhaps, areas around northern India. It's very hard to say, back
in time, what that would have been classified as, and I think one of the
problems here is that we tend to think of 'Turkish' in terms of the
dimensions of modern Turkey, not of the original scale of people of Turkish
origin who, in essence, were spread throughout the European world. Perhaps
the best I can say is that some of those sequences are a little more 'exotic
' than Anglo-Irish sequences, and some of those could reflect, perhaps,
populations that were associated with or moved through Turkey."
The Portuguese and Spanish explorers and early American settlers may well
be the key to discovering how these people wound up in America. The
Portuguese, in particular, were involved in wide-ranging trade in the 15th
and 16th centuries, and had many interests in places such as northern India
and the area occupied by present-day Turkey. Both Spain and Portugal had
very cosmopolitan populations, with large numbers of people from many parts
of the world living within their borders. And Dr. Kennedy and others have
suggested the Spanish and Portuguese fort at Santa Elena (in present-day
South Carolina), along with a series of frontier outposts, as a possible
source for Melungeon ancestry.
With regard to the male lineage's investigated, the Y chromosome data also
suggests a multiracial origin, including Sub-Saharan African and European
components. Of particular interest are Y haplotypes of established Melungeon
male lines that possibly reflect Mediterranean and/or Near Eastern
populations. This finding indicates that the overseas ancestors of the
Melungeons may have come to these shores as part of a male-female family
unit, or formed such family units shortly after arrival. Such family units
came to America as part of a Spanish/Portuguese colony at Santa Elena in
present-day South Carolina.
Theories about when people with this genetic background first came to
America are speculative at this point. "Dr. Jones' work has answered many
questions," said Wayne Winkler, president of MHA, "but those answers have
raised many more questions. These questions will keep historians busy for
some time to come, and we may never have definite answers. The Melungeons
may remain one of the mysteries of history."