26 May 2012

"All of us are multiracial"

That's the delightfully concise and true take-away message from a report about the results of the Melungeon DNA Project, as summarized by the Associated Press and the Shreveport Times:
For years, varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.

Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking. The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin. And that report, which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn't sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry.

Beginning in the early 1800s, or possibly before, the term Melungeon was applied as a slur to a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border. But it has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mysterious mixed-race ancestry.

G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who has spent more than 30 years examining multiracial people in the U.S. and wasn't part of this research, said the study is more evidence that race-mixing in the U.S. isn't a new phenomenon. "All of us are multiracial," he said. "It is recapturing a more authentic U.S. history."

Estes and her fellow researchers theorize that the various Melungeon lines may have sprung from the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery. They conclude that as laws were put in place to penalize the mixing of races, the various family groups could only intermarry with each other, even migrating together from Virginia through the Carolinas before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee...

Claims of Portuguese ancestry likely were a ruse they used in order to remain free and retain other privileges that came with being considered white, according to the study's authors...

Writing about his argument in a memoir published years later, Shepherd stated, "Our Southern high-bred people will never tolerate on equal terms any person who is even remotely tainted with negro blood, but they do not make the same objection to other brown or dark-skinned people, like the Spanish, the Cubans, the Italians, etc."...

In recent years, it has become a catchall term for people of mixed-race ancestry and has been applied to about 200 communities in the eastern U.S. — from New York to Louisiana. Among them were the Montauks, the Mantinecocks, Van Guilders, the Clappers, the Shinnecocks and others in New York. Pennsylvania had the Pools; North Carolina the Lumbees, Waccamaws and Haliwas and South Carolina the Redbones, Buckheads, Yellowhammers, Creels and others. In Louisiana, which somewhat resembled a Latin American nation with its racial mixing, there were Creoles of the Cane River region and the Redbones of western Louisiana, among others....

The study does not rule out the possibility of other races or ethnicities forming part of the Melungeon heritage, but none were detected among the 69 male lines and 8 female lines that were tested. Also, the study did not look for later racial mixing that might have occurred, for instance with Native Americans. 
More at the Shreveport Times.

Photo credit: AP


  1. America's shameful history laid naked. These DNA studies keep revealing such fantastic secrets.

    I just learned that from DNA extracted from a tiny piece of finger bone found in a Siberian cave, Russian researchers have discovered the existence of an ancient asian hominid that interbred with invading homo sapiens before disappearing.
    Modern inhabitants of Papua New Guinea and a few other islands share 5% of their DNA with this vanished population, the Denisovans.
    They have evidence that the Denisovans, Neanderthals and homo sapiens all lived in that cave. No evidence it was at the same time, but what a party that might have been.

    1. Not being argumentative, but I'm genuinely curious as to what you consider to be shameful about a multiracial heritage. I thought Americans were (justifiably) proud of the notion of their country as the Great Melting Pot, where all were equal - regardless of their backgrounds - simply because they were all Americans. Where's the shame in that?

    2. It's always risky to interpret someone else's comment, but from I've seen of N.Normal's comments in the past, I think what was referenced by the "shameful history" comment was not the multiracial heritage in this country per se, but the bias against multiracial unions and the discrimination against mixed races.


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