Thursday, July 12, 2012

NPR Podcast on Melungeon DNA study: direct lineage African?

Update 2016: Research into the origins of Melungeons continues.
There are heritage websites, conferences, and ongoing DNA testing. Updates from those familiar with the research progress are welcome here and useful resources and news items will be linked.

NPR has provided a podcast online which explores the topic of DNA research of Melungeon ancestry. The podcast itself includes an interview with Roberta Estes, lead researcher of the recent study, the results of which were published in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy, and with Wayne Winkler, whose family is identified as of Melungeon heritage. Both Winkler and Estes explain in the interview that the research into the ancestry of the Melungeons has a long way to go, and that more families will ideally be included in future research. The results may eventually show a more mixed heritage than has been identified in the recently published paper.

I think it is a good sign that the research to date is not considered, at least in the words of the NPR interviewees, to be the definitive description of the ethnic heritage of the Melungeons. Winkler says, referring to the long published article: "But I think, as people understand what this is, they see it as, really, a foundation for future research and not the last word."

The interview was balanced and the discussion logical.See the transcript and hear the podcast at: NPR podcast on Melungeon DNA research.

In contrast, unfortunately, the written summary above the online podcast describes the research results in a more sensationalistic way: For Some People of Appalachia, Complicated Roots reads the header. That sounds interesting and believable. But the rest is a bit extreme. The summary states that the "Melungeon people of Appalachia believed they were of Portuguese descent. Turns out, their direct lineage is more African than anything else." Since only Y-DNA and MTDNA, were tested, this statement makes no sense.

For those who were tested, and it is a small group, results for Y-DNA as African did turn up. But Y-DNA is very limited in describing anyone's heritage. It can only keep track of the line of the father's father's father's father and so on. All the women  who married into the line, and all of their ancestry, is invisible with this type of testing. The MTDNA, which tests for the matrilineal ancestry, is similarly limited, and as I understand from the study, it was more European than African. It is not possible to extrapolate the results of this study to determine the heritage of the Melungeons. Some of the heritage has been identified, but the evidence is not enough to support a statement that the main heritage is African.

I can recommend listening to the podcast and reading the study (link provided in comments to previous post).


"For Some People of Appalachia, Complicated Roots." NPR Public Radio. N.p., 11 July 2012. Web. 12 July 2012.

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