Friday, June 29, 2012

Melungeon ancestry currently debated

I have been reading with interest the Melungeon-DNA email list hosted by The main topic seems to be the same as ever, and it is a very interesting one--what is the ancestry of the Melungeons?

A little twist, though,has arisen in this debate--and that is--what exactly are researchers determining, and how are they determining it? When you analyze Y-Dna and Mtdna, which are very specific and very limited, just what do you end up with? Can you make judgments about the ethnic make-up of a population as a whole?

In addition, there is a second twist, which is that a scholarly paper has been interpreted by the media. The online discussion has covered every possible permutation of the arguments that can arise from the facts, the way the research was done, and the interpretation of results.

The scholarly paper was recently  written on the topic of the ancestry of the Melungeons and it  has been accepted in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy. The article has generated some media attention, and some good discussion.

I haven't seen the article yet, but I gather from the thread that I have been reading that it appears that  the authors looked at MtDNA and Y-DNA lines to see what evidence there might be for ancestry. MtDNA traces a person's mother's mother's mother's mother--and so on, for thousands, and often tens of thousands of years. It is very good for identifying that matrilineal lineage, but of course cannot account for any ancestry introduced by males (and their mothers) throughout the many generations traced back. It is useful, but limited. Y-DNA is similarly limited, in that it can trace a man's father's father's father--etc. for many generations, but again, any women and their fathers who married into that line do not get represented in the DNA picture that results.

Update July 1, 2012: Thanks to those who sent a link to the article, I have now read it. It is very interesting  and contains a lot of information about the families studied. Having seen the article, I would still suggest that autosomal DNA analysis be looked at in the future, along with relevant paper trails. In response to the comments that autosomal DNA doesn't go back many generations, I would say that many of us who have tested find that our cousin matches appear to be clearly beyond five generations back. Some useful information may be gleaned by testing. That's just my opinion.

A media report on the paper points to men of African ancestry marrying women of European ancestry. That means, of the people whose DNA was accepted into the study and then taken into account for the research (and that may mean including or excluding some persons, according to what I have read in the thread), many of the paternal lines were of African ancestry and the maternal lines of European ancestry.

This might tell a story, and it might not. For example, a man who submitted both YDNA and MtDNA for the study might find that the ancient patrilineal ancestor was from Africa. The ancient matrilineal ancestor was from Europe. But there could be all sorts of other ancestry (Native American, for example)  introduced into the person's genetic make-up.This additional ancestry can be seen to some extent in autosomal DNA, although the results are not as neat and tidy as those of Y-DNA and MtDNA. Autosomal DNA is also problematic in that it can only show heritage for a certain number of generations, and even then it is a spotty record, as some ancestry is inevitably discarded as DNA recombines with each generation. Yet, I'd want to see the autosomal results, and see those analyzed by geneticists. I think they would add to the picture.

Melungeon stories and documents about heritage provide a variety of possible directions for ancestry, including Native American, Portuguese, Turkish, African, and others. It will indeed be interesting to see just what the DNA will be able to show. And, in my opinion, that means looking at autosomal DNA and connecting that to paper trails as much as can be done. It is a lot of work, but would provide a richer basis for analysis than what was provided for the paper in JOGG. That work is important, but does not tell the readers much about the ethnic ancestry of the population.

The debate itself is fascinating, and if you want to see it for yourself, check the email list at (easy to subscribe to).
I think following the debate is a great way to see the different points of view and the evidence for each. The researchers are informed, and so are their critics. It is the kind of debate that lets the readers glean information and ideas.

You may also wish to see a bit about the hullaballoo in a HuffPost article

Also recommended: blog about Melungeons from an informed and intelligent point of view:

Melungeon blog

See also a perspective from a blogger with relevant family history: