What Is A Melungeon?

Melungeons are part Black

My field of study has been population genetics, also called statistical genetics (not the new, high-tech, glamorous biochemical genetics), which deals with probablities, micro-evolution (changes in populations over a finite time), and selection (in agriculture). My statement that all Melungeons are part Black is simply a statement of well-known fact. So are most "White" Southerners.

Once more, if one allows 25 years to a generation, there are 10 generations in 250 years. Therefore each person born today has approximately 1024 (2 to the 10th power) ancestors in 1750, each person born in 1950 had about 1024 ancestors in 1700. Now, when I say "ancestors", I mean branches on one's family tree. Of course, for most of us, the same person is sometimes going to appear on more than one branch, since their great-grandchildren will have married each other, etc.

None of us can know all 1024 ancestors from 250 years ago. Even if we have the records for all 1024 putative ancestors, that does not mean those are the real ancestors. Secret adoption has been common until very recently, pregnant teens frequently giving their children to other women (usually relatives, but not always) to raise. People do not always have the fathers they think they do for other reasons, including rape and secret liaisons.

The immigrants from Europe were more frequently male than female, these men found women locally who were not always what they said they were. By 1700 there were hundreds of mixed women in eastern Virginia and North Carolina who were part Indian, part Black and part White. The Indians of this region today all have more Black than Indian in them. They are Indian as an identity based on being part of a community which was originally Indian but which was genetically swamped by Black and White inputs, largely from free Mulattos joining them. When one sees someone in their genealogy from this region described as an Indian, one needs to understand that this is an ethnic description, what they identified themselves as, but in fact they would actually have both more Black and more White than Indian.

Panmixis means freely mixing, that all members of a group will soon have all the earlier members of the group as ancestors. Humans are not panmictic in the short run because of ethnic, class, race and religious barriers to intermarriage. A small amount of mixing does occur across even the most rigid barriers, however, even if only wartime rape. Give enough time, everyone has everyone from an earlier time (who left descendants at all) as an ancestor. If one goes back 1,000 years, each of us has some 1,000,000,000,000 branches to our family tree. I don't know how many people there were 1000 years ago, but certainly less than 1,000,000,000. That means there is room on everyone's family tree for every person in the world 1000 times over just 1000 years ago. All Europeans have thousands of Black ancestors if one goes back 2000 years. But that is thousands, compared to millions of White ancestors.

All Portuguese have a significant amount of Black ancestry from the time of Moorish rule. Yes, I know that the Moors were Berbers and Arabs, not Black African. But their empire extended down to the border of Senegal and they had many Blacks that came to live in their cities, some as slaves, some as Muslim scholars from centers like Timbuctu and Sokoto. For that matter, the Carthaginians and the Romans both brought many Black Africans to Iberia from the Sahara.

Anyone who has most of their ancestors in the Southeast from before 1800 is going to find where their European male ancestors married American women who have no surname or no recorded genealogy. These women were mostly part Black in the more limited sense that they had Black African ancestors that came to America. Everyone who is part Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, South French, Greek, North African, Austrian or south German has a significant amount of Black African ancestry in these lines due to the African presence in Roman, Carthaginian and Egyptian armies and maritime fleets.

If you say you are part Virginia or North Carolina Indian, you are saying you are part Black. If you say you are part Portuguese, you are saying you are part Black. How much is a different matter, but the presence of some Black ancestry is simply a statement of known fact.

Thomas Brown is right, incidentally, the Black component went in very early, not after the Civil War. The mixed race groups which formed along the Virginia and North Carolina border were descended from earlier mixed race groups on the coast of Virginia. These formed largely by free Mulattos joining Indian groups. I have never heard of anyone identified as Black joining the Melungeons after the Civil War, though members of other Mestee groups like the Brass Ankles did.

From Genforum, January 03, 2001 


______________________________________________________________________________  Genetics, Genealogy and Race

Melungeon-L Archives


I have been thinking about that question on the Pollitzer and Brown study on blood antigens and my emphasis on the Duffy locus, with the Fya- allele being found in the malarial zone of West Africa and Fya+ everywhere else. Of course, Fya- lacks the blood cell surface antigen which is the binding site for the malarial parasite (a trypanosome protozoan, if memory serves), which makes the person without the Duffy antigen suffer much less with a malarial infection. The question challenged the sampling done for this study, which is a valid objection and something which had bothered me for a long time.

There was also some assertion that the study was strictly biochemical and ignored the genealogy. Genealogy is totally irrelevant for what I was talking about, which is proving the presence of African ancestry in the group. Genealogy is putative, legendary or traditional ancestry, it tells us little or nothing about the biology of the individuals. Secret adoptions (particularly mothers raising daughter's illegitimate children), illicit liaisons, and other discrepancies abound in all populations. One DNA tester said in an interview that no one should have their DNA tested unless they were fully willing to accept whatever the findings might be, including that they were mistaken about who their father is, since about "one person in ten is sending father's day cards to the wrong guy". If we extend this 90% probability of being right in one's genealogy over ten generations (about 
250 years), there is only a 35% chance of being right even if records are complete. After 20 generations, there is only a 12.17% chance and after 40 generations, a 1.5% chance of being correct. So when so many British nobles claim to be direct male line descendents of William the Conqueror, they have 
a less than 2% chance that it is actually so. It would be very interesting to do a Y-chromosome analysis on the all hereditary peers in the House of Lords who claim to have their direct male line leading to William. I guess genealogy has 
the same relation to scientific ancestry studies that holy scriptures have to evolution and population genetics. One is taken on faith, the other is rationally derived from objective reality. Just as religious scriptures can be fascinating, genealogy can be a very absorbing family history as believed, whether it is true or not.

Now race is a very difficult concept to pin down. Race, breed and variety are terms used for distinct populations within a species. The level higher than species, the genus, is assumed to mean that the two populations can not interbreed. The dhole, the wild dog of East and South Asia, certainly 
resembles the domestic dog to a remarkable degree, but they can not interbreed, so they are different genera. The dog, dingo, wolf, coyote and the various jackals all can interbreed but do so infrequently even where their ranges overlap. This makes them different species of the same genus, Canis. Now, if we kept our prejudices out classification, we would be set with an understanding of natural classification. But we don't. Bonobos, chimpanzees and humans are probably as closely related as the coyote, dingo and black-backed jackal, but almost no one suggests putting them in the same genus. Similar prejudices prevail in racial classification.

Race is generally used for populations which are naturally formed, variety for domestic plants and breed for domestic animals. If we accept the estimate that modern man separated from Homo robustus some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, and use that for an estimate of the degree of separation possible within the species, races would be expected to take tens of 
thousands of years to form. In terms of the degree of separation demanded, there are three to eight races of modern humans. There is one group formed in southern Africa which is usually split into two races, the Khoisan (Khoi-khoi [hottentots], San [bushmen], Sandawe and Hadza) and the Twa 
(pygmies, Mbuti). There is another group north and west of the vicinity of Lake Victoria but south of the Sahara, which can be split into two races, the Guinean of the rainforest (coastal) belt and the Sahelian of the bush and grasslands. The other group includes North Africa, the Horn of Africa 
and the rest of the world. It can be split into the Australian, the Papuan (New Guinea and neighboring islands, and the Andaman Islands), and the Southeast Asian (including the south Chinese [but not the north Chinese], the people of the Indochinese peninsula and the Malayo-Polynesian peoples) 
and then a group with all the rest. So a Swede, an Ethiopian, an Arab, a Sri Lankan, a north Chinese, a Korean, a Navajo and a Mayan are all the same race by genetic distance. See 
http://www25.brinkster.com/humanraces/calc/index.asp for Cavalli-Sforza's table of genetic distances to see how well this division, which is admittedly heavily influenced by Merritt Ruhlen's work on the relationship of languages, fits the DNA studies done so far.

Of course, this is not how race is usually used. It usually refers to visual races, groups which look different. Some people will refer to a Black race which includes all Sub-Saharan Africans, Dravidians from southern India and Sri Lanka, Australians, Papuans and the Melanesians, members of 
all eight different biological races. But in the context of American racial clasification, the situation gets much simpler if even less scientific. One is Black if one has discernable or known Sub-Saharan African ancestry, Indian if one eighth or more Native American ancestry and not too much African, Asian if of all or obvious part East, Southeast or South Asian ancestry, and white if of mostly European, West, Central or Northern Asian, and/or North African ancestry and not known to be of significant Sub-Saharan ancestry. With all systems of racial classification, there are many groups and many individuals who do not fit in one category. The Bantu were formed by a Guinean intrusion into an area which had been Khoisan, so Bantus of Cameroon appear almost pure Guinean, but many in South Africa (like Nelson Mandela) appear almost pure Khoisan. Iranians show their "white" (Central and West Asian) ancestry, plus the older Elamo-Dravidian South Asian stock, 
some Mongol East Asian and some Bantu Black African from the Iranian colonies in East Africa like Zanzibar. Mixing occurs wherever two or more peoples live together or next to each other. Even racism in its most extreme will not prevent mixing, though it may make the gene flow between two populations very one-sided. Anti-black racism in America may prevent Hattie McDaniel's children from passing for white, but not Lena Horne's. So Lena Horne has more white ancestry than black, that doesn't change the fact that her children have black ancestry through her.

Finally, what records show for racial classification tell us very little indeed about the actual racial composition of individuals. We know that most Native Americans of the Southeast have more white and black ancestry than Amerind. Pollitzer's blood type study on the Lumbee of southern North 
Carolina showed them to be 50% black, 40% white and 10% Amerind in ancestry. The Haliwa of northern North Carolina gave very similar results. This is what we would expect with the combination of Indian disease susceptibility and free blacks and mulattos taking refuge with the Indians. This is what I think of when I think of my Indian ancestors who merged with the Graysville Melungeons and then into white society, someone who is mixed Amerind, black and white, and less than half Amerind. I have said many times that I believe the genealogical records for most Melungeons will show some 
self-identified Indians and no self-identified blacks, but that most if not all of the Indians had a substantial amount of black ancestry, probably more than Amerind. They would be members of an Indian community, so socially Indian, the community would have a continuous history of being Indian, so 
historically Indian, and they would think of themselves as Indian, so self-identified as Indian. They just would not be Indian biologically, which is what is usally meant by racially. Now, I strongly support the right of such people to classify themselves as Indian and I have no problem 
with people claiming ancestors as Indian who thought of themselves as Indian. That does not mean they can use this to say they have no black ancestry when they do, however.

I am really tired of people trying to tell me that "their" Indians did not mix with blacks, that they despised blacks and had nothing to do with them. I am sure that there were Indians who would not accept someone who looked almost pure Guinea like say Whoopi Goldberg, but the same people would readily accept someone who looked like Mariah Carey. (See these part black people and tell me they would be rejected because of racism by Native Americans) If, say, the Tuscarora were such an exclusive group who would not accept free blacks who were pure black, then try to believe that a young Tuscarora man would reject a young Saponi woman just because she was half Amerind, a quarter white and a quarter black, although she was the color of a pure Indian and very 
attractive. I can't do it. Of course, I have always been a sucker for tan skin with black eyes and hair (see my Filipina wife's picture at 
Emma and Mike Nassau 2011.).

I know this will offend some of you who fervently want to preserve the myth that we do not have black ancestry, and I am indeed sorry to do so. I am especially sorry to upset those who have been socially ostracized for not being pure white and are understandably protective of their white or white-Indian identity. My mother was one of those and I could never get her to admit the obvious black ancestry in our family even though her father had had a hard time passing for white. In the last year of her life, she asked me why she was so much darker than all her friends in a group photo, which struck me as really strange since we had just had an argument over where we got our snub noses a month earlier, with her saying they proved Irish ancestry (there is very little) and me saying African ancestry (definitely substantially more than Irish). She denied there was any African then and died still doing so. I have no problem with Melungeons bragging about their 
Indian ancestry, tracing their genealogy back without acknowledging any black ancestry, etc., as long as they do not try to impede the scientific investigation of our actual biological ancestry by attacking results which show our black ancestry.

Mike Nassau 

Thursday, 22 May 2003