Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Is Half a Melungeon DNA Study Better than None?

Recently the Journal of Genetic Genealogy published the following:  

Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population 

Roberta J. Estes, Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, Janet Lewis Crain


Melungeon is a term applied historically to a group of persons, probably multiethnic, found primarily in Hawkins and Hancock Counties, Tennessee, and in adjoining southern Lee County, Virginia. In this article we define the Melungeon population study group, then review theevidence from historical sources and DNA testing--Y-chromosome, mitochondrial DNA, and autosomal DNA--to gain insight into the origin of this mysterious group.

This paper can be read in its entirety:  Here.

Based on the paper, the Associated Press wrote a news story, one widely circulated version of which can be found:  Here.

Subsequently a number of people asked my opinion of this paper and the Associated Press news story, which has prompted to end more than a year of retirement from blogging about Melungeons.  Below is my response, originally made on a Melungeon discussion forum:

I have been asked my opinion of the recent paper by Goins, on Melungeon ancestry as revealed by the Melungeon Core Family DNA Project administered by the authors.  I finally expressed my opinion publicly on a very obscure forum and am repeating the exchange I had there on the subject to the wider audience here:

For the record, I was very disappointed by the paper in question. It did not reflect the comprehensive Melungeon Core Group DNA study that I, like so many others, expected and had so long anticipated. It found no Indian ancestry because it didn't look for any, the DNA testing being almost exclusively confined to male lines when any Indian ancestry would be far more likely to show up in female lines. Why the study's authors had no interest in the female side, I do not know, but it was a most unfortunate omission. I wonder now if we'll ever see a proper Melungeon DNA study done. In the meantime, this study does not show that Melungeons were originally a mix of black men and white women as reported in the press. At most it demonstrates that there is black ancestry in some Melungeon male lines, which we already knew based on private testing. And the misunderstanding of it by the press does nothing but further muddy already muddy waters.


>On 6/26/2012 4:02 PM, [someone] wrote:
>Very well put, Dennis.

Thanks, [someone].  I always thought this study was going to cover both male and female lineages, and I can't imagine why the authors had no interest in the female side but instead give the impression that the male side is the whole story.  Surely the authors know better, and if that was not their intention, they should be making every effort to correct the AP and other news stories that were published making claims to that effect.

Ten years ago I was a big proponent of DNA testing and thought it might unlock the secret of Melungeon origins.  Now I think DNA testing isn't going to tell us anything we don't already know about Melungeon ancestry through conventional genealogy and history.  But this study has had the unfortunate effect -- intended or not -- of using DNA testing to obscure, if not virtually ignore, half the story.

I'm using the phrase "half the story" rather loosely here.  Together male and female lineage testing would not tell the whole story, of course, but they would tell twice the story that male lineage testing alone does.  Actually, more than twice the story since the results for each side need to be evaluated in light of the other.

Dennis Maggard

For another, more detailed critique of this study by an outstanding Melungeon researcher and genealogist well known in Melungeon research circles:  Click Here



  1. No matter how many DNA studies they do, no matter how many hobbyists they can find to review their reports -- the DNA from a cheek swab from someone born in the 1940s is NOT going tell them what *color* their 5th great grandfather was. This is nothing but a bunch of hooey and they know better but have their own agenda.

  2. No, but it is possible to detect one's racial heritage. "Color" would be indicated in the photographic evidence many people have, and written or oral histories.

  3. I'm not melungeon but have friends that trace their ancestry back to this people, and find them very interesting. It seems to me that if people don't find this specific study to be thorough enough, they can always work to commission your own study, keeping in mind that like this study you will still need to go back to people in the area that have a genealogical line that has remained for generations, and not been skewed by the marriages that would happen when families leave the area. Now having said that, I ask you. Would it make you feel better to read that there is a predominance of Native American blood and little to no African blood? Would that also not be indicative of an agenda? One that seeks to dilute what has obviously already been proven?

    1. No, it would not make me feel better. As Ulysses S. Grant said following the Civil War, I want to see truthful history written.

      That Melungeons had some degree of black ancestry is evident from the DNA testing done on the male side. The issue is the failure to test the female side, thereby quite possibly -- I would daresay quite likely -- missing their Native American ancestry and creating the erroneous impression in the press that DNA testing has shown that there is none.