Wednesday, October 29, 2008

DNA Testing and the Melungeons

This is published with permission from the Melungeon Historical Society. The following article was written for the Society by Roberta Estes, and is a great aid in understanding DNA and how it works.

By Roberta Estes
Copyright 2006-2008

DNA testing has become an integral part of any genealogical endeavor, generally as part of a surname project. However, genealogy testing for a larger group purpose, such as the Melungeons, poses some unique challenges.

As the DNA advisor for the Melungeon DNA projects, I would like to take this opportunity to discuss DNA testing, the various types of tests, how they work and why they are important to the Melungeon Historical Society and research process as well as to the personal genealogical research of each participant.

Before discussing how DNA works, let’s first talk about the kinds of questions we would like to attempt to answer by using various types of DNA testing.

1. Are the individuals of the same last name living in the primary Melungeon “home area” of Hancock and Hawkins County (and other very nearby locations) related on their paternal ancestral line? This means, for example, are all of the various Collins families (by way of example) from a common male ancestor?

2. Are the various individuals in this area related to the same maternal lines? This means are there “founding mothers” of this group? This is an important question because in both African and Native American cultures, families were matrilineal in nature, meaning that the surnames could be the same, from the mother, but the fathers in that social culture could be different.

3. How much truth is there to the various reports of African, Native American and Portuguese ancestry within the descendant families? Which families are admixed and can we determine the source of that admixture?

4. Can we tell, using DNA, the source of the Melungeons as a population group? Is the source of the entire group the same, or are there different subgroups? Can we eliminate or lend support to any of the proposed theories, such as shipwrecked sailors, descendants of the Lost Colony, “white Indians”, and others?

5. Can we connect the genealogy of the individuals, the documented historical records of the families, the recorded history of the areas where they are found in the earliest records and along the migration path to Hawkins/Hancock and the DNA to create an answer to the question, “who were the Melungeons and where did they come from”?

6. Are other groups, such as the Redbones, Brass Ankles, Carmel Indians, Salyersville Indians, Lumbee, Saponi and others, specifically other similar tri-racial isolate groups, related to the Melungeons, and if so, how? Perhaps in some cases the proper question is “are the Melungeons and these groups descended from common ancestors”, and of so, who, when and where?

Other questions may arise from the answers, such as “if your surname matches a core Melungeon surname, and your DNA matches as well, but your genealogy does not take you back to Hawkins/Hancock, are you a Melungeon”? These kinds of social and identity questions are not DNA-related questions and it is not my goal to address these kinds of issues.

Let’s take a look at how DNA testing works and the various types of DNA testing available in the market today and how they can address the various Melungeon scientific questions we have set forth above.
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