Melungeon Mysteries Revealed With DNA Testing

ancestry by dna

Were Elvis Presley and Ava Gardner related? According to the BBC News, researchers believe that the two shared the same heritage — Melungeon heritage. You ask, “What is a Melungeon?” Some historians believe that the first settlers to Appalachia more than 400 years ago may very well have been Ottoman Turks who arrived before the northern Europeans. Also known as the “Lost People of Appalachia,” these darker-skinned people were called “Melungeons,” a word derived from the Arabic “Melun-Jinn” meaning one who has been abandoned by God – a cursed soul. The mystery is beginning to unfold, thanks to genealogical DNA tests.

As a researcher and family historian, I was excited when a scientific study about Melungeon DNA recently surfaced on the Internet. I was intrigued by this study because, since the early 1800s, there have been many rumors about origins of this group of people. The study entitled Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population by Roberta J. Estes (et al*) has provided insight into who some of the Melungeon people were, genetically speaking that is. The report also provides some genealogical detail about these families.

Who Were the Melungeon People?

There seems to be no exact definition of who the Melungeon people were. Some people refer to the Melungeons as a group of particular families with varying shades of skin tones that lived in the area of Newman’s Ridge in Eastern Tennessee. Others take a wider perspective. In her study, Estes defined Melungeons as “a clan of intermarried families who were individually referenced as Melungeons …and typically found in Hawkins and surrounding counties from about 1800 to about 1900.” It was from the male descendants of some of these lines that she was able to define the paternal origins of the following surnames: Bolin/Bowling Bolling/, Bunch, Denham, Gibson, Goins, Hopkins, Minor, Moore, Mullins, Perkins, Riddle/Ridley, Sizemore, and Williams.

Myths Dispelled for Some Melungeons

There has been much speculation about who the Melungeon people were, ethnically speaking. They have been described as Gypsies, Portuguese, Middle Eastern, African, Native American, Jewish, and European. Many Melungeons referred to themselves as Portuguese and Native American. What Y-DNA testing from the study revealed was that paternally the majority of the participants in the study had either Western European or Sub-Saharan African ancestry. (Y-DNA testing is used when you want clear proof of ancestry on your father’s side.) Only the Sizemore paternal line could be defined as Native American. Six women whose mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) was tested revealed that their maternal lines were European. (Mitochondrial DNA testing traces your direct maternal line; this is the best test when you want clear proof of ancestry on your mother’s side.) However, the small sample size did not produce significant findings, particularly since it was clear that some of the Melungeon maternal lines were from women of color.

DNA Testing Has Its Surprises!

One recent surprising DNA testing revealed that President’s Obama’s mother had Sub-Saharan African ancestry. His family tree is quite interesting. Actor Blair Underwood found his distant cousins in Africa, and London Mayor Boris Johnson discovered he is related to the British royal family. What surprises could you find? If you are interested in DNA testing contact Record Click because we have genetic genealogists who can help you.

* also: Jack H. Goins, Penny Ferguson, and Janent Lewis Crain.