Why Were The Melungeons Surprised By Their African Roots?

Yesterday, as we finished recapping our respective workdays over a glass of wine, S. asked me if I’d seen the story  on the web about the Melungeon people who had taken a DNA test to trace their forebears. “I have no idea who told these people that they were part Portuguese. Years ago,” I continued, “wandering the stacks of the library at Emory as an undergraduate, I’d stumbled across a section of books, monographs and studies dedicated to ethnic phenotypes. It was the first time I’d ever heard of the Melungeons. And at that time, and in every instance since, whether it was Ebony Magazine or something on the internet, every account I’d ever read, whether it was an expert opinion or anecdotal reminiscence, had stated without equivocation that the Melungeons were descended from Caucasians, Native Americans, and Africans.”

In other words, they had the same racial background as many of my African American friends do today.

Back in South Carolina, where I grew up, the insular hamlets whose inbred inhabitants were descended from racially mixed backgrounds were known as “brass ankle” communities. My mother would label someone a “brass ankle” as readily as you would say someone is Scottish or Italian. It was one of the many tri-racial isolate groups some sociologists took to classifying as Mestees, a derivative of the Spanish word “mestizo”. The impetus for all of these groups of people to claim an exotic reason for having skin that was not white was to avoid by any means necessary the social stigma and the government mandated legal restraints associated with being black in segregated America.


There are in South Carolina today fully five thousand people—perhaps even ten thousand—who do not fit into the biracial caste system upon which the state’s whole social structure is built. These out-castes insist that they are white, and they claim the privileges and courtesies of white people. Some of them, if pressed, will not deny a strain of Indian, though they take no pride in the fact; and most of them are offended even at that suggestion. The dominant whites, on the other hand, are convinced that there is a trace of Negro blood in them and, on the theory that “one drop of Negro blood makes one a Negro,” are reluctant to accept them and regard their claim to white status with various and mixed emotions, ranging from amusement to horror.

This failure of a sizable group of people to fit into the social system creates many problems. It is, in fact, a threat to the whole structure, undermining the popular faith that the system functions adequately and will continue to function forever.

The Mestizos of South Carolina   Brewton Berry

Back when I was a teenager, working at one of my family’s dry cleaning stores in Orangeburg, South Carolina, I used to wait on an older customer who was tall and slim, with a distinctive ruddy, dark reddish skintone, a nose like a hawk’s beak and a shock of almost straight coarse black hair he kept neatly trimmed. It was his stiff demeanor and lack of social grace, though, that prompted me to ask my father who he was. It turned out that the man was employed by the same government agency where my father used to work before going into business, so he knew quite a lot about the man., including the fact that he lived off away from town, among his own people, who were supposed to be descendants of an old Indian tribe.  

“He looks black to me,” I said, surmising from my experiences growing up in the racially obsessed South that his vaguely European influenced features didn't look Indian enough to escape being classified as an African American. My father replied instantly, “Just don’t tell him that.”   

Melungeons would not send their children to black schools and they were not allowed in the white schools, so the Tennessee Department of Education had "Indian" schools for them. This led to almost total illiteracy among Melungeons. They would not have black teachers and white teachers would not teach in their schools, so they had to depend on the few Melungeons who had learned to read at the Presbyterian Mission School in Vardy. None of their teachers had been to high school. In Tennessee until the 1950's and 60's, Melungeons were usually classified as black for marriage, white for voting and Indian for education.

The Melungeons – A Mixed Race People    French Creole.com

So should the Melungeons be embarrassed or ashamed of the discovery, through DNA testing, that some of their forbears were in fact African men? I don’ think so. I do think that they would have been better off as a group educationally and financially if they could have publicly accepted the idea of having African heritage from the beginning, but I can certainly understand, given the horrors slavery, Redemption, Jim Crow, and "separate but equal" produced for black Americans, the fanatical compunction of the Melungeons to simply proclaim that they were something else.  

Even though interracial marriage is at an all-time high, and the number of mixed race children and adults in our society has risen to the point where they are no longer statistical anomalies, there is still quite a bit of stigma associated with being black in America.

Just ask the current president of the United States if you don’t believe me.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.