The Past Is Written on Your Face
The genetic mystery of one ethnic group—the Melungeons of the rural American South—illustrates the challenge of tracing one's origins ... and the existential case for trying to do so.
By November 4, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
Wayne Winkler was 12 years old and flipping through a local newspaper in Hancock County, Tennessee, the first time he learned of a group of people known as the Melungeons. His parents had moved to Detroit from the South in the 1950s, but each summer when he was a child, they would return to Hancock County to visit his father's family. The newspaper article jumped out at him: "One of the most fascinating mysteries in Tennessee lore concerns the unknown origins of the Melungeons," it began, describing them as "a dark-skinned people whom some romantics compare in appearance to Othello."
Winkler wanted to see these elusive Melungeons. He asked his father about them, but the elder Winkler had little to say on the subject. Later, Winkler's mother divulged that his paternal grandmother was in fact a Melungeon. "Which means your dad is a Melungeon," she said, "which means you're a Melungeon."
His new affiliation came as a complete surprise. "I had assumed that my dad's family was mostly Indian, because that's what they said and that's what they looked like," Winkler said recently, describing his father's high cheekbones, ruddy skin, and thick black hair. When asked why he had always identified his background as Native American, his father replied: "Everybody knows what an Indian is. It takes all day to explain what a Melungeon is."
Some thought they were a mix of Caucasian and Native American. Others believed they were the progeny of whites and escaped slaves. Still others believed they descended from all three. (Winkler's father told him only that they were "a little bit of this and a little bit of that.") Fantastical origin stories abounded: One legend had it that their forebears were survivors of the lost colony of Roanoke, the late-16th-century settlement that failed so completely that not a soul was found when the British returned. Some suggested that the Melungeons descended from shipwrecked pirates. Various historical documents record members of the group identifying themselves as Portuguese—or, in their phrasing, "Portyghee." Another legend attested that they were at least part Turkish. It was even proposed that their ancestors had been ancient Phoenicians who sailed to the New World in ancient times and remained there, mingling with the natives.
Even the word Melungeon has many origin stories. Some say it comes from the French melange (mixture), from when a French colony stood near the Melungeon settlement in the 18th century. Others have suggested that it derives from the Afro-Portuguese melungo (shipmate), or the Arabic melun jinn (cursed soul).
Like other nonwhite groups in the United States, Melungeons experienced legal discrimination, including prohibitions against voting or marrying whites, as well as deep public antipathy. In 1890, a Tennessee legislator venomously stated that a Melungeon "isn't a white man—God only knows what he is." Another politician described his rival to a journalist as "tricky as a Melungeon," elaborating that a Melungeon was a "dirty sneak thief." White children were told to behave or the Melungeons would get them.
Unraveling the enigma of his family's history became Winkler's lifelong quest. Now a radio producer in Tennessee, he is a former president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, a frequent lecturer about Melungeon history, and the author of Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia. "I'd always looked at genealogy as a vain pursuit without much appeal," says Winkler. "I'm interested, though, in finding out about my relatives who struggled against racism and a rigidly enforced class system. Those of us who descend from Melungeons owe much to our ancestors who worked hard to provide their children with a quality of life that they themselves would never enjoy."
A BLIP IN TIME
How do we conceive of where or, rather, from whom we come, be they Melungeon or something that is easier to explain? Often, our sense of our ancestors is of a vague mass of nameless, disembodied people. We see their traces imprinted on our faces and catalog their nationalities when asked our backgrounds. Yet we assume that whatever we don't know about them has simply fallen away by attrition over time.
While memory certainly has absolute limits, there must be psychological forces at work, too. In 2012, social psychologists Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson carried out a fascinating experiment. They asked people in different age groups what they had liked, valued, or prioritized 10 years earlier and how much they thought their current preferences were likely to change over the next 10 years. The scientists found that subjects were pretty good at assessing how much they had changed, which was always a lot. But they invariably underestimated how much they were likely to change in the next decade. In fact, they didn't think they were going to change much at all.
According to Quoidbach and his colleagues, people have a tendency to think of the present as a "watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives." The researchers dubbed the phenomenon the "end-of-history illusion," and showed that it applied to personality traits, core values, and even best friends. Although they found that the older people got, the less pronounced the illusion was, even the oldest subjects still succumbed to it. "History," the researchers wrote, "is always ending today."
The end-of-history illusion may also influence the way people think about generational time. We live in a temporal envelope. For most of us, the horizon extends forward maybe two generations and back just two or three. It is hard to break out of the mindset that we stand at a crucial center point of that span and that all the people who came before were merely precursors to us. It isn't until we more fully populate our family tree that it becomes clear how brief a human life is, and how small a part we play in a story line that expands out and contracts back and goes off in directions that no one can predict or control. As Quoidbach, Gilbert, and Wilson's work reveals, the way we think about the past or the future is not neutral but involves a psychology of existence and mortality that affects how we see ourselves in time.
Our presentism may be explained in part by the psychology of Western culture. A famous study compared the thinking of people from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic nations (dubbed "WEIRD") with those from different cultures. The Westerners, they found, were far more individualistic and perceived themselves as autonomous and self-contained. They were less inclined to conform and more convinced that they drove their destiny. By contrast, people in non-WEIRD societies were more inclined to see their identity as inextricably connected to their network of family and community. They were enmeshed in roles and relationships and more oriented toward cooperation and the desire to fit in, rather than stand out.
Some people may bristle at the idea that they are not entirely in charge of their own destiny, but many—at least by midlife—come to suspect that they are not. If they are older still and trying to figure out what it means to have a legacy, then simply by virtue of having survived long enough, they've begun to see that they have a lot more in common than they used to with their long-dead ancestors, be they Welsh, Vietnamese, Egyptian, Nigerian, Spanish, Ashkenazi Jewish, or indeed as we all are, a rich genetic stew.
Yet once we see ourselves in that much bigger context—we are a mere blip in time—we may not only gain humility and perspective but also begin to understand how our own tiny envelope of existence maps onto stories that extend over long timelines, how lifetimes are forged by eras and populations, and how eras are forged by the lives of ordinary people. Taking on the idea of our more distant ancestry illuminates how the vast forces that shaped the history of the world shaped us and our families as well. Such was Winkler's quest.
CRACKING THE CODE
Once upon a time, history was living memory and all the increasingly fuzzy spans of time that came before it. Then came artifacts and written records to bring the past into sharper focus. Now, of course, there's nature's digital record, DNA, which promises to teach us simultaneously about human history, the forces of evolution, and ourselves.
Much of our interest in DNA over the past few decades has been in discovering how genes affect our health and determine our physical features. But as we've gotten to know the genome better, it's turned out that DNA has as much to do with our past as it does with our future. As people make people, who then make more people, they pass down their DNA, and in it we can trace the choices of populations as well as fateful personal encounters that took place thousands of years ago. It illuminates not just the biological past but the social past as well.
The shovel-shaped incisors suggest that Melungeons may be descended from Native Americans, 98 percent of whom have the trait, according to Richard Scott, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada at Reno. In fact, shovel-shaped incisors tell a story that dates back even further than the inhabitants of the Americas. More than 14,000 years ago, an extremely hardy group of Asian people walked out of Siberia, across the Bering land bridge, and down into North America, bringing their shovel-shaped incisors with them. The dimpled teeth are still widespread in Asia and among Eskimo-Aleuts.
If we knew exactly which genes code for traits such as shovel-shaped teeth, it could help piece together the Melungeons' history. But the genetics of physical features is still a nascent science. Simple traits that are shaped by one or a few genes are easy to identify—the moistness of one's earwax, for example, can be linked to a single base within a single gene. Many traits, such as height, are polygenic, however, determined by multiple, perhaps even hundreds of genes.
Moreover, when looking at genes, one is rarely looking only at genes. We often think of genes as if they were master switches—flick them one way and you get blue eyes; flick them another and you get brown. But genes can be influenced by many factors, including other genes, noncoding DNA, epigenetic markers, and chemical changes in the cell. These chemical changes are themselves often caused by larger systems in the body, which is, of course, shaped by the world in which it lives.
In 2012, independent researchers released results of the most comprehensive DNA analysis of Melungeons to date. The subjects were all descendants of those who were identified as Melungeon in 19th- and early-20th-century records. Within those families, the researchers looked only at Y chromosome DNA, which traces direct patrilineal ancestry, and mitochondrial DNA, the genetic material passed down in a direct matrilineal line. Among the findings was evidence of European female and African male ancestry.
The discovery of African ancestry was heralded in part because generations of Melungeons had denied the possibilty—a denial that may have functioned as a social adaptation to promote their survival in the virulently racist south. Even though no direct DNA evidence of Native American ancestry was uncovered, the study did not supply the last word in this matter. "Every generation could have had a Native American female, and it wouldn't show up on a Y chromosome," Winkler explains. "As they say, 'The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.'"
A NEVER-ENDING STORY
The general consensus among many researchers and amateur historians today is that Melungeons are triracial, with European, African, and Native American ancestry. It's a conclusion drawn as much from social history as from scientific evidence, although still nothing is known about how, when, or why this ancestral mixture may have occurred. As genetic analysis becomes more sophisticated, DNA will become a sharper historical tool. Combined with written records and more detailed family histories, what has been unknown for centuries may yet be revealed.
Whatever the true history of the Melungeons is, their story illustrates how even the attempt to decode one's ancestry can support a more accurate conception of the self in time. As Winkler shows us, we are all bit characters making a brief appearance in a never-ending story that is capable of dramatic twists and turns.
Around World War II, discrimination against Melungeons started to diminish. Melungeon men entering the army were identified as white, and Melungeon children were no longer sent to racially segregated schools. By the early 1970s, in the wake of the country's seismic cultural shifts and say-it-loud declarations of pride among other minority groups, Melungeons experienced their own unprecedented groundswell of dignity and self-regard.
"You could drive into town and see a sign that said 'Hancock County: Home of the Melungeons,'" Winkler recalls. "It used to be that nobody in this county would even say 'Melungeon' because it was a bad word, and suddenly everybody wanted to be one."
One might imagine that the surge of Melungeon pride and the reclamation of a once-scorned identity would constitute a satisfying turnabout. But the situation is more complicated. Some Melungeons restrict the term so narrowly that it excludes most potential members. (One man at a Melungeon Heritage gathering told Winkler: "If you can't trace your family back to Hancock County, you ain't a Melungeon, period.") There is suspicion, too, about why people might wish to claim Melungeon heritage. Some who have always identified as Melungeon are skeptical about wannabes who only now want to acknowledge it as their heritage because it has become exotic or popular.
For Winkler, celebrating Melungeon identity, or parsing who is or is not an authentic member of the group, is less important than the perspective he gains from seeing his part in an expansive ancestral puzzle, despite its missing pieces.
"It's who I am because it's who my father was," he says. "To be able to stand up in front of a group of people and say that I'm the descendent of a Melungeon—a term full of baggage that my grandmother was taught to keep quiet about—I'm content with that."
The Melungeons, an allegedly triracial group who have lived in Appalachia for centuries, have Caucasian features along with darker pigmentation. Nobody knows how they inherited these traits, but historical photographs offer evidence of their unusual appearance in the early 20th century, when they were more isolated than now.
Batey Collins (center in top left photograph) was the grandson of Melungeon patriarch Vardy Collins and a Civil War veteran who fought for the Union Army.