Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Construct of the Myth..... Melungeon traits

Anyone who has read this blog, knows I'm not one to believe that there ever was a group of people in Southern Appalachia who identified as being 'Melungin'.  Not until Brent Kennedy and his "Melungeon Movement" came about in the 1990's, did this faux pas exist. More interesting is that the modern day 'self identified' Neo Melungeons more often than not, have no ties to the people who were historically called Melungins.

The opposite, the term Melungin  was an insult to these people, plain and simple. But yet, I find it interesting that the old myth's of so called 'Melungeon Physical Traits' are still alive and well on the internet, especially on social media sites, Facebook being the worst offender. Another is the myth of 'high arches' as a Melungeon 'trait', which I recently read on Facebook.

This nonsense sure is not a help to people looking into their family's history, in fact the very opposite.

These 'myth's have their roots in the early research of Brent Kennedy and his followers, the so-called "Melungeon Movement". Read further..........

Melungeon traits - the facts

"Anatolian Bump": Look at "Gray's Anatomy" (all libraries should have a copy) and go to the section on the skull (pages 56-57 of the unabridged Running Press reprint edition). That feature is not unique to Anatolian populations. Lots of people have it. It has several different names, but you won't find it called an "Anatolian Bump" except on Melungeon web pages. Its name in Gray's is "external occipital protuberance." Other books on anatomy or anthropology call it by other names. Some people simply have larger protuberances than others - having it doesn't prove you're of a particular ancestry. For more info, see, for example: "The Human Career" by Richard Leslie Aiello, 1999; "Human Evolutionary Anatomy" by Christopher Dean, 1990; and "Skull Shapes and the Map" by William W. Howells, 1989.

"Six fingers": Being born with 6 fingers is not a feature exclusive to Melungeons. It has been noted in many places, among people of diverse genetic background. For example, many Pennsylvania Amish people (of German descent) have been born with this. It appears that they are all descendants of one man, Samuel King. It also appears in West Africa, for example in Ghana. (See: pp 124,226 of "The Language of Genes" by Steve Jones, 1994.)

"Shoveled incisors": AKA "Sinodonty" (literally, "Chinese Teeth") really is a feature found among many (but not all) American Indians, Chinese, Mongols, Koreans, and occasionally among Europeans (and; not necessarily because of "Mongol" invaders!). Forensics specialists use it as one indicator of such ancestry. Does that mean that Melungeons are basically Indian?

No, not necessarily, because many of the people now calling themselves Melungeons who have this feature may not really be descended from people called Melungeons in the past. Some of the people who post to forums like this may actually be of American Indian descent, and have decided to self-identify as Melungeons because they've read that 'if you have scooped-out front teeth, etc...you might be a Melungeon.

 Also, I suspect that many people are misunderstanding what shoveled incisors really are like - some of the descriptions on Melungeon sites are a bit misleading. In any case, I don't think anyone is saying that there's absolutely zero 'Indian blood' in Melungeons, but the bulk of the evidence seems to point to that being a lesser component than African for most families known in the past by that or similar terms.

"Woolly Hair": Hmmmm....what dark-skinned people that have been living in America since the 1600s have wooly hair?? Hmmm...lemme think...

"Vampire Teeth"???: Good grief, where did THAT come from?

The list of so-called "Melungeon traits" is based on hearsay. No one has shown that a particular set of traits like these are statistically more common among proven Melungeon descendants than among the general US population. You can't count people who DECIDE they are Melungeon BECAUSE they have pointy teeth and a bump on their noggin.


The  next article is from the Melungeon Heritage Association's web site, this article has been scrubbed from that site, but can be found here on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine:


Does The Bump on My Head Mean I'm A Melungeon?

Much has been made, in the press and on the Internet, about so-called "Melungeon diseases," or physical characteristics such as "shovel teeth" or "Anatolian ridges" on the base of the skull. Some reporters and writers have widely misinterpreted these traits as indicators of Melungeon ancestry. Many people involved with Melungeon research have been approached by someone who has said, “Feel the back of my head – am I a Melungeon?” Others, upon learning of one’s Melungeon heritage, will ask, “What is that disease you guys have?” Although these characteristics are significant in each individual's family and genetic history, they do not necessarily represent Melungeon ancestry.

The diseases most widely reported as relating to Melungeons include Familial Mediterranean Fever, thallasemia, and several other ailments. The only real significance of these diseases in relation to Melungeons is that some people of Melungeon descent have been diagnosed with these diseases, many of which tend to affect people of Mediterranean ancestry, and are relatively rare among the Anglo-Saxon or Celtic people of Appalachia. Those who have one of these diseases have reason to believe that someone in their ancestry had an ethnic disposition to this particular disease. However, it is a mistake to assume this ailment, in and of itself, is an indication that one is a Melungeon. Relatively few people of Melungeon descent have these diseases, but unfortunately several reports have focused on the disease issue to the point where many believe that having one of these diseases is a primary indication of Melungeon ancestry, or that all Melungeons are afflicted.

Shovel teeth, bumps on the back of the head, polydactylism (extra fingers), and other characteristics have likewise been often misrepresented as being "Melungeon" traits. Actually, "shovel teeth" are found among Native Americans and people from Central Asia. They are not, however, common among Europeans, so there is certainly significance to those who believe themselves of purely European ancestry. The same with the head bumps, which are also indicators of at least one Central European forebear. Many Melungeons have these traits, others do not. Melungeons are an ethnic mix, and each family and individual receives different genetic markers from their various ancestors.

These physical characteristics are not insignificant. They demonstrate that many "white" Americans had ancestors who were NOT "white" in the generally accepted sense of the word. Again, however, these traits do not necessarily indicate Melungeon ancestry. Brent Kennedy and others first began talking about these characteristics and their significance over a decade ago, and many of those who have reported on his work come up with the same mistaken interpretation -- that these are "Melungeon" traits. Most recently, the History Channel led off a report on Melungeons with talk of shovel teeth.

Another frequent query posted to the Melungeon Heritage Association concerns genetic testing to determine Melungeon ancestry. Genetic testing cannot establish a Melungeon heritage because the Melungeons are of mixed ethnic ancestry, and all of us show different results on various tests. The tests DO show some interesting things about our individual families, but don’t tell us much about Melungeons as a whole.

Discovering your possible Melungeon heritage all boils down to simple research – trying to find out as much about your ancestors as possible One strong indicator of Melungeon ancestry is ancestors who were in the Clinch River region of southwest Virginia/northeast Tennessee about 1800; this area seems to be the focal point of migration to other areas later (although it is important to remember that not all Melungeon families passed through this area). However, also remember that the families that settled in the Clinch River region circa 1800 came there from somewhere else, and many of the known Melungeon families have been traced to eastern Virginia and North Carolina.

Keep an eye out for census designations of “mulatto” or “fpc” (free person of colour); as far as is known, no one was ever designated “Melungeon” on census records. Keep in mind, though, that colour was often in the eye of the beholder, and lack of a “non-white” designation is not an indicator that an ancestor was NOT Melungeon.

The articles on this website are designed to bring you the widest possible collection of knowledge about the Melungeons. Please use these resources in your research, and good luck in your quest.

Here is another article written by researcher Joanne Pezzullo : There really is no 'Melungeon or Anatolian bump'

In conclusion, these debunked myths might work well for self identified 'one size fits all Melungeons',  but they certainly have nothing to do with the historical people who were called Melungins. Again, it's all about the genealogy, not unproven theory's and fairy tales..

That's my 2 cents....


  1. Molly Ann Bunch SmiddyJune 7, 2016 at 4:17 PM

    Very well written and informative article, Cousin Don!!! From your #1 Fan, and canine par excellence.

    1. Thanks Molly, if we don't stand up for our heritage, nobody will.

  2. Thank you for this post. I've been researching native ancestry on my father's side of the family, and while it's possible we might have an ancestor who was "Melungeon" I really had no idea of the many myths circulating on the web! You've done me and others a great service with this information. :)

  3. You are welcome. Sad state of affairs when there is more misinformation on the internet pertaining to the people who were called Melungeons, than there is honest facts.