Haven't got a clue? Maybe DNA will do
Regular folks and history buffs play detective
BY NANCY SHUTE
Brent Kennedy is a man with a past, and he doesn't think it lies in the
misty green hills conjured by his Celtic surname. Kennedy believes he's a
Melungeon, one of a dark-skinned clan of enigmatic origin that has long been reviled
by their Appalachian neighbors. The Wise, Va., college administrator is so intent on
finding his roots that he's having his DNA analyzed for clues.
"I grew up learning in school that we're all Scots-Irish," says black-haired, blue-eyed
Kennedy, born and raised in this tiny town perched high in the coal-mining country of
Southwest Virginia. He thinks the genes will reveal a different lesson-one of Turks,
Portuguese, and Sephardic Jews, who sailed to the New World in the late 16th and early
17th centuries, stayed, and assimilated, and whose history was expunged by the
burgeoning Anglo-Saxon majority.
Kennedy's quest is intensely personal. But around the world, the remarkable
technology that allows for DNA fingerprinting is being deployed to answer some
of history's legendary conundrums. Indeed, DNA analysis has become so sensitive
that it's possible to identify an individual from the cellular spoor
left on a discarded cocktail napkin.
That level of specificity has made the urge to exhume the past so overwhelming
it seems no corpse can rest in peace. In 1995, George Washington University law
professor James E. Starrs used DNA to show that the body in a Kearney, Mo.,
grave could be outlaw Jesse James. It could also be a James family member, so Bud
Hardcastle, an amateur historian and used car dealer in Purcell, Okla., got a court
order to dig up the Granbury, Texas, grave of J. Frank Dalton, who he thinks is the real
Jesse. But when he unearthed the body last month, the grave held not Dalton but
Henry Holland, a solid Granbury citizen. A chagrined Hardcastle blames erroneous
grave markers. He's going back for another court order to dig again. "We're not
done. I'm not gonna quit."
Fortunately, not all DNA quests require a corpse. Brent Kennedy's search employs
the genetic material of living relatives to reconstruct a lost past. The 49-year-old
fundraiser started his search after he fell ill in 1988. Doctors had a hard time
determining the cause of debilitating muscle aches and fever. The eventual
diagnosis, sarcoidosis, is most common among people of black or Middle Eastern
heritage. That spurred Kennedy to delve into his roots. The quest wasn't always
welcomedone aunt torched a stack of family photos, and threatening messages were
left on his answering machine. Indeed, for many people, Melungeon is a past best
forgotten. Melungeons were the untouchables of Appalachian society, described in
an 1891 article as "rogues, natural born rogues, close, suspicious, inhospitable,
untruthful, cowardly, and, to use their own word, sneaky." Appalachian children were
warned the Melungeons would get them if they didn't behave.
Turkish Presley? Historians have traditionally labeled the Melungeons a "tri-racial
isolate," a pocket of people of mixed black, Indian, and Caucasian blood. The origins of
the word itself are obscure. But oral histories and early records describe "Portyghee"
in the hills, and a 1990 analysis of Melungeon blood types suggested Mediterranean
roots. Kennedy is convinced; his office wall sports framed articles from Turkish
newspapers headlined "Were Lincoln and Elvis Turks?"fruits of his work with the
Melungeon Heritage Association and Turkish cultural organizations. Some historians say
Kennedy is trying to ignore the Melungeons' black and Indian past. Not so, Kennedy says.
"We feel like we're a mix of everything, but that the Mediterranean component was undoubtedly there."
So Kennedy and about 100 other people have given hair samples for mitochondrial DNA analysis. Mitochondrial DNA has
proved a marvelous tool for tracing human history. Mothers pass it down to offspring
almost intact-unlike nuclear DNA, the genetic material commonly used in criminal
investigations. "We can see how many maternal lines there are in the population,"
says Kevin Jones, the Wise College biology professor who is analyzing the samples
and comparing them to mtDNA databases from around the world.
But DNA has its limits. Mitochondrial DNA reflects only the maternal line, so if
the Turkish adventurers that Kennedy seeks were all men, there would be no trace
of them in the mitochondrial record. And all DNA is perishable. "A bloodstain that's
200 years old stored dry may be just fine, where one two weeks old that's been wet
and warm may be useless," says Charlotte Word, deputy forensic laboratory director
for Cellmark Diagnostics, a DNA lab in Germantown, Md. Contamination is also a
problem; one sneeze can ruin a sample.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to laying history bare with DNA is not the limits of
laboratory analysis, but the vagaries of human nature. More than a few people
still believe Anna Anderson was the Russian princess Anastasia, despite evidence
to the contrary from three of the world's best mitochondrial DNA labs. Bud
Hardcastle doesn't believe the Jesse James teeth tested in 1995 necessarily came from
the right corpse. And many people would rather not offer up their genes for the
history books, fearful that the findings could be used to deny them medical coverage.
Indeed, when it comes to history, human belief still trumps genes. Brent
Kennedy says even if DNA evidence fails to support his Mediterranean hypothesis,
he will continue his mission to rehabilitate Melungeon identity. He and a dozen
others, including fellow Melungeons and college officials, are heading to Turkey
later this month on a research trip.
Kennedy's not the only one tempted to take a genetic peek into the past. At
Mitotyping Technologies of State College, Pa., President and CEO Terry Melton, who
helped analyze Anderson's hair, still gets calls from people asking for a DNA test.
They're convinced they are exiled Romanovs. "I try to talk people out of it, but
they will not be dissuaded," Melton says. She takes a blood sample, charges $1,500,
and runs the sequence. She has yet to find any lost royals. But even in an era when
the human genome is posted on the Internet, there's room amid the molecules
for a good romantic fantasy.