Ancient People, Startling Histories

By Beacon Staff

One of the best things about being a reporter is that I get to indulge my curiosity. But this is a local news source; it’s not always a place where you can indulge interests outside the Flathead, which is why I spend some of my non-working hours (ahem), learning about a subject in which I find myself increasingly interested: obscure and sometimes marginalized ethnic groups, like the Melungeons or Ainu people.

The Asheville Citizen-Times, a newspaper I interned for in Western North Carolina, recently published an article about the Melungeon people – which, frustratingly, can now only be purchased on their Web site. Melungeons are a traditionally olive-skinned, blue-eyed ethnic group that has inhabited central Appalachia for hundreds of years. Rumors and legends abound as to how the group came to inhabit that area. One legend involves an ancient Portugese shipwreck, whose survivors fled inland to the mountains. Some genetic researchers have traced the Melungeon ancestry to sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Native Americans.

The Wikipedia entry on Melungeons dispels many of those origination rumors, tracing the group’s ancestry back to a handful of freed slaves in eastern Virginia, but in many of the photos, the people clearly look Mediterranean as well as African. It’s clear no one has definitively proven where Melungeons originate, since a visit to the main Web site has theories and genealogies about Welsh, Turkish, Slavic groups, and lost Native American tribes. Cool stuff, it’s just hard to tell when you’re surfing these sites, who is really an expert and who’s done half-baked research.

I’ve also always been fascinated with feudal Japan, and in the course of reading about the country have learned that an indigenous people, the Ainu, inhabited what we now consider Japan long before Asian tribes arrived. According to legend, the Ainu people inhabited Japan a hundred thousand years before the “People of the Sun” arrived and conquered the island. Many Ainu are unaware of their heritage because parents would often hide the knowledge from children to avoid racism.

The Ainu had their own clothing styles, language, and thick facial hair. Some ethnologists have linked them to indigenous tribes in Australia and New Zealand, and when you look at some of the photos, there is a resemblance. The Ainu people have struggled for recognition, were subject to invasions, and had villages flooded in order to build dams for industrial development. It wasn’t until 1997 that the Ainu were designated an indigenous, minority group.

And those are just two groups. Once you start looking and following links from one page to another, it’s easy for the hours to start slipping by. I’ll keep looking for and remain fascinated by little known, ancient cultures I know nothing about.

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