The Appalachian Fugates &
Early Humans’ Interbreeding
This a short tale about a Kentucky family, their rare recessive genes and the correlation of their condition to what happened thousands of years ago. Somewhere between then and the 1800s, when a Frenchman Martin Fugate married a local girl, scientists learned about blue methylene and the perils of interbreeding.
Recent findings about human ancestry showed that we already were, as it turns out, a pretty promiscuous species, even in our early times on Earth. DNA sequencing of Neanderthal bones and of another Asia-based population of hominins, all genetically distinct from our own makeup, showed that both groups interbred with our ancestors.
In the case of pre-humans, the reason for such interbreeding may have been survival of the species, or at least, part of its genetic code. For despite having gone the way of the dinosaurs, give or take a few dozen million years, both groups remain alive inside the Homo sapiens’s genomic mixture, through a process known as hybridization.
As for families living in isolated areas in the early 1900s and before, interbreeding was pretty much the only game in town. As you’d come to age to form your own family, your cousin was pretty much the only other single you’d ever known, give or take a few other people living in the same area.
But even though interbreeding and incest, its ritualized expression – arguably still present in certain cultures – are the most titillating aspects of this post, there are other elements about both the Fugates and the overlapping of pre-human species with our own that may be even more far reaching.
But as you probably expect, we’re not about to dive, bone and genes first, into such complex and scientifically challenging (at least to us) themes. Suffice will be to just whet your appetite and soak you with the allure and fascination of apparently unrelated strands of narrative, meeting even if just for an all too short moment. For more, please follow the links and come back.
By the time the medical community learned about the existence of Martin Fugate and wife Elizabeth Smith, and the fact that some of their family had a blueish tone of skin, in the late 1950s, there had been close to 150 years since they and neighbors Robert Smith and his wife, Alicia Combs, had become intertwined. Both couples had many children and they had married among themselves.
Both couples had also one carrier each of a rare recessive gene, which per se is highly unusual. The gene causes blood to have a higher than normal level of methemoglobin, reducing its ability to carry oxygen. The disease, methemoglobinemia, or met-H, is hereditary and, along with the isolation of the Appalachian mountains, served as a background to the large amount of inbreeding within the families.
In result, quite a few of their children were born with met-H, which makes people to have a darker looking blood and an off-colored, blue-hued skin. The Fugate-Smith’s undisturbed gene pool yielded several generations of blue-tinted people.
So when Martin’s great-great-great great grandson, Benjy Stacy, was born in 1958, doctors had many theories but not the answer to his blueish color. Neither that it was going to dissipate in a few weeks nor that there were more people in his family, past and present, who were even bluer.
With such spectacular physical characteristics calling attention to themselves, it’s no wonder that there isn’t much about the presence among the Fugates of other type of interbreeding traits, the ones science, and survival of the species, learned to fear. A Tri City Herald article published in 1974 does mention such distinguished features of many people living in the area.
Lack of sweat glands, a birdlike face, vulnerability to infectious diseases and even blindness were apparently common around there. But the article makes sure to assert that “improved roads and other amenities” had driven down the intermarriage of relatives and some of its consequences, such as genetic disease outbreaks.
THE BLUE OF KENTUCKY
The odds for two people from two different countries, sharing a rare genetic disease, to meet and marry, though, remain astonishingly high. But despite all the hardships of an existence under extreme conditions, the Fugates of Troublesome Creek have had little trouble thriving and living happily ever after for the most part.
Martin and Elizabeth and Robert and Alicia, along with some of their still around descendants, would have benefited from blue methylene, a chemical first used in 1891 against malaria, but with side effects of turning the urine green, and the white of the eyes, you guessed it, blue. It has had many applications in medicine, including to attenuate the effects of methemoglobinemia.
NEANDERTHALS & DENISOVAS
The more species of early humans are found, the more evidence points to the fact that, deep within our genetic makeup, we still have tids and bits left by these hominins. It’d be an overstatement to spell out just how those proto-genes got inside us, but we’re also developing better tools to identifying them.
For despite all ER or Law and Order shows, that lead us to believe that DNA sequencing is as easy now as brewing another pot of coffee must be to the lab technicians, in fact the technique is far from simple and still relatively vulnerable to contamination and other factors that may compromise its results.
The analysis of the Neanderthal genome was no different. Bone fragments from three different individuals were tested and retested, to make sure that DNA from the very technicians doing the testing, for example, or other material, wouldn’t influence their findings.
But it seems that the final evidence is conclusive: they did interbreed with early humans and, with that, managed to pass along some of their very own essence all the way to our age, from when they were still around, sometime between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago.
Unlike what was accepted a few decades ago, their existence overlapped with early Homo sapiens, as did a new group of individuals whose bone fragments were found in a cave in Siberia. And guess what? they too interbred with us, or roughly, their genetic material is somewhere deep inside you, most likely on top of the proverbial reptilian brain.
NEW BRANCH IN HUMAN TREE
The Denisova, named after the Siberian cave where their only bone fragment was discovered, seem to have branched off from the same ancestor of both humans and Neanderthals about a million years ago, and may have proceed to mate with them too.
What the genomic data clearly indicated was that the new group is related but not particularly close to the Neanderthals. Their DNA sequence diverged on average 640,000 years ago and from present-day Africans 804,000 years ago, scientists found. That places them as a distinct population in the human family tree.
The finding turns that old pictoric conception of several different hominins representing the different phases of human evolution, walking one after another, at least inaccurate. More and more, we find that the richness of our own genetic diversity comes from thousands of years cohabiting with other species and one of the only things one is driven to wonder about is, how come we’re still here?
We may have used some dirty tricks, for sure, to lure our competitors to their own demise, while we walked away enriched by their genetic material. Perhaps. There’s only so much we can find out from a piece of bone that’s been buried for such a long time.
As for us, with all this talk about interbreeding and the evolutionary overlapping of different species, what we really wonder is, whatever happened to the search for the missing link? Few seem to even talk about it. We suspect that it may have something to do with some still unknown and undiscovered and most likely much more clever than thou species.