DNA Insight Into America’s Oldest Mystery

Posted by admin on Jun 13, 2007

Decades before the founding of Jamestown and and the Pilgrims’ arrival, English settlers built a colony at Roanoke in what is now North Carolina. For several years, it relied on supplies shipped from England — but when a ship arrived in 1590 after a three-year interruption in supplies, Roanoke was utterly deserted. Carved cryptically on a tree was a word, Croatan, the name of a local Native American tribe.

Theories abound concerning this oldest of American mysteries. Perhaps the settlers starved. Perhaps they were killed. Perhaps they joined the Croatan, forsaking rigid colonial mores and giving rise to later rumors of fair-skinned, blue-eyed natives.

Now the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research is trying to use DNA testing to see if the colonists moved inland.

The researchers have used genealogy, deeds and historical narratives to compile 168 surnames that could be connected to settlers. Researchers plan to use cheek swabs taken from possible ancestors to test the paternal and maternal DNA lines. […]

While DNA will not make any immediate connections beyond living relatives, the samples can provide clues to an individual’s country of origin and other shared family traits, Estes said. Genealogy will have to fill in the blanks.

Researchers may also try to test American Indian remains or known relatives of the colonists in England.

This won’t amount to much if the residents of Roanoke were indeed killed off, but if testing does identify descendants of survivors, a whole new batch of fascinating questions will arise: Where did they go? Why? And how did they survive?

Solve one mystery, and a host of others will replace it.

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