A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is there really a race of blue people?

July 24, 1998

Dear Cecil:

My husband swears that when he took anthropology they talked about a race of blue people. How did I miss this? Don't you dare say it was the Smurfs.

Dear Lonijo:

OK, it wasn't the Smurfs. I was thinking maybe I could work up something involving the chronically depressed, fans of B.B. King, or Minnesotans in January, but those all pretty much suck too. So I may as well tell you the truth, namely that your husband is probably talking about the blue Fugates of Kentucky, the best warning against the dangers of inbreeding prior to the arrival of Prince Charles.

The blue Fugates weren't a race but rather an excessively tight-knit family living in the Appalachian Mountains. The patriarch of the clan was Martin Fugate, who settled along the banks of Troublesome Creek near Hazard, Kentucky, sometime after 1800. His wife, Mary, is thought to have been a carrier for a rare disease known as hereditary methemoglobinemia, which we'll call met-H.

Due to an enzyme deficiency, the blood of met-H victims has reduced oxygen-carrying capacity. Instead of being the usual bright red, arterial blood is chocolate brown and gives the skin of Caucasians a bluish cast. Hereditary met-H is caused by a recessive gene. If only one of your parents has this gene, you'll be normal, but if they both have it, there's a good chance you'll be blue.

None of Martin and Mary Fugate's descendants would have been blue had they not intermarried with a nearby clan, the Smiths. The Smiths were descendants of Richard Smith and Alicia Combs, one of whom apparently was also a met-H carrier. According to family historian Mary Fugate, the first known blue Fugate was born in 1832. Because of inbreeding among the isolated hill folk--the Fugate family tree is a tangled mess of cousins marrying cousins--blue people started popping up frequently thereafter. A half dozen or so were on the scene by the 1890s, and one case was reported as recently as 1975. They were quite a sight. One woman is said to have had lips the color of a bruise.

In 1960 a doctor named Madison Cawein heard about the blue Fugates and succeeded in tracking down several of them. Luckily some cases of hereditary met-H among native Alaskans had been written up in the medical literature not long before, so he was able to diagnose the problem fairly quickly. He also prescribed a simple, if temporary, cure--the chemical methylene blue, which replaced the missing enzyme in the blood. The results were dramatic. Within minutes after getting a dose, the blue Fugates became a normal pink for the first time in their lives.

Today, what with increased prosperity and mobility, the Fugates get around a lot more and the likelihood of further instances of blueness is thought to be low. Still, if you're in the neighborhood of Troublesome Creek and someone tells you he's feeling blue, try to get a look at him in a good light.

MO' BETTA BLUES

Dear Cecil:

Your piece about the blue Fugates was fascinating, but I don't think Lonijo's husband was talking about them when he referred to the "blue people" he studied in anthropology. The blue men are the Tuareg, a nomadic group of people in the Sahara whose traditional territories included Mali and parts of Niger, Morocco, Algeria, etc. They get their nickname from the blue robes they wear. Originally their clothing was deeply dyed with natural indigo. This was absorbed by the skin, which also took on a blue tinge. I have read that even babies were born with blue skin because of the indigo in their mothers' blood. --sthompson, via the Internet

Dear Cecil:

I wanted to mention another blue population to you. It was a very ancient race of which Krishna was a member. Check out pictures of Krishna and his cohorts from one of the books the Hare Krishna members sell. You will see depictions of members of the blue race. It was long, long ago, and I guess that's why most people are unaware of them. --Beth Cummings

Dear Cecil:

Please dig deeper in response to the line of inquiry initiated by Lonijo via AOL. I too was a student of anthropology some 30 years ago and also stumbled across reference to a former race of humanoids who were blue. Once, in addition to the four known races of mankind, there was a fifth race that dwelled on an unknown continent in the middle of the ocean between Asia and Europe (i.e., North America). This race, the most ancient of all, was called the Blue Moovians. They were very tall, about seven feet, and very thin, and had extremely large heads. They possessed all manners of powers of the mind: teleportation, telekinesis, ESP. One day, in response to a stimulus known only to them, they conveyed to regular humans that they had, through their powers of astral projection, located a planet more suitable to their needs in a far distant solar system or galaxy, and all at once they each and every one disappeared from the face of the earth and teleported themselves there, never to be seen or heard from again. This supposedly occurred about 60,000 BC. --Mark S. Miller

Dear Cecil:

Cecil, gimme a break. Really, an anthro course covering blue people in Kentucky and leaving out the Picts of Scotland? The Picts were an early race of Scotsmen who fought naked and painted themselves blue with woad. They were known as the blue people. --Tom Riemers, via the Internet

Dear Cecil:

You completely missed the Ainu, an indigenous people living in Japan whose skin hue is often described as blue. --David de Graaf

Dear Cecil:

In Irish-Scottish Gaeilge (or Gaelic), people of African descent were historically referred to as the fir gorum, or blue men. People of this race were described as "blue" rather than as "black." This may explain why a particular musical style often associated with an African-American influence is called "the blues." Then again, I may be wrong. --Ed O'Neill

Dear Ed:

More than that, chum. I'd say you blue it.

George Carlin may wonder why there's no blue food, but there's apparently no lack of blue people. A rundown on the suggestions above: Tuareg. The skin of these desert herders does turn blue from the dye they use in their clothing. Indeed, a blue tinge is considered healthful and attractive. However, at the risk of showing insufficient appreciation for cultural diversity, what it really means is they're overdue for a bath. Krishna's race. Most likely this is what comes of cheesy color reproduction in those airport handouts. Blue Moovians. Too many B moovies, bub. Picts of Scotland. They are thought to have tattooed themselves. The name Pict derives from the Latin pictor, painter. Tattoos today often have a bluish cast; still, there's no definite evidence that the Picts were blue. The Ainu. In the anthropological literature their skin is described as brown. However, an 1891 Smithsonian report comments, "It is difficult to speak with confidence, for they do not bathe or wash, and the natural color of the skin is not often seen." So who knows? Maybe it's blue. Africans as seen by the Scots and the Irish. Unable to confirm the use of this term. However, "the blues"? I'm not buying it.  Not even if you hold your breath till you turn blue.

BLUE CHEESE

Dear Cecil:

You published several possibilities about the supposed race of blue people.   One such possibility was that of the Indic god Krishna, who is usually depicted as having blue skin. You dismissed this as being the product  of "cheesy color reproduction in those airport handouts." While I will  not defend the quality of the handouts made by the Hare Krishnas, I will point out that Krishna is traditionally shown with blue skin in almost all the art of India. This is part of the mythology of Krishna. See, some demons wanted to kill every living being on the earth, so they dumped poison in the rivers. Krishna prevented mass mortality by drinking up all the poison. Being a god, naturally Krishna didn't die from the poison, but it did turn his skin blue for the rest of time. Why poison = blue? I suspect the poison in question was cyanide, which you mention as being colored blue. --Paul

Cecil replies:

Another take on this I've heard is that blue is the standard depiction of all Hindu gods.  In any case, it's not blue gods we're interested in, it's blue people.

Also see: The Straight Dope:   Are there inbred families in the Ozarks/Appalachians like in Deliverance?

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