Excavated tooth DNA provides link to migration history of African slaves
A team of researchers has traced the ethnic origins of three enslaved Africans by analyzing DNA from the roots of 400 year-old teeth found on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, a former Dutch colony. The team's findings were published Mar. 9, 2015, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
The teeth came from three skeletons found by accident at a construction site in 2010, in Philipsburg's Zoutsteeg area. Dubbed the Zoutsteeg Three, the skeletons belonged to two men and one woman, ages 25 to 40, who were estimated to have died between 1660 and 1680.
Finding the Zoutsteeg Three
Upon finding the remains, archaeologists suspected that the Zoutsteeg Three had not been born on the island, as their teeth held patterns of chipping and filing that were indicative of practices belonging to African tribal cultures, traditions that faded after enslavement.
Dental framework was not, by itself, a confirmation of scientists' inclinations. Only genetic material could provide a definitive answer.
A new archive
Hannes Schroeder, archaeologist for the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the study's lead author, told the Los Angeles Times, "I like to think of DNA as another type of archive, another type of record that we can use in order to understand the past."
To Schroeder's understanding, these are the first findings to provide a direct channel for tracing the lineage of enslaved Africans. Very few historical records exist, and this breakthrough could begin to address unanswered questions about the history of the 12 million Africans forced into the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
From the DNA, the scientists surmised that one of the men likely came from northern Cameroon, and the other two likely originated from what is now Nigeria and Ghana.
Schroeder was, at first, doubtful that he and his team would be able to extract DNA from the centuries-old remains that had been entombed in a wet, tropical climate, reported CBS News. The researchers created a new technique - called whole-genome capture - that utilizes pieces of a modern genome as bait to successfully mine the necessary DNA from the tooth remains.
Alondra Nelson, Columbia University's dean of social science, who was involved in the study said, "Where this paper breaks new ground is in the application of a more robust technique - genome wide association studies (GWAS) - that has not been previously used to infer the origins of enslaved people in the Americas ... The introduction of the GWAS method permits the analysis of a larger swathe of the DNA and therefore offers more precision relative to prior methods."
While the picture is far from complete, the new findings are a leap of progress.