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Researchers examine the DNA of slaves buried in a 18th-century cemetery - uncovering their history

By: April Carson



By collaborating with members of The Anson Street African Burial Ground Project, a team of scientists from several U.S.-based institutions have uncovered the stories behind some of the enslaved individuals buried in Charleston, South Carolina during the 18th century—a place renowned for its booming slave trade activities.


Through the analysis of skeletal remains, the researchers were able to uncover a wealth of information about these individuals—from their African ethnic origins to their life experiences in colonial America.


In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists conducted an investigation by gathering tissue samples from as many skeletons at a cemetery site. After sequencing their DNA, they uncovered intriguing details about their history and past lives.


The findings show that the individual's genetic ancestry was primarily African, with a mixture of Native American and European. Further analysis revealed that these individuals were likely not related to each other, like family members would be. This suggests that many of them were enslaved from different parts of Africa and subsequently brought together in Charleston as part of its slave trade activities.


Beginning in the 1500s, indigenous Africans were involuntarily brought to colonial America by white Europeans as part of a mass slave trade that lasted for three centuries. Charleston South Carolina was particularly notorious for the large influx of slaves beginning their lives in America.


Approximately 50% of enslaved people were shipped to the port and sold without consideration. To gain insight into this history, researchers conducted a DNA analysis on skeletons that had been buried in an unmarked cemetery during the 18th century near downtown.


In 2013, the historic cemetery was unearthed and a mission to determine whose remains reside there began. Upon inspection, 36 skeletons were uncovered but only 18 of them had tissue samples viable enough for genetic analysis. Early research indicated that all occupants in the graveyard had been placed within coffins prior to burial containing precious items such as pipes, beads or coins with them.


Through the use of ancient DNA sequencing, researchers were able to piece together a detailed picture of these forgotten lives. The results revealed that most of the individuals had West African ancestry and likely descended from slaves who were forcibly brought to the Americas in the 18th century.


Through extensive DNA analysis, the researchers discovered that all of their study participants were descendants of African slaves apart from one. Additionally, they identified that slavery was not only limited to West Africa; rather, people had been taken captive in areas across sub-Saharan Africa. After surveying the graveyard, researchers discerned that 13 of those buried were from West Africa, while most likely the remaining ones had been born in the U.S.


An interesting observation made was that none of them seemed to be connected by any family relationship - a probable indication that their families were separated upon reaching America. Unexpectedly, the archaeologists discovered that two individuals shared a surprising genetic link.


The researchers uncovered a shocking discovery- one of the individuals buried in the cemetery had Native American maternal lineage. This finding showcases how far-reaching and multi-generational the slave trade was across America for many years.


Subsequent analysis of the DNA revealed further details about these individuals, such as their geographical origins in West Africa and how long they had been living in America. By studying the mitochondrial haplogroups and Y-chromosomal haplogroups of each individual, researchers were able to determine their ethnic background with a great degree of accuracy.


Their evidence demonstrates that the slave trade was an incredibly complex system, with individuals from across many different countries and regions being forced to migrate in a large scale. It also reveals how long-lasting and pervasive the effects of slavery were on generations of African Americans.












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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com


To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav


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