Slaves buried long ago in the Caribbean are being examined, and their skeletons are revealing the genetic origins of the long-dead people.
Three sets of bones were studied, using a new genetic technique in order to determine where in Africa the slaves originated.
The remains were found in 2010 on the island of Saint Martin, where the individuals perished more than three centuries ago. Archaeologists were uncertain where on the African continent the late slaves were living when they were captured, and no records remain of their identities.
University of Copenhagen researchers, along with colleagues from the Stanford University School of Medicine, examined teeth of the skeletons, extracting DNA for analysis. Genetic codes of this age are normally too decayed to be analyzed when using traditional techniques. However, a new method was able to locate the native lands of the slaves.
"Through the barbarism of the middle passage, millions of people were forcibly removed from Africa and brought to the Americas. We have long sought to use DNA to understand who they were, where they came from, and who, today, shares DNA with those people taken aboard the ships," Carlos Bustamante, a geneticist at Stanford University, said.
Human RNA was used to attract DNA segments, piecing them together, even in their damaged state.
The African slave trade that helped to support farms and plantations in the southern United States was was the largest forced human migration in history, removing 12 million people from their native lands. During this time, few records were kept, detailing the capture and movement of Africans from their homes and communities.
Analysis revealed that two of the three people examined were originally from an area now covered by the nations of Ghana and Nigeria. The third was a member of a group of Bantu-speaking people living in northern Cameroon. Each of the individuals was likely between 25 and 40 years old when they died in the late 17th century.
Archaeologists may be able to use the new DNA analysis technique developed for this study to uncover other information from other older human remains. Analysis of genetic codes from the remains of slaves could be studied to learn more about the trade in human beings across the Atlantic Ocean, which ended 150 years ago in April.
"The findings demonstrate that genomic data can be used to trace the genetic ancestry of long-dead and poorly preserved individuals, a finding with important implications for archeology, especially in cases where historical information is missing," Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen, said.
The DNA from the late slaves was highly damaged, following interment in hot, moist conditions over hundreds of years. Initial analysis of the genetic code, using traditional methods, was only able to map small snippets of DNA.
Analysis of the genetic snippets was detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Photo: Mirko Tobies Schaefer | Flickr