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Caribbean skeletons hold slave trade secrets

I was excited yesterday to see the Los Angeles Times cover a really neat story out of the laboratory of geneticist Carlos Bustamante, PhD. He and his colleagues at the University of Copenhagen used genetic analysis to solve a 300-year-old mystery with origins in the city of Philipsburg on the island of Saint Martin.

Philipsburg is an idyllic retreat for thousands of tourists each year. Not so for three skeletons recently unearthed during a construction project in the city. The skeletons were those of African-born slaves who had been shipped from their homeland more than 300 years ago to the Caribbean island to serve as forced laborers. Like millions of other enslaved Africans, the two men and one woman likely led difficult lives and died young.

Now the researchers have identified the regions in Africa the individuals likely lived before their capture. To do so, they examined tiny, highly fragmented bits of ancient DNA that survived the hot, humid conditions of the tropics in the roots of the skeletons' teeth.  The research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As Bustamante explained in our release:

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. This project has taught us that we cannot only get ancient DNA from tropical samples, but that we can reliably identify their ancestry. This is incredibly exciting to us and opens the door to reclaiming history that is of such importance.

Bustamante is co-author of a paper describing the research.The study was led by Hannes Schroeder, PhD, a molecular anthropologist from the University of Copenhagen, and Stanford postdoctoral scholar Maria Avila-Arcos, PhD. The research was initiated in Denmark, and the senior author of the study is Thomas Gilbert, PhD, of the University of Copenhagen. More from our release:

Researchers could tell from the skeletons found in the Zoutsteeg area that the three people were between 25 and 40 years old when they died in the late 1600s. The skulls of each also bore teeth that had been filed down in patterns characteristic of certain African groups. But this alone wasn’t enough to pinpoint where the individuals originated on the African continent.

Schroeder and Avila-Arcos used a technique developed by study co-author Meredith Carpenter, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the Bustamante laboratory, to fish out snippets of ancient DNA from the material inside the teeth for sequencing. They then used a different technique called principal component analysis to identify the distinct ethnic groups from which each individual likely originated. The findings illuminate a tumultuous period of time in the Americas and may provide insight into subsequent population patterns and perceived ethnic identities. They also open doors to new advances in genealogy and historical research. As Bustamante told me:

Several years ago, we were part of the team that sequenced the genome of Otzi, the iceman, and we were able to show that the people alive today that most closely match him genetically are Sardinians. This incredible precision was possible because we, as a community, had invested lots of resources in understanding patterns of DNA variation in Europe. I started to talk about the ‘Otzi rule,’ or the idea that we should be able to do for all people alive today what we can do for a 5,000-year-old mummy.

Previously: Melting pot or mosaic? International collaboration studies genomic diversity in Mexico, Caribbean genetic diversity explored by Stanford/ University of Miami researchers and Recent shared ancestry between Southern Europe and North Africa identified by Stanford researchers
Photo by alljengi

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