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Centuries-old DNA helps identify specific origins of slave skeletons found in Caribbean

In the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade, the largest forced migration in history, more than 12 million enslaved Africans were shipped to the New World to work on plantations in eastern South America, the Caribbean, and portions of the eastern United States. Although some records were kept detailing the slaves’ departure from West and Central African ports, they are often incomplete. More than 300 years ago, three African-born slaves died on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. No written records memorialized their fate, and their names and precise ethnic background remained a mystery. For centuries, their skeletons were subjected to the hot, wet weather of the tropical island until they were unearthed in 2010. Now researchers have extracted and sequenced tiny bits of DNA remaining in the skeletons’ teeth. From this data, they were able to determine where in Africa the individuals likely lived before they were captured and enslaved. This research marks the first time that scientists have been able to use such old, poorly preserved DNA to identify with high specificity the ethnic origins of long-dead individuals. The finding paves the way for a greater understanding of the patterns of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and may transform the general practice of genealogical and historical research.

Visit Website | Image credit: Photograph by Jay B. Haviser, published in Schroeder et al. PNAS 2015