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

“The 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.”

“Through the barbarism of the middle passage, millions of people were forcibly removed from Africa and brought to the Americas,” said Carlos Bustamante, PhD, professor of genetics at Stanford. “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.”

Repeating Islands

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Researchers at the Stanford University Medical Center have extracted and sequenced tiny bits of DNA remaining in the teeth of 300-year-old skeletons in the Caribbean. From this data, they were able to determine where in Africa the individuals likely lived before they were captured and enslaved. Here are excerpts:

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 during a construction project in the Zoutsteeg area of the capital city of Philipsburg.

Now researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of Copenhagen have extracted and sequenced tiny bits of DNA remaining in the skeletons’ teeth. From this data, they were able to…

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