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36 bodies were found in unmarked colonial graves. DNA reveals their stories.

36 bodies were found in unmarked colonial graves.  DNA reveals their stories.
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A decade ago, the ancestors woke up.

During renovations at a performing arts center in Charleston, SC, in 2013, workers uncovered an unmarked 18th-century burial site containing the remains of 36 mysterious people.

They had no names, but they had been carefully buried in four evenly spaced rows. There were coins over a child’s eyes. A pearl was found next to an infant. “Body probably of the lower class”, a Headline 2013 in Post and Courier newspaper announced.

The colonial era continues to raise deep questions. who were they Were they related? Where did they come from?

A DNA analysis was published on Monday Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers new levels for her complex story, which slowly unfolded thanks to a ongoing collaboration between anthropological geneticists and the Gullah Society, a non-profit organization focused on the preservation of African American burial sites. The Gullah Society was dissolved in 2021 following the death of its founder Ade Ofunniyin, but work continues as part of the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project.

In graves of a lost black cemetery, they hope for connections to family history

The first round of research published three years ago presented detailed studies of the bones and an analysis of their mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from mothers. This work revealed her approximate age, gender and maternal African ancestry. Researchers concluded that these unnamed people — they called them the ancestors — were likely enslaved people.

It also inspired a ceremony where Yoruba priests gave each person an honorific name, guided in part by what could be gleaned from scientific analysis of their remains.

The ancestors were mostly male and ranged in age from infants to older adults. Six of them – Banza, Kuto, Zimbu, Daba, Ganda and Talata – were probably kidnapped in Africa and taken to Charleston or born on the voyage. The others were born in the Lowcountry around Charleston but have ancestry in various parts of West and Central Africa. Coosaw, an adolescent female, was part Native American.

The latest results confirm and extend these findings. Mapping their genomes gave researchers more insight into their ancestry and helped answer the question of whether they were related. They weren’t, with the exception of Isi and Welela. The 36 people were apparently buried as they died and not in family groups or in a mass grave.

“The ancestors represent thousands and thousands of people whose history and existence are largely, if not not at all, recorded,” said Theodore Schurr, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the leaders of the work. “They represent, both spiritually and historically and biologically, the ancestors of people of African descent living in Charleston and elsewhere today.”

Insight into forgotten lives is possible through chance, advocacy and a culture-sensitive approach. Scientists entered the work with their own questions about what they might learn, but they also asked the African American community in Charleston what they wanted to know about these remains.

The community had specific questions. Were women and children buried there? Were they related? Where did they come from?

Physical examination of the bones themselves could only get so far, and the first round of analysis of mitochondrial DNA gave limited insight into their maternal lineage. With permission from the community, the scientists extracted DNA from fragments of a skull bone and teeth to learn more. Such analyzes must be performed under clean room conditions to avoid contamination with modern DNA.

Raquel Fleskes, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Connecticut, wore a GoPro camera to document the process of DNA extraction from the bone samples and share the experience with the community.

The results offer a mix of revelations. Most of the people buried in the cemetery were born in Charleston, but they may have traced their African roots to very different regions and cultures. By comparing their DNA to today’s population, the researchers found three closely matched people from Gabon. Four had close ties with people from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. One person, Lisa, appeared to have ties to The Gambia.

“These ancestors are really different individuals, they come from all parts of Africa,” Fleskes said.

Next, the researchers hope to analyze samples from their teeth — samples of the oral microbiome — to see what they can tell about their ancestors’ diets, and perhaps find clues to diseases they may have suffered from.

Anne Stone, an anthropological geneticist at Arizona State University who edited the paper for PNAS but was not involved with the research, said the genetic study adds a dimension of knowledge that can only be hinted at through detailed examination of the bones.

“I think this work is important because it provides another source of information about the lives of enslaved Africans and, in particular, helps to shed light on the relationships between individuals and their ancestors,” Stone said in an email.

Though insight into the lives of the ancestors is fragmented, Schurr said the diversity of the people at the cemetery speaks to the brutality of their lives. If they had been enslaved people, they would have been indiscriminately separated from family and friends, partly because connections that might have fostered resistance were usually weeded out.

“It speaks to the structural violence of slavery and the degradation of the humanity of those individuals who do not allow them to be with relatives or people from the same cultural groups, the same ethnic communities,” Schurr said.

despite the lack of clarity genetic links between most ancestors, the burials also indicate a high level of care. There were nails and brass pins in the ground, suggesting the bodies had been buried in coffins or shrouds. Marks scattered among the remains appeared to be a badge of honor from the community.

“It was done so respectfully, so honorably and well cared for that you could tell the people were buried by — I don’t know if they were relatives,” said La’Sheia Oubré, who oversaw the education and community engagement efforts leads the Anson Street African Burial Ground project.

“In Charleston’s African American community, you don’t have to be related by blood to care for someone.”

correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Anne Stone is at the University of Arizona. She is at Arizona State University. The article has been corrected.

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