Tuesday, March 12, 2019

DNA from a Colonial Pipestem

One of the things I learned doing historical archaeology that has had the biggest impact on how I view the past concerns the invisibility of race. It is very, very hard to tell from archaeology whether any particular site in the US was occupied by blacks or whites. (Or American Indians, once they had taken up European material culture.) Class is immediately visible in the record; archaeologists are really good at telling rich people from poor people. Sometimes regional differences are also pretty clear. But so far as archaeology can tell you, any given cabin in, say, the Chesapeake region of Maryland or Virginia might have occupied by poor blacks or poor whites.

Enter ancient DNA:
Archaeologists often struggle with the challenge of linking historic-period artifact assemblages with specific communities. In particular, small home sites discovered on historic plantations are often difficult to identify as an African American or white tenant house since the material culture appears similar. The discipline also struggles with how to identify the expression of specific West African cultures in their archaeological assemblages. Here, we discuss how DNA was successfully extracted and analyzed from a clay tobacco pipe stem collected from an African American slave quarter in Maryland, USA, and what this information can and cannot reveal about the people present at the site. We successfully identified DNA from a woman, and genome-wide analyses revealed she was closely related to Mende living in present-day Sierra Leone, West Africa. The ability to recover genetic data from personal artifacts now provides archaeologists a viable tool to address questions about communities and ancestral origins. Furthermore, these findings hold the potential to connect living descendants with their ancestors’ homes.
If these techniques ever become affordable for the average archaeological project, a lot might be learned.


szopen said...

That's awesome, though calling DNA collected from 19th century artifact "ancient" is stretching the line a bit.

David said...

It's kind of amazing that we can now get so close to people of the past like that, almost to be right there with them, the pipe in their mouth, the smoke puffing out.