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


Ten years ago, the ancestors woke up.

During renovations to a performing arts center in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2013, workers discovered an unmarked 18th-century cemetery containing the remains of 36 mysterious people.

They had no name, 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. “Bodies are likely lower class,” a 2013 headline in The Post and Courier newspaper read.

The colonial era still raises deep questions. Who were they? Were they related? Where do they come from?

However, the DNA analysis published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers new layers to their complex story, which unfolds slowly through a ongoing collaboration between anthropological geneticists and the Gullah Society, a nonprofit organization focused on the preservation of African American cemeteries. The Gullah Society was dissolved in 2021 after the death of its founder, Ade Ofunniyin, but work continues under the Anson Street African Burial Ground project.

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

The first round of research published three years ago presented detailed studies of bones and analysis of their mitochondrial DNA, inherited from mothers. This work revealed their approximate ages, genders and maternal African ancestry. The researchers concluded that these unnamed people – they dubbed them the Ancestors – were likely slaves.

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

The ancestors were mostly male, ranging in age from infants to older adults. Six of them – Banza, Kuto, Zimbu, Daba, Ganda and Talata – were probably abducted from Africa and brought to Charleston or born on the journey. The others were born in the Lowcountry around Charleston, but traced their ancestry to various parts of West and Central Africa. Coosaw, a teenager, was part Native American.

The most recent results confirm and extend these findings. Mapping their genomes gave researchers a better understanding of their ancestry and helped answer the question of whether they were related to each other. They were not, except for Isi and Welela. The 36 people appear to have been buried at the time of their death, rather than in family groups or in a mass grave.

“Ancestors represent thousands and thousands of people whose history and existence is largely unrecorded, if not entirely unrecorded,” said Theodore Schurr, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the leaders. work. “They represent spiritually, as well as historically and biologically, the ancestors of people of African descent living in Charleston and elsewhere today.”

Insight into forgotten lives is possible through serendipity, advocacy and a culturally sensitive approach. The scientists went into the work with their own questions about what they could learn, but they also asked Charleston’s African-American community what they wanted to know about these remains.

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

The physical study of the bones themselves could go no further, and the first round of mitochondrial DNA analysis gave a limited window into their maternal ancestry. With the community’s permission, scientists extracted DNA from fragments of skull bones and teeth to learn more. These analyzes should be performed under clean room conditions to avoid contamination by modern DNA.

Raquel Fleskes, a genetic anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, carried a GoPro camera to document the process of extracting DNA from bone samples, to share the experience with the community.

The results offer a mixture of revelations. Most of those buried in the cemetery were born in Charleston, but are said to have traced their African roots to vastly different regions and cultures. By comparing their DNA to today’s populations, the researchers found that three of them closely matched Gabonese. Four had close ties to people from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. One person, Lisa, appeared to have links to The Gambia.

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

Next, the researchers hope to analyze samples of their teeth – sampling the oral microbiome – to see what they can discern about the diet of the ancestors, and perhaps find clues to what illnesses they may have suffered from.

Anne Stone, a genetic anthropologist at the University of Arizona who edited the paper for PNAS but was not involved in the research, said the genetic study adds a dimension of knowledge that cannot be suggested. than by a detailed study 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 ancestry,” Stone said in a statement. E-mail.

Although the glimpse into the life of the ancestor is fragmented, Schurr said the diversity of people in the cemetery speaks to the brutality of their lives. If they were enslaved people, they would have been separated from their family and friends indiscriminately, in part because ties that might have helped foster resistance were usually broken.

“It speaks to the structural violence of slavery and the humiliation of the humanity of these individuals, not allowing them to be with relatives, or people of the same cultural groups, of the same ethnic populations,” said Schurr said.

Despite the absence of any clear genetic links between most of the ancestors, the burials also testify to a high level of care. There were brass nails and pins in the floor, suggesting the bodies had been buried in coffins or shrouds. The tokens strewn among the remains appeared to be a sign of community honor.

“It was done with such respect and honor and care, that you could tell people were buried by – I don’t know if they were relatives,” said La’Sheia Oubré, who leads education and community engagement efforts for the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project.

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

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