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


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A decade ago, the ancestors woke up.

While renovating 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 names, but were carefully buried in four equal rows. There were coins over the eyes of a child. A bead was found next to a baby. “Bodies probably of a lower class,” a Headline for 2013 in Posts and Courier the newspaper reported.

The remnants of the colonial era raise profound questions. Who were they? Were they related? Where were they from?

Now the DNA analysis, published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers new layers to their complex story that slowly unfolds thanks to an an ongoing collaboration between anthropological geneticists and the Gullah Society, a non-profit organization focused on preserving African American cemeteries. The Gullah Society was disbanded in 2021 after its founder Ade Ofunniyin died, but work continues on the Anson Street African Burial Ground project.

In the graves of a lost Black Cemetery, hope for links to family history

The first round of research published three years ago present detailed studies of the bones and analysis of their maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA. This job revealed their approximate age, sex, and maternal African ancestry. The researchers concluded that these nameless people – they called them the ancestors – were probably enslaved people.

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 the elderly. Six of them—Banza, Kuto, Zimbu, Daba, Ganda, and Talata—were likely kidnapped in Africa and brought to Charleston or born during the voyage. The others were born in the Lowcountry around Charleston but traced their ancestry to various parts of West and Central Africa. Kusow, a teenager, is 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 were not, except for Isi and Welela. It appears that the 36 people were buried as they died, not in family groups or a mass grave.

“Ancestors represent thousands and thousands of people whose history and existence are largely unrecorded, if not completely unrecorded,” said Theodore Schur, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the leaders of the 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 made possible by serendipity, advocacy, and a culturally sensitive approach. The scientists began working 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. Are women and children buried there? Were they related? Where were they from?

Physical examination of the bones themselves could only go so far, and the first round of mitochondrial DNA analysis provided a limited window into their maternal origins. With the community’s permission, scientists extracted DNA from fragments of skull bone and teeth to learn more. Such analyzes should be performed under cleanroom 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 extracting DNA from the bone samples to share her experience with the community.

The results offer a combination of revelations. Most of the people buried in the cemetery were born in Charleston, but would trace their African roots to many different regions and cultures. By comparing their DNA with modern populations, the researchers found that three closely matched people from Gabon. Four had close ties to people from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. One person, Lisa, appears to have ties to The Gambia.

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

The researchers then hope to analyze samples of their teeth — sampling the oral microbiome — to see what they can learn about the ancestors’ diet and perhaps find clues to any diseases they may have suffered.

Anne Stone, an anthropological geneticist at Arizona State University who edited the paper for PNAS but was not involved in 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 shed light on the connections between individuals and their ancestry,” Stone said in an email.

Although the view of the ancestors’ lives is fragmented, Schur said the variety of people in the cemetery speaks to the brutality of their lives. If these were enslaved people, they would be separated from family and friends indiscriminately, in part because ties that might have helped foster resistance were usually obliterated.

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

Despite the lack of any clear genetic links between most of the ancestors, the burials also demonstrate a high level of care. There were nails and brass pins in the dirt, suggesting the bodies were buried in coffins or burial shrouds. Tokens scattered among the remains appear to be a mark of honor from the community.

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

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

correction

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


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