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Scientists trace DNA from a 200-yr-old pipe found in Maryland to an enslaved woman from Sierra Leone

March 19, 2019 at 05:00 pm | News

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

March 19, 2019 at 05:00 pm | News

Archaeologists from the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration found this 19th-century clay pipe at an excavation site. Pic credit: Smithsonian.com

When archaeologists unearthed the remains of stone-walled slave quarters at Maryland’s Belvoir plantation in 2015, they discovered thousands of artifacts believed to have been used by the people who were enslaved at the site.

These artifacts included animal bones and ceramic sherds, but what has produced shocking revelations is a 19th-century clay pipe. According to the Washington Post, researchers were able to extract DNA from the pipe and later got details about the one who used it.

Doctors from a lab identified a woman whose genetic links are connected to present-day Sierra Leone. A doctor at the University of Copenhagen found the woman to be most closely related to Mende people living in modern-day Sierra Leone in West Africa.

This is the first time scientists have taken human DNA from a 200-year-old pipe stem and connected it with someone’s ancestry, Dr Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen said.

“We usually study ancient human skeletal remains, so having the opportunity to recover a DNA from tobacco pipes a few hundred years old was a unique challenge,” Dr Ripan Malhi, head of an ancient DNA laboratory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was quoted by NBC Washington.

The Belvoir plantation where the pipe stem was found ran on enslaved labour from 1736 until Maryland ended the institution of slavery in 1864. What looked like a slave cemetery was recently found at the site, the Washington Post said.

The researchers said that the recent discovery of the slave quarters compelled them to re-examine historical documents connected to the plantation. This, has, in turn, helped descendants link themselves to the site.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign carried out an analysis of the pipe stem. The results were subsequently passed to Schroeder at the University of Copenhagen, which has a database of African DNA. The successive discovery was first reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Julie Schablitsky, the chief archaeologist with the Maryland state highway administration, has described the discovery as a “mind-blower”.

She said records show the existence of a slave trade route from Sierra Leone to Annapolis.

“You start with one small insignificant piece of tobacco pipe and you end up talking about one of the most significant events in American history,” Schroeder said.

Experts say the research is vital to the future study of enslaved individuals. It has shown that ancient artifacts can be used to identify the occupants of specific sites on plantations – those living in slave quarters or tenant homes owned by white people.

The research findings also show that personal objects may contain significant genetic clues about an enslaved person’s heritage.

“As soon as people stepped on those slave ships in Africa…whether they were from Benin or whether they were from Sierra Leone, wherever they were from, that identity was lost,” lead researcher, Schablitsky said.

“Their humanity is stripped from them. Who they are as a people has gone.”

Enslaved people, as a result, are not able to get information about their ancestral past.

The authors of the latest research, however, note that their discovery that a single pipe was used to connect a woman to a group in Sierra Leone represents “powerful knowledge.”

Pamela Brogden, of Hanover, has traced her ancestry back to Belvoir slaves. She can’t tell if she is linked to the DNA found on the pipe, but she is elated about the possibility.

“I know how hard the people of Sierra Leone are, how they’ve gone through almost a civil war to come back still thriving,” Brogden said.

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