DNA from 200-year-old pipe sheds light on life of enslaved African woman

Archaeologists used DNA taken from a broken clay pipe stem found in Maryland to build a picture of an enslaved woman who died around 200 years ago and had origins in modern-day Sierra Leone. One researcher called the work “a mind-blower”.

“In this particular context, and from that time period, I think it’s a first,” team member Hannes Schroeder told the Washington Post.

“To be able to get DNA from an object like [a pipe stem] is quite exciting. Also it is exciting for descendent communities … Through this technology, they’re able to make a connection not only to the site but potentially back to Africa.”

The pipe stem was found at the Belvoir plantation in Crownsville, Maryland, where enslaved people lived until 1864 and where a likely slave cemetery was recently found. DNA taken from the pipe linked back to a woman either directly from or descended from the Mende people, who lived in west Africa, in an area now part of Sierra Leone.

Julie Schablitsky, the chief archaeologist with the Maryland state highway administration, told the Post the discovery, based on saliva absorbed into the clay pipe, was a “mind-blower”.

She also said records show the existence of a slave trade route from Sierra Leone to Annapolis, plied by British and American ships.

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

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

The new analysis is part of ongoing research around Belvoir that has given descendants of the people enslaved there new insight into the lives of their ancestors.

Speaking to the Post, Nancy Daniels, a genealogist from Laurel, Maryland who thinks she is a descendant of enslaved families from Belvoir but was not linked to the research on the pipe, called the discovery “overwhelming”.

“I’m sitting here about ready to cry,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m so happy … Thank God for the DNA.”

Analysis of the pipe stem was carried out at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The results were then passed to Schroeder at the University of Copenhagen, which holds a database of African DNA.

The subsequent discovery was first reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

This year, events and ceremonies are being held to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved people in America, at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.

Slavery was effectively abolished in the US on 1 January 1863, with the issue by Abraham Lincoln of the Emancipation Proclamation. It formally ended in December 1865, after the civil war, with the ratification of the 13th amendment.


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