DNA analysis used to trace the origins of buried slaves

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2015, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2015, 8:11am


Using a new approach to DNA analysis, the 17th-century bones of three African slaves have been traced to their countries of origin for the first time, researchers said.

Until now, uncovering the precise origins of the 12 million African slaves sent to the New World between the years 1,500 and 1,850 has been challenging, since few historical records exist. Often, the ports from which the slaves were shipped is known, but not the nations.

The three slaves analysed for this study came from what is modern-day Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria, according to the findings published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

At first, scientists did not expect to find out much about the remains of two men and a woman that were uncovered in 2010 at a beach-side construction site on the Caribbean island of St Martin, since they had retained little DNA due to the hot climate.

But using a new approach called whole genome capture, and comparing the DNA found in the bones to reference samples of people from 11 different West African countries, researchers were able to trace the slaves, known as the Zoutsteeg Three because they were unearthed in an area of Philipsburg with that name.