DNA From 200-Year-Old Pipe Links Enslaved Woman to Sierra Leone

A new genetic analysis suggests that certain artifacts can help descendants of enslaved people piece together their ancestral heritage

Archaeologists from the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration found this 19th-century clay pipe at the excavation site that contained the DNA of a woman who had connections to the region that is now modern-day Sierra Leone. MDOT SHA

Since unearthing the remains of a stone-walled slave quarters at Maryland’s Belvoir plantation in 2015, archaeologists have discovered an array of artifacts believed to have been used by the enslaved men and women who labored at the site. Among the buttons, ceramic sherds and animal bones that littered the area was a 19th-century clay pipe stem—not an anomalous find, given how often people smoked tobacco during this period, but one that has yielded stunning revelations. As Michael E. Ruane reports for the Washington Post, researchers have announced that they successfully extracted DNA from the pipe and uncovered details about the person who used it: a woman with genetic links to modern-day Sierra Leone.

The Belvoir plantation, located just outside Annapolis, ran on enslaved labor from 1736 until Maryland ended the institution of slavery in 1864. Writing in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers explain that the recent discovery of the slave quarters prompted a re-examination of historical documents connected to the plantation, which has in turn helped descendants link themselves to the site. With this genealogical objective in mind, an archaeological team led by Julie M. Schablitsky, chief archaeologist with the Maryland Transportation Department’s State Highway Administration, kept a sterile collection kit on hand while working at the site. The experts hoped to find artifacts that would contain traces of centuries-old DNA; four clay pipe stems were among the materials they sealed away for further testing.

Non-human artifacts do not typically yield much in the way of useable human DNA, but clay is porous, allowing liquids like saliva and blood to be easily absorbed. One of the four pipes was found to contain enough genetic material for additional analysis; scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were able to determine that the DNA came from a woman who had connections to the region that is now Sierra Leone in West Africa.

Hannes Schroeder, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen who specializes in ancient DNA analysis, was then called in to further isolate the data. He compared the woman’s genetic material to a database of African DNA and found that she was connected to the Mende people of Sierra Leone. According to Ruane, it’s not clear if the woman was born in Africa, or born to parents who were brought to the United States from Africa. But there is a record of a slave shipping route between Annapolis and Sierra Leone.

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

The new analysis doesn’t offer a complete picture of the woman’s identity. For instance, as Howard University biologist Fatimah Jackson explains in an interview with Zhang, the reference database for Africans is relatively small, meaning that the woman could have closer connections to another group whose data is missing from the set. There is also much that DNA can’t tell us, like whether a given individual was freed or enslaved, the study authors note.

But the research is nevertheless significant to the future study of enslaved peoples. For one, it shows that ancient artifacts can be used to identify the occupants of specific sites on plantations; according to the researchers, it is often difficult to distinguish between the remnants of slave quarters and small tenant houses occupied by white people. Crucially, the study also reveals that personal objects may contain vital genetic clues about an enslaved person’s heritage—heritage that was effectively stripped from them when they were brought to America.

“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,” Schablitsky tells Ruane. “Who they are as a people is gone.”

This in turn makes it difficult for descendants of enslaved people to piece together their ancestral past. The revelation that a single pipe was used to connect a woman in Maryland to a group in Sierra Leone therefore represents “powerful knowledge,” the study authors write.

“It is not only the data that is important to [the descendant community],” the researchers add, “but the fact that this type of information survived to reveal personal details once thought unknowable.”

The new findings are encouraging to people like Pamela Brogden, whose ancestors were enslaved at Belvoir. “The people in Sierra Leone are remarkable and resilient,” she said in a statement. “To possibly have their blood flowing through us is an honor.”

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