Belvoir Archaeology Site Reveals Genetic Identity of Slaves

Woman’s DNA on Tobacco Pipe Stem Links Ancestry to Sierra Leone

Crownsville, MD (Arundel News Network) – More than 200 years after her death, a woman who once lived in slavery at Scott’s Plantation, is sharing her story through DNA. She most likely had no idea that a smoke break would later provide important clues about her life and heritage for her modern day relatives. Yet, during an ongoing Transportation Enhancement Program by The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, there was enough DNA on one pipe stem to link the unknown woman to Mende living in Sierra Leone.

Her DNA was discovered during an excavation of the slave’s quarters on Scott’s Plantation also known as Belvoir. Many other artifacts discovered at the site including pottery, animal bones and dishes tell about how the inhabitants lived. But one of the four pipe stems recovered tell the story of who these enslaved people were.

“When Africans stepped on those slave ships, they lost not only their freedom but their identity,” said Dr. Julie Schablitsky, MDOT SHA chief archaeologist. “This is one way archaeologists can help descendants reclaim their heritage.”

The results, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, are the first of their kind according to Dr. Hannes Schroeder at the University of Copenhagen who states, “This is the first time scientists have lifted human DNA from a 200-year-old pipe stem and connected it with a person’s ancestry.”

Despite the scientific precedent set by the test results at the slave’s quarters excavation, the value of knowing where your ancestors came from is perhaps incomparable. Belvoir descendants are now able to visit the place where their forefathers lived and worked the tobacco fields with a new sense of empowerment and inspiration.  Wanda Watts,  says, “It has been a fantastic journey watching history unfold itself on the Belvoir Plantation. Every new discovery gives us a glimpse into the lives of our ancestors and where they may have lived before being enslaved on this continent”.

Photo Credit: William D Morgan 1969

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