36 bodies were found in anonymous colonial graves. DNA is revealing their stories.

36 bodies were found in anonymous colonial graves.  DNA is revealing their stories.
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A decade ago, the ancestors woke up.

During renovations to a performing arts center in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2013, workers discovered an unmarked 18th-century burial ground containing the remains of 36 mystery people.

They were unnamed, but had been carefully buried in four evenly spaced rows. There were coins over the eyes of a child. An account was found next to a baby. “Probably lower class bodies”, a Headline of 2013 in the Mail and Messaging the newspaper announced.

The remnants of the colonial era raised profound questions. Who were they? Were they related? Where were they from?

Now, the DNA analysis published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers new layers to its complex history, which has been slowly unfolding thanks to a Ongoing collaboration between anthropological geneticists and the Gullah Society, a nonprofit organization focused on the preservation of African-American burial grounds. The Gullah Society was dissolved in 2021 after the death of its founder, Ade Ofunniyin, but work continues under the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project.

In the graves of a lost black cemetery, hope for links to family history

The first round of research published three years ago featured detailed studies of bones and an analysis of their mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from mothers. That job they revealed their approximate ages, sexes, and their maternal African ancestry. The researchers concluded that these nameless people, whom they called the Ancestors, were likely enslaved people.

It also inspired a ceremony in which Yoruba priests gave each person an honorary name, guided in part by what could be gleaned from scientific analysis of their remains.

The ancestors were mostly male, with ages ranging from infants to senior citizens. Six of them, Banza, Kuto, Zimbu, Daba, Ganda, and Talata, were likely abducted from Africa and brought to Charleston or were born on the voyage. The others were born in the Lowcountry around Charleston, but traced their ancestry to various parts of West and Central Africa. Coosaw, a teenager, was part Native American.

The most recent results confirm those findings and expand on them. Mapping their genomes gave researchers more information about their ancestry and helped answer the question of whether they were related to each other. They weren’t, except for Isi and Welela. The 36 people appear to have been buried as they died, rather than in family groups or in a common grave.

“The ancestors represent thousands and thousands of people whose history and existence is largely, if not entirely, unrecorded,” said Theodore Schurr, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the leaders of the work. “They spiritually, as well as historically and biologically, represent the ancestors of people of African descent living in Charleston and elsewhere today.”

The perception of forgotten lives is possible thanks to serendipity, promotion and a culturally sensitive approach. The scientists began the work with their own questions about what they could learn, but they also asked the African-American community in Charleston what they wanted to know about these remains.

The community had specific questions. Were women and children buried there? Were they related? Where were they from?

The physical study of the bones could only go so far, and the first round of mitochondrial DNA analysis provided a limited window into their maternal ancestry. With the permission of the community, the scientists extracted DNA from fragments of a skull bone and teeth to obtain more information. Such analyzes must be performed under clean room conditions to avoid contamination with modern DNA.

Raquel Fleskes, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Connecticut, used a GoPro camera to document the process of extracting DNA from bone samples, to share the experience with the community.

The results offer a mix of revelations. Most of the people buried in the cemetery were born in Charleston, but their African roots trace back to very different regions and cultures. By comparing their DNA to modern populations, the researchers found that three closely matched people from Gabon. Four had close ties to people from Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. One person, Lisa, appeared to have ties to The Gambia.

“These ancestors are very diverse individuals, they come from all over Africa,” Fleskes said.

Next, the researchers hope to analyze samples of their teeth, sampling the oral microbiome, to see what they can discern about the ancestors’ diet and perhaps find clues to any diseases they may have suffered from.

Anne Stone, an anthropological geneticist at Arizona State University who edited the article for PNAS but was not involved in the research, said the genetic study adds a dimension of knowledge that could only be hinted at by a detailed study of the bones.

“I think this work is important because it provides another source of information about the lives of enslaved Africans, and in particular helps shed light on relationships between people and their ancestry,” Stone said in an email.

Although the ancestors’ view of life is fragmented, Schurr said the diversity of the people in the cemetery speaks to the brutality of their lives. If these were enslaved people, they would have been separated from family and friends indiscriminately, in part because connections that could have helped foster resistance were generally cut off.

“It speaks to the structural violence of slavery and the degradation of the humanity of these individuals, which doesn’t allow them to be with relatives, or people from the same cultural groups, the same ethnic populations,” Schurr said.

Despite the lack of clarity Genetic connections between most of the ancestors, the burials also demonstrate a high level of care. There were brass pins and nails in the ground, suggesting that the bodies had been buried in coffins or shrouds. The tokens scattered among the wreckage seemed to be a sign of honor from the community.

“It was done in such a respectful way, so honorable and well cared for, that you could tell that people were buried by … I don’t know if they were relatives,” said La’Sheia Oubré, who leads community engagement and education efforts for the Anson Street African Cemetery project.

“In the African-American community in Charleston, you don’t have to be related to someone by blood to care for them.”


An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Anne Stone is at the University of Arizona. She is at Arizona State University. The article has been corrected.

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