Joseph Jones, an anthropologist at the College of William & Mary and one of the investigators at the site, told me that science is ripe even while his team is still judging. At the beginning of their excavation, they examined the skeletal remains using the same methods used by archaeologists for nearly a hundred years, measuring the size of the bones and looking at the damage to them to pinpoint. the details of people’s lives. Today, however, the group uses modern methods that previous generations of researchers had only dreamed of: the use of lasers to cut small fragments of tooth enamel so that isotopes trapped inside could be examined; sequencing ancient DNA to connect people who died hundreds of years ago to their descendants.
The African Burial Ground was discovered in a moment also of cultural discovery. Historians have investigated the role enslaved by humans in building northern cities, while Black scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and writers like Toni Morrison have centered on the role of African-Americans in U.S. history.
The scientific analysis of the site added compelling data on these social movements and changed the view of many Americans on the construction of their country. It revealed that enslaved people from Africa built many cities that are still inhabited by Americans today-in the North and South. And it shows how we went from a nomadic species traveling in small bands to sharing tight habitats with millions of other people.
The Africa Burial Ground project is one of the first to use a new constellation of “bioarchaeology” equipment that goes beyond conventional pickaxes and brushes. But it was the first stage of a much broader archaeological revolution that brought scientists and scholars in the humanities to produce data about our ancestors. Today, researchers are supplementing bioarchaeology with 3D photography, lidar, satellite imagery, and more.
Sometimes called “data archeology,” this type of high-tech exploration is well suited to the study of urban history. By using remote sensing technologies such as fulfilling, researchers can identify an entire grid in the town, giving us a better picture of what it’s like to walk in neighborhoods and peeking at the stores. This type of data enables precise digital reproduction, meaning that historians can make a remote, inaccessible site something that anyone in the world can visit. online.
This data has also democratized history: scholars can also examine hundreds, if not thousands, of the remains and process multiple sets of data to gain an understanding of the experiences of ordinary people-not just the fortunately few owned land, had their names written on monuments, or held public office.
Speaking of teeth
Data archeology is especially good for historians studying towns because urban areas often hold stories of migrants that may be difficult to trace. Bioarchaeologist Michael Blakey, who has led the Africa Burial Ground project since the early 1990s, said his team would not know where people in the cemetery came from if they could not do a variety of analyzes. of the chemical in their tooth enamel. Because the enamel it grows in layers as humans mature, chemists can study a cross-section of a tooth and determine what components are exposed to young people. It’s like analyzing wood rings, where each layer of enamel represents a stage in human life.
Immediately, they saw a sharp dividing line between people born in Africa and people born in America: lead. Even if African civilizations worked with different metals, lead was almost exclusively used by Europeans, for things like pipes and pewter dishes. Anyone who has pioneered childhood tooth enamel is almost certainly born locally.
As science progressed, Blakey’s group also used a technique called strontium isotope analysis to find out in part where people came from. When people eat and drink in a specific area for long periods of time, their teeth absorb a small amount of strontium, an element that penetrates from rocky soil into food and drinking water. Strontium from older landmass has a slightly different chemical signature than strontium from more recent ones, so looking at isotopes in human tooth enamel allowed the researchers to know. where they live a lifetime.