DNA from 200-Year-Old Pipe Connects Enslaved Woman to West Africa
DNA from 200-Year-Old Pipe Connects Enslaved Woman to West Africa

DNA from 200-Year-Old Pipe Connects Enslaved Woman to West Africa

Genetic material from old artifacts can link people to their ancestral communities and potentially help descendants find their roots.

Carolyn Wilke
Mar 18, 2019

ABOVE: Slave row

A 200-year-old broken pipe pulled from the ground of an old Maryland plantation holds the DNA of an enslaved woman who was probably related to a specific group of people living in what is now modern-day Sierra Leone, researchers reported March 11 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

This is possibly the first time an artifact links an American slave with his or her origins in an African people group, according to The Washington Post

“In this particular context, and from that time period, I think it’s a first,” paper coauthor Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen tells the Post. “[I]t’s exciting for descendant communities . . . Through this technology, they’re able to make a connection not only to the site but potentially back to Africa,” he says. 

The pipe, made of clay and used for smoking tobacco, carried the woman’s DNA all this time in its stem. Clay absorbs saliva, and DNA seems to latch onto the silica it contains, according to author Julie Schablitsky, the chief archaeologist at the Maryland Transportation Department’s State Highway Administration. “So you basically have the perfect storm for an archaeological and scientific breakthrough,” she tells the Post.

Because DNA degrades over time, scientists were skeptical about whether they could recover enough DNA from pipe stems found at the site to analyze. But upon extracting the DNA from this one stem, they learned that it belonged to a female and was likely linked to the Mende people of what is now the West African country of Sierra Leone. 

“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 the Post. The finding sheds light on the woman’s origin and ancestral community, though it’s unclear whether she or her parents were from what is now Sierra Leone.

The authors note that analyses of ancient DNA like this one may also help living descendants find their connections to these places.