Glimpse into enslaved woman’s life offered by DNA found in clay pipe at Maryland plantation

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Archaeologists found this 19th-century clay pipe that contained the DNA of a woman who had connections to the region that is now modern-day Sierra Leone. Image: MDOT SHA

Clay pipes used for smoking were so common in the 1700s and 1800s that it’s not very remarkable to find fragments of them at archaeological sites from the early days of the United States. But Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for Maryland’s Department of Transportation, took a second, closer look at a broken pipe stem from the floor of the slave quarters at Belvoir Plantation in Maryland. There, she found a hidden piece of an enslaved woman’s life story.

DNA analysis suggests that the woman who used the pipe 150 to 200 years ago could trace her roots back to the Mende people of Sierra Leone, nearly 5,000 miles away from the place where she lived and died in slavery.

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The kaolin clay used to make common pipe stems is porous stuff, and it tends to absorb fluids like saliva and blood. As an added bonus, DNA molecules bind well to the silica particles in the clay.


“When people stepped off slave ships, they were not identified by their ancestry. This is why this discovery is so important; it gives us that ancestral tie that is missing,” Schablitsky told Ars.

Read full, original post: DNA in a clay pipe sheds light on an enslaved woman’s life

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