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Keywords:

  • stable isotopes;
  • oxygen;
  • strontium;
  • slave trade;
  • Newton plantation

Abstract

The question of the ultimate origin of African slaves is one of the most perplexing in the history of trans-Atlantic slavery. Here we present the results of a small, preliminary isotopic study that was conducted in order to determine the geographical origin of 25 enslaved Africans who were buried at the Newton plantation, Barbados, sometime between the late 17th and early 19th century. In order to gain a more nuanced understanding of the slaves' origin, we used a combination of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and strontium isotope analyses. Carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios were determined in bone and dentinal collagen; oxygen and strontium isotopes were measured in tooth enamel. Results suggest that the majority of individuals were born on the island, if not the estate itself. Seven individuals, however, yielded enamel oxygen and strontium ratios that are inconsistent with a Barbadian origin, which strongly suggests that we are dealing with first-generation captives who were brought to the island with the slave trade. This idea is also supported by the fact that their carbon and nitrogen stable isotope values differ markedly between their teeth and bones. These intra-skeletal shifts reflect major dietary changes that probably coincided with their enslavement and forced migration to Barbados. While it is impossible to determine their exact origins, the results clearly demonstrate that the slaves did not all grow up in the same part of Africa. Instead, the data seem to suggest that they originated from at least three different areas, possibly including the Gold Coast and the Senegambia. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.