Childhood lead exposure in an enslaved African community in Barbados: Implications for birthplace and health status

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Abstract

Lead was ubiquitous on Caribbean sugar plantations, where it was used extensively in the production of sugar and rum. Previous studies suggest that skeletal lead contents can be used to identify African-born individuals (as opposed to Creoles) among slave burials found in the New World. To test this hypothesis, we measured lead concentrations in enamel samples from 26 individuals from the Newton Plantation cemetery in Barbados, which was in use from around 1660 to 1820, and compared the results with enamel 87Sr/86Sr measurements that had been previously obtained for the same population. Results show a clear association between low (i.e., below 1 ppm) enamel lead concentrations and higher enamel 87Sr/86Sr ratios which have previously been interpreted as being indicative of African birth, suggesting that individuals with low enamel lead levels were indeed born in Africa as opposed to the New World. Based on these results, we propose that enamel lead measurements provide an effective and inexpensive way to determine African birth from skeletal remains. Furthermore, the lead measurements can provide useful insights into the health status and childhood environment of enslaved Africans during the colonial period. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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