Project 2: Molecular perspectives on slave health and disease

Fellow:  Jessica Hendy
Supervision:  Prof. Matthew Collins
Host Institution:  Department of Archaeology, University of York
Duration:  3 years – starting from 1 June 2012

This project will build on recent advances in protein mass-spectrometry to develop new insights into the health of enslaved Africans. We know from historical records that slaves suffered from a wide range of diseases mainly due to dietary deficiencies and malnutrition. However, due to the limited medical knowledge at the time and the scant medical attention that enslaved Africans were given, it is generally very difficult to identify specific diseases and to study their aetiology. The methods developed at York University might enable us to do so for the first time. Using material obtained in collaboration with similar EUROTAST projects we will use proteomic methods to identify and study these diseases.

Studying dental calculus on human teeth in particular is revealing a reservoir of biomolecular information. Proteomic analysis of dental calculus allows us access to the oral and respiratory system and the diseases inhabiting these environments. In addition to studies of health, bacteria in dental calculus also give us access to the ancient microbiome and may allow us to study migration and the interaction between people and populations. If successful, our approach will not only allow us to study the health of enslaved Africans in detail, but will open up a whole new chapter in the molecular study of ancient disease.

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