Project 3: Isotopic perspectives on slave origins and forced migration

Fellow:  Judy Watson
Supervision:  Dr. Alistair Pike
Host Institution:  Department of Archaeology, University of Bristol
Duration:  3 years – starting from 1 June 2012 

This project aims to improve our understanding of dietary content and conditions for enslaved African people, whilst determining geographical origins through the analysis of stable and radiogenic isotopes in skeletal tissue samples from archaeological sites associated with the transatlantic slave trade. Specifically carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyses will be used to reconstruct diet, and to study changing dietary patterns during an individual’s lifetime. Furthermore, building on recent technological developments, strontium and oxygen isotope analyses will be carried out to try to identify geographical origins and to elucidate family or tribal groups.

In addition, micro sampling strontium within a tooth using laser ablation might provide insights into individual ’migration histories’ over the period while the enamel is forming (1-14 years). Key milestones in this project are as follows:

  • Carbon, Nitrogen and Sulphur isotopes in bone. What were the diets of these individuals? What ethnic groupings, or geographical location can be suggested on the basis of diet (e.g. in the case of marine food consumption vs. a terrestrial based diet).
  • Bulk Strontium and Oxygen iso- topic analysis of tooth enamel. What is the most likely geographical origin for each individual? Does the grouping of isotopic values suggest family groups, or groups from a single region?
  • Laser-ablation Strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel. What is the migration history of an individual (up to the age of 14)? Does this suggest a sedentary lifestyle or slaving related migrations?

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