LiveScience, March 20, 2009
Teeth from exhumed skeletons of crew members Christopher Columbus left on the island of Hispaniola more than 500 years ago reveal the presence of at least one African in the New World as a contemporary of the explorer, it was announced.
A team of researchers is extracting the chemical details of life history from the remains found at shallow graves at the site of La Isabela, the first European town in America, said T. Douglas Price, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of anthropology and leader of the team conducting an analysis of the tooth enamel of three individuals from a larger group excavated almost 20 years ago there.
Three of the individuals’ teeth subjected to isotopic analysis by the Wisconsin group were males under the age of 40 and had carbon isotope profiles far different from the rest, suggesting an Old World origin (Africa or Europe).
“I would bet money this person was an African,” Price says of one of the three individuals whose teeth were subjected to analysis.
It was known that Columbus had a personal African slave on his voyages of discovery. It is unknown whether the individual studied by Price and his colleagues was a slave or a crew member. The new analysis could mean that Africans played a much larger role in the first documented explorations of America.
If confirmed, that would put Africans in the New World as contemporaries of Columbus and decades before they were thought to have first arrived as slaves.
The unpublished study relied on isotopic analysis of three elements: carbon, oxygen and strontium.
Carbon isotope ratios provide reliable evidence of diet at the time an individual’s adult teeth emerge in childhood. For example, people who eat maize, as opposed to those who consume wheat or rice, have different carbon isotope ratio profiles locked in their tooth enamel.
Oxygen isotopes provide information about water consumption and also can say something about geography as the isotopic composition of water changes in relation to latitude and proximity to the ocean.
Strontium is a chemical found in bedrock and that enters the body through the food chain as nutrients pass from bedrock to soil and water and, ultimately, to plants and animals. The strontium isotopes found in tooth enamel, the most stable and durable material in the human body, thus constitute an indelible signature of where someone lived as a child.
The strontium isotope analysis, Price notes, is not yet complete, as samples from the teeth of the presumed sailors remain to be matched with strontium profiles of Spanish soils. However, such matches could open an intriguing window to the personal identities of individuals buried in La Isabela.