When the City of Charleston requested that the Gullah Society assist in the reburial of the 36 people of African descent that were found during renovations at the Gaillard in 2013, we seized the opportunity to learn more about these individuals and engage the community in creating a memorial that would honor them.
In 2013, archaeologists with Brockington and Associates carefully removed the human remains and recorded any artifacts that were buried with the individuals near Anson Street. By assessing the historical records, maps and dateable artifacts, such as coins and buttons, it is possible to establish a timeframe for the burials. Forensic anthropologist Dr. Suzanne Abel studied the human remains and determined that the individuals are of African descent. Dr. Chelsey Juarez conducted isotope analysis. Levels of isotopes in teeth and bone samples vary depending on the food we eat and the water that we drink. They are used to examine where a person lived as a child and where they lived during their last 5-10 years of life. The results of the isotope analysis indicated that nineteen of the thirty-six people buried near Anson Street were born in West or Central Africa, while one person was born in the Caribbean. Nine people were born in South Carolina and samples from eight individuals did not provide isotopic data.
In May 2018, our colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Theodore Schurr and Ms. Raquel Fleskes, collected bone samples from the 36 individuals that were found near Anson Street. In fall 2018 Ms. Fleskes extracted DNA from these bone samples. Ancient DNA analysis offers an opportunity to explore geographic origins and possible biological kinship relations among the deceased.
The data resulting from the ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis provides insights into the maternal origins of Africans involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and can be used to identify kinship relations among the buried individuals. This study of the genetic diversity of mid to late 18th Century African and African descended individuals living in Charleston, represents the first analysis of its kind for this time period and location.