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Mail & Guardian Africa
12 Mar 2015 07:49
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama look out from the Door of No Return at the House of Slaves at Goree Island off the coast of Dakar. (AFP)
Using a new approach to DNA analysis, the 17th century bones of three African slaves have been traced to their countries of origin for the first time, researchers said this week.
The three slaves analysed in their study came from what is modern-day Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria, according to the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed US journal.
The approach, called whole genome capture, circumvented the problem of scarce DNA and was able to almost narrow down to the subject’s villages, with one coming from a Bantu speaking area of Cameroon, and the other two from non-Bantu-speaking areas of Nigeria and Ghana.
The new approach would help solve a key problem: until now, uncovering the precise origins of the 12-million African slaves sent to the New World between 1500 and 1850 has been challenging, since few historical records exist from the time.
Often, the ports from which the slaves were shipped is known, but not the nations from which they came.
In February, the US and Canada marked Black History Month, dedicated to remembering important people and events in the African diaspora.
One such leading project is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, an ongoing collaborative effort sponsored by Emory University, the US agency the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Harvard-based W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and roping in scores of other partners.
The comprehensive database describes itself as “the culmination of several decades of independent and collaborative research by scholars drawing upon data in libraries and archives around the Atlantic world” and is available on open access on the Voyages website.
It also runs the African Origins project, a collaborative project between scholars and the public, which seeks to use audio recordings of names in the African Names Database to trace the geographic origins of Africans transported during the transatlantic slave trade.
Researcher David Eltis for Emory wrote an introductory overview of the trade that brims with fascinating facts, an essay that we excerpt to better understand the phenomenon:
1: What was unique about the trans-Atlantic slave trade?
2: Why did the Amerindian population collapse, and who were they?
3: What else informed the need for slaves?
4: Why were the slaves always African?
6: Wasn’t there resistance?
7: What were the main transport routes?
8: What informed who went where?
9: A lot is said about Gorée Island in Senegal, which is a major tourist hotspot including for African-Americans. Was it the main point of embarkation for slaves?
10: What kind of numbers are we talking about?
11: How was it like on a slave ship?
12: Why and how did the trade end?
13: How did it affect ethnic and racial identity?
This article first appeared on the Mail & Guardian’s sister site: mgafrica.com.
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