Studying Ancestry

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Ancient DNA Research

In 2013, Dr. Eric Poplin and other archaeologists working for Brockington and Associates carefully removed the Ancestors and recorded any artifacts that were buried with them. Using historical records, maps and dateable artifacts, such as coins and buttons, it was possible to date the burials to the 1760s - 1790s.


Forensic anthropologist, Dr. Suzanne Abel studied the Ancestor's remains and determined that they were 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 showed that some of the Ancestors were born in West or Central Africa, while others were born in South Carolina.

In May 2018, our colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Theodore Schurr and Dr. Raquel Fleskes, collected bone samples from the 36 Ancestors.    Ancient DNA analysis offers an opportunity to explore geographic origins and possible biological kinship relations among the deceased. 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.

Genetic diversity on Charleston today

When we were awarded funding from the National Geographic Society to assess the genetic diversity of the 36 Ancestors, we chose to engage the community further by offering 76 people of African descent free DNA tests, providing participants with the opportunity to learn about their genetic history.


Documentary records containing historical information about individual or family identities are often incomplete or missing due processes of enslavement, leaving open questions regarding ancestry and genealogy for people of African descent. Genetics can help recover some of this lost history by illuminating ancestral roots in Africa.

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