In this series we present fictive “News Articles” which some of us wrote when participating in a Science Communication Workshop at ANU. If you want to know more about the Why and How, please see this post here.

While the projects described are PhD projects that are on the way at RSES, the results (if they are described) in those “news articles” are by no means final and can be described from “That`s my current interpretation of my data that I came up with last night and I haven`t tested yet” to “Wishfull thinking”.

The aim of this series is to provide you with a glimpse of the diversity of ongoing Earth Science research at ANU, not to present final results.

And now, without further ado …


Teeth unlock secrets of
African slaves

By Hannah

African slaves transported to the Caribbean during the 17th century have been identified, using elements in their teeth, by researchers from the Research School of Earth Sciences at ANU.

An unmarked slave cemetery, Anse Sainte Marguerite, on the Atlantic coast of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean was discovered in the early 2000s and contains almost 300 remains. No records from this cemetery have survived, so no information on the origin of these individuals is available.

Using the chemistry of teeth, for the first time, the individual life histories can be teased out from this previously invisible population. Different versions of the elements oxygen and strontium naturally exist in soil, water and air. Their abundances differ across the globe, which forms a geographical pattern.

In childhood, when teeth are forming, oxygen and strontium from food and water consumed is incorporated into the teeth and this regional chemical signature is locked in. By analysing this signature and comparing it to the values expected in Africa and the Caribbean, researchers have been able to show in which region individuals spent their childhood.

Using teeth, eleven individuals have been identified as first generation slaves. Others have been identified as the later generations born and raised in the Caribbean. “We hope to expand our analysis and aim to identify all individuals,” says PhD student Hannah James from the ANU.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade transported more than 11 million individuals, but records about these people are sparse. This technique may provide future insight into the forced migration of these forgotten people.