Two University of Bristol archaeologists are part of EUROTAST, a new European-funded network which will bring together an unprecedented range of young researchers to examine one of the most traumatic chapters in world history: the transatlantic slave trade.
Dr Kate Robson Brown and Dr Alistair Pike will use osteoarchaeology (the study of human and animal remains from archaeological sites) and stable isotope analysis to learn more about who slaves were and where they came from, and to gain new insights into their physical quality of life and the effects of enslavement.
Dr Robson Brown’s project ‘Osteoarchaeological perspectives on slave health and nutrition’ will use osteoarchaeological methods to provide new data on the demography, nutritional status and health of enslaved Africans.
By drawing on various skeletal collections associated with the African diaspora and transatlantic slave trade, the project will assess and document the state of preservation of the skeletal material before compiling age and sex profiles and recording any pathologies or signs of trauma that could be indicative of nutritional deficiencies, diseases or violent abuse.
In addition, the researchers plan to assess the biological ancestry of each individual and collect data on dental modification, as it might yield information on the captives’ ethnic origins. Dr Pike’s project ‘Isotopic perspectives on slave origins and forced migration’ aims to improve our understanding of slave diets and their geographical origins through the analysis of stable and radiogenic isotopes in skeletal tissues associated with the African diaspora and the transatlantic slave trade.
Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyses will be used to reconstruct diet, and to study changing patterns in diet during a slave’s lifetime. Building on recent work, strontium and oxygen isotope analyses will be carried out to try to identify geographical origins and to elucidate family or tribal groups.
Using a combination of historical research, archaeology and cutting-edge genomics, the students in the network will address various pressing questions relating to the transatlantic slave trade, one of which deals with the captives’ origins in Africa. Other questions that will be addressed during the course of the four-year project deal with the captives’ physical quality of life and the material legacy of the slave trade in Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean.
In addition, micro sampling strontium within a tooth using laser ablation might provide insights into individual ‘migration histories’ over the period while the enamel was forming (from the age of 1 to 14 years).
Funded through the Marie Curie Actions, the EUROTAST network will support 15 young researchers based at 10 partner institutions, including Bristol, in 7 European countries. The researchers will be recruited from a wide range of disciplines, including history, archaeology, genetics and social anthropology.
Professor Tom Gilbert from the Centre for GeoGenetics in Copenhagen who is leading the EUROTAST project said: “One of the really exciting things about the project is the level of collaboration between academics in Europe and other parts of the Atlantic world. We are thrilled to have the participation of specialists from West Africa and the Caribbean, as the main aim of the network is to explore our common history and to investigate the persisting long-term legacies of racial slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.”
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