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Enslaved African Americans in Maryland Linked to 42,000 Living Relatives

Maryland, (Qnnflash) – Researchers have utilized historical DNA for the first time to trace the descendants and distant relatives of enslaved people. The discovery occurred when a construction team working on a Maryland highway expansion in 1979 found human remains at an 18th-century ironworks site, leading archaeologists to uncover 35 graves of enslaved individuals.

In a groundbreaking effort, DNA from 27 African Americans buried in the cemetery was linked to nearly 42,000 living relatives, with almost 3,000 of them being closely related and possibly direct descendants. The study, published in the journal Science, marks the first instance of using historical DNA to connect enslaved African Americans to their living descendants.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a historian at Harvard University and a study co-author, described the research as illuminating the hidden history of Black people. An anthropologist at Howard University, Dr. Fatimah Jackson, praised the collaboration between the local community, geneticists, and archaeologists involved in the project.

The cemetery, located at the Catoctin Furnace ironworks, which operated from 1776, had enslaved African Americans performing much of the labor. Researchers found that some of the enslaved workers might have been skilled ironworkers before being forced into slavery.

The identities of the buried individuals were largely unknown until Elizabeth Comer, an archaeologist and president of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, analyzed diaries of local ministers, revealing 271 individuals, most known only by their first names.

Harvard researchers extracted DNA from the cemetery bones, identifying genetic similarities among 15 of the buried individuals belonging to five families. The genetic sequences were made public, allowing for reliable comparisons with the genes of living people. This led to the discovery of around 41,799 individuals in the 23andMe database with shared DNA, mostly distant cousins with common ancestry to the enslaved people.

The research showed that the people buried at Catoctin Furnace had ancestry primarily from two groups: the Wolof in Senegal and Gambia and the Kongo in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Additionally, DNA from many of the individuals had traces of British ancestry, highlighting the legacy of white men raping Black women during slavery.

The majority of the living people with links to the Catoctin Furnace workers are located in the United States, with about 3,000 individuals possibly being direct descendants or tracing their ancestry to cousins of the enslaved workers. The concentration of these close relatives is particularly strong in Maryland, in contrast to the Great Migration that brought many African Americans out of the South in the early 20th century.

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