Most readers are aware that ancient DNA has revolutionized historical inference of the past, particularly prehistory. In 15 years we’ve gone from draft genomes of one living human being, to genomes of humans who have lived tens of thousands of years ago! But by and large the ancient DNA revolution has been one of temperate and boreal climates, because of the reduced degradation of DNA in such circumstances. A new paper in PNAS opens up a sliver of a possibility of expanding the purview of this analysis, Genome-wide ancestry of 17th-century enslaved Africans from the Caribbean:
Between 1500 and 1850, more than 12 million enslaved Africans were transported to the New World. The vast majority were shipped from West and West-Central Africa, but their precise origins are largely unknown. We used genome-wide ancient DNA analyses to investigate the genetic origins of three enslaved Africans whose remains were recovered on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. We trace their origins to distinct subcontinental source populations within Africa, including Bantu-speaking groups from northern Cameroon and non-Bantu speakers living in present-day Nigeria and Ghana. To our knowledge, these findings provide the first direct evidence for the ethnic origins of enslaved Africans, at a time for which historical records are scarce, and demonstrate that genomic data provide another type of record that can shed new light on long-standing historical questions.
Hopefully this is just the beginning. Part of this the economics of innovation. The best ancient DNA labs are training others in their techniques. From what I’m to understand at this point there’s a backlog of remains to be analyzed. As the expertise becomes distributed labor and capital will no longer be the rate limiting step.