April 5, 2011

Update on the origins of the African in Avon

Back in January, I followed the breathless reporting of the skeleton of this supposedly African man found in Roman-era Stratford-on-Avon, and similar expressions of amazement came from the blogosphere. Today's news brings an update but, since it is again reported for the general public and not the osteological community, let's dissect this press release:

WARWICKSHIRE'S earliest known African resident, believed to have been living in Stratford some 1,700 years ago, has sparked the interest of boffins over the possible impact on British and European DNA. Earlier this year Warwickshire County Council’s Archaeology Warwickshire team revealed the skeleton of the African man had been found in a Roman cemetery in Tiddington, which revealed people of African descent had been living in the county for far longer than previously thought.
No, actually, the skeleton did not in any way reveal that a person (much less people) of African descent was in Avon. This "fact" was merely suggested - seemingly by the BBC reporter.
As a result of the subsequent press coverage Dr. Hannes Schroeder read the story and immediately contacted Malin Holst, the archaeologist who first identified the skeleton, hoping for further details. Dr. Schroeder is a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and is currently working on a project trying to identify the origins of enslaved Africans using ancient DNA and isotopes and thinks it possible that DNA from the Stratford skeleton might help his research.
Well, now I have to look up (and possibly email) Schroeder and see what he's done so far. The problem with identifying the origins of "enslaved Africans" (I assume here they mean in the ancient world and not modern times) is that there's no direct relationship between a person's origin and a person's sociolegal status in the Roman world. Unlike slavery in the American South, the status of servus in Rome was not necessarily a permanent one and slaves came from everywhere, not just Africa (free immigrants also came from different places and wandered all over the Roman Empire). Trying to find evidence of slavery in the bodies of individuals in the Roman world is going to be a really tough task; I'm curious to know more about Schroeder's work, but also cautious about the kinds of interpretations of ancient slavery we can draw based on DNA.
Archaeology Warwickshire’s Business Manager Stuart Palmer, who is studying the skeleton, said: “This is a very exciting and unexpected outcome. DNA analysis of the Roman skeleton could provide invaluable data concerning the DNA history of later populations and the ethnic origin of modern Britons.
One person's DNA is not likely to affect our understanding of the genetic composition of either ancient or modern Britons. Sure, it'll be interesting if DNA analysis reveals African ancestry, but the contribution of one person to a gene pool is pretty small.
“Dr. Schroeder has offered to provide the analysis for free and the work will also include isotope analysis. Oxygen strontium, lead, carbon and nitrogen have isotopic signatures which can survive in ancient teeth or bones and can provide clues as to where individuals originated, or give information on their diet’.”
This part I like: the use of Sr, O, Pb, C, and N as alternate and complementary lines of evidence, rather than just DNA analysis. For my future research, I'd like to do DNA analysis of the immigrants I found through Sr/O analysis, to see if the resulting data are correlated. On a larger scale than just this one individual, the combination of DNA, Sr, and O is a very powerful way of looking at mobility and immigration in the ancient world.
One theory is the man was a former Roman soldier who chose to retire in Stratford sometime in the third or fourth century. Mr. Palmer added: “African skeletons have previously been found in large Romano-British towns like York and African units are known to have formed part of the Hadrian’s Wall garrison, but we had no reason to expect any in Warwickshire and certainly not in a community as small as Roman Stratford.
As noted above, there's no direct link between African and slavery. That's a connection we make in the modern world (especially in the U.S.). This passage clearly indicates that there are other reasons a man of African descent could have been in England. And, honestly, I think the story of a man with origins in (or genes from) Africa who winds up dead in England is a far more interesting spin than the story of a slave. By labeling him a possible slave, we immediately take away any shred of personal agency he had (again, largely because of our modern perception of slavery), and it becomes difficult to think of this individual as someone whose life took him thousands of miles from his origin and to think of him as a full-realized person with individual experiences. (As you can probably tell, I'm a little worried that any bioarchaeology of ancient slavery would be too narrowly focused on the structure - economics, the military, demographics - rather than on the people themselves.)
“The skeletal remains revealed that the man was used to carrying heavy loads. Curved dental wear in the upper jaw was probably related to a task he regularly performed with his teeth. An injury to his shoulder must have been all the worse for his arthritis which was also evident in his hips and lower back. Before he died he suffered from a severe inflammation of the right shin and a painful infection from a dental abscess made his last moments a misery. His teeth showed that his childhood was plagued by disease or malnutrition, but there was no evidence for the cause of death.”
My guess from this paragraph is that the skeleton was robust (with musculoskeletal markers or enthesopathies indicating he carried heavy loads). Seems they also found some amount of extramasticatory wear of his anterior maxillary teeth (possibly task-related). Degenerative, arthritic changes are evident in the places you'd expect them (shoulders, hips, lower back). Periostitis of his right shin (shows injury before death) and a dental abscess suggest life was rough at his death, and (I assume) enamel hypoplasias are what show disease or malnutrition as a child. All of these pathologies add up to an interesting life history for this man, but (and I haven't seen an osteological report, of course) not one that screams "African" in any way.

The news report concludes with...
“This new research may well provide the evidence we need to determine his place of birth and whether he contributed to the nation's gene pool.”
I'm hopeful that they will find out more about this skeleton's geographical origin, but I'm clearly not optimistic that that origin will turn out to be African. The tendentious hypothesis about African ancestry seems unfounded, but skeletons of Africans have been found in England (and a rich woman, at that!), so I'll be interested to see what turns up.


Maju said...

What called my attention of this story is that while the nose looks Negroid the eye sockets look typical Caucasoid. So I'm quite not convinced that the guy is unmistakably Black African or even African at all. I'm rather inclined to think of a Caucasoid ("white") man with a peculiar nose (there's always diversity) or a clinal type ("mulatto").

North Africans usually have narrow noses so this does not look any particularly more likely origin. On the other hand I have on rare occasions seen photos of Swedes who look quite African (except for pigmentation).

AFAIK no DNA tests have been performed nor enamel isotopes have been studied in order to consider where this guy grew up.

All the story about slaves looks quite hollywoodian and unreal, regardless that he was a poor manual laborer surely (what may or not mean a slave indeed).

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha