Columbus crews teeth may give fresh insight into earliest European visitors to New World

March 20th, 2009 - 12:56 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, March 20 (ANI): Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are studying the teeth of crew members Christopher Columbus left on the island of Hispaniola after his second voyage to America in 1493-94, hoping to gain fresh and perhaps personal insight into the earliest European visitors to the New World.
The researchers are extracting the chemical details of life history from the tooth enamel of three individuals from a larger group excavated almost 20 years ago from shallow graves at the site of La Isabela, the first European town in America.
“This is telling us about where people came from and what they ate as children,” says research leader T. Douglas Price, a UW-Madison professor of Anthropology.
Price and colleague James Burton have joined forces with scientists from the Autonomous University of the Yucatan in Mexico in an attempt to flesh out the details of the colony that lasted less than five years.
The researchers say that their study is providing them with new insight into the people who lived and sailed with Columbus, and who died on the shores of a strange and exotic new world.
Histories of La Isabela, named after Spain’’s queen and Columbus’’s patron and located in what is today the Dominican Republic, suggest its population was made up only of men from the fleet of 17 vessels that comprised Columbus’’s second visit to the New World.
However, the first analysis of the remains of 20 individuals excavated two decades ago by Italian and Dominican archaeologists portray a different picture, suggesting that living among the Spaniards at La Isabela were native Tainos, women and children, and possibly individuals of African origin.
The researchers say that that finding, if confirmed, would put Africans in the New World as contemporaries of Columbus and decades before they were believed to have first arrived as slaves.
The Wisconsin researchers have revealed that their study relied on isotopic analysis of three elements: carbon, oxygen and strontium.
“Heavy carbon means you were eating tropical grasses such as maize, found only in the New World, or millet in Africa, neither of which was consumed in Europe (at the time),” says Burton.
The team further revealed that oxygen isotopes provide information about water consumption, and also can say something about geography as the isotopic composition of water changes in relation to latitude and proximity to the ocean.
According to them, strontium is a chemical found in bedrock, which enters the body through the food chain as nutrients pass from bedrock to soil and water and, ultimately, to plants and animals.
The strontium isotopes found in tooth enamel, the most stable and durable material in the human body, thus constitute an indelible signature of where someone lived as a child.
During the study, the research hers found that three of the individuals whose teeth were subjected to isotopic analysis were males under the age of 40.
They said that the individuals had carbon isotope profiles far different from the rest, suggesting an Old World origin.
“I would bet money this person was an African,” Price says of one of the three individuals whose teeth were subjected to analysis.
The researchers say that their new analysis may mean that Africans played a much larger role in the first documented explorations of America.
Price has revealed that the strontium isotope analysis is not yet complete, as samples from the teeth of the presumed sailors remain to be matched with strontium profiles of Spanish soils.
However, the researcher says that such matches could open an intriguing window to the personal identities of individuals buried in La Isabela.
“All of these sailors their place of birth, their age were recorded in Seville before they left on the second voyage. One of the things we”re hoping to do with the strontium is identify individuals,” Price says. (ANI)

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