History extracted from teeth of Christopher Columbus’ crew

March 20th, 2009 - 11:54 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, March 20 (IANS) Dead men do tell tales. Researchers are now extracting history from the teeth of crew members Christopher Columbus left on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola after his second voyage to America in 1493-94.
The study promises fresh and perhaps personal insight into the earliest European settlers in the New World. “This is telling us about where people came from and what they ate as children,” explained T. Douglas Price, a University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M) professor of anthropology.

Price led the team conducting an analysis of 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.

Price and colleague James Burton, along with researchers from the Autonomous University of the Yucatan in Mexico, are attempting to flesh out the details of a colony that lasted less than five years.

Despite its brief existence, historians and archaeologists believe La Isabela was a substantial settlement with a church, public buildings such as a customhouse and storehouse, private dwellings and fortifications. It is also the only known settlement in America where Columbus actually lived.

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.

But 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.

If confirmed, that would put Africans in the New World as contemporaries of Columbus and decades before they were believed to have first arrived as slaves.

The study conducted by the Wisconsin researchers relied on isotopic analysis of three elements: carbon, oxygen and strontium.

Carbon isotope ratios provide reliable evidence of diet at the time an individual’s adult teeth emerge in childhood. For example, people who eat maize, as opposed to those who consume wheat or rice, have different carbon isotope ratio profiles locked in their tooth enamel.

“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.

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, said an UW-M release.

Three of the individuals whose teeth were subjected to isotopic analysis by the Wisconsin group were males under the age of 40 and who had carbon isotope profiles very 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.

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