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Dental analysis gives unique insight in life of enslaved African

A new study published in Archaeometry describes the unexpected results obtained from analyses of five human teeth discovered in a ritual cache at an enslaved African plantation site on the island of Saba in the Caribbean.

Using an inter-disciplinary approach and a novel combination of new methods dr. Jason Laffoon, dr. Hayley Mickleburgh, and dr. Ryan Espersen were able to provide a high resolution reconstruction of the life history of an ancient person.

An individual African slave's life story

This individual was born in Africa, was enslaved and forced to migrate  to the Caribbean as a child during which time he/she experienced an episode of famine or nutritional stress, adapted to the foodways of the colonial era Antilles, survived until adulthood, and whose teeth were ultimately buried at the Spring Bay Flat plantation on Saba.     

The discovery of a unique ritual cache

Saban archaeologist, dr. Ryan Espersen discovered the cache buried in a lockbox while conducting archaeological excavations at the colonial period Spring Bay Flat plantation. The lockbox cache contained an assortment of various items including shell, metal nails, animal bones, and five human teeth. No such ritual deposit had ever been discovered in the Caribbean before.

Focusing on the teeth

Dental anthropological analysis of the teeth by dr. Hayley Mickleburgh confirmed not only that the teeth were human but that they likely all came from the same individual based on numerous visible traits and characteristics. These observations and the fact that the teeth were recovered from an enslaved African plantation context, led the researchers to test the hypothesis that the individual was of African origin.


Using a unique combination of multiple isotope analyses of different tissues (enamel and dentine) conducted by dr. Jason Laffoon it was possible to make a highly detailed life history reconstruction of this individual. The isotope analyses of the dental enamel included both strontium and oxygen, which can provide important information about someone’s geographic origins, while the analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the dentine collagen provide information about diet and nutritional status.

The combined results indicated that the individual was most probably born in Africa, and migrated to the Caribbean as a child. This migration coincided with a period of acute stress or starvation most likely as a result of enslavement and forced migration across the Atlantic. This first-generation African-born (child) immigrant subsequently adapted to a Caribbean diet and survived into adulthood.

Revolutionising potential

What makes this research particularly novel, explains Dr. Laffoon,  is the innovative combination of complementary methods, and the amount of highly detailed information that could be provided based only the analyses of only five teeth. The approach developed for this study can be applied to any region of the world, and has the potential to revolutionise how archaeologists study ancient migrations and adaptions to new environments.

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