Howard University Student Discovers Dietary History of New York’s Enslaved Africans

A Ph.D. student from Howard University recently discovered new information about the diets of enslaved Africans. Carter Clinton’s doctoral research focuses on the ground soil at the African Burial Ground in New York, where enslaved Africans were buried, according to a news release from the university. The scholar is performing a bacterial DNA, soil chemistry, and geospatial analysis of the burial site, the nation’s largest for free and enslaved Africans during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Traces of metals and other elements were found in the soil, which reflects the diets of the buried individuals. Clinton found an elevated level of strontium, which indicates a heavily vegetated diet, but said that was likely not by choice. He also noted that there are high levels of arsenic, zinc, and copper in the soil, noting that a nearby factory may have used the cemetery as a dumping ground.

Clinton presented his findings during Howard University Research Week on April 12. He also noted the importance of continuing to learn about the buried African individuals and their lifestyles.

“I am looking to reconstruct the lifestyles, diet, and causes of death of this historical population, as well as identifying the environmental factors that influenced their lives,” Clinton said in the release. “Learning more about this population will help us to learn more about the identities of contemporary African Americans and the existence of slavery in New Amsterdam Colony [present-day New York City].” The discovery comes 27 years after 15,000 African bodily remains were found in graves buried 24 feet beneath Lower Manhattan during the construction of a General Services Administration office building, The New York Times previously reported. At the time, 419 bodies were discovered, but there are estimates that there could be from 10,000 to 20,000 more, according to The Times. The site is now the African Burial Ground National Monument.

“I believe the history of African Americans is a broken one. Considerable genomic research has been directed toward European populations, but not African descended populations,” Clinton, a Brooklyn resident, said in the release. “I think it’s very important to address and combat the paucity of data on African peoples. Discovering one's ancestry and genomic identity is pertinent to the way in which they self-identify and are able to efficiently address generational health issues.”

Clinton is part of the Just Julian Graduate Research Assistantship, which allows Ph.D. students the opportunity to work as a research assistant on an administrator or faculty member’s research project, or their own project under the supervision of a faculty member, according to the news release. The Just Julian Scholar was a National Geographic Explorer from 2017 to 2018 and worked as an intern at the National Institutes of Health-National Human Genome Research Institute during the summer of 2018. He was recently awarded the 2019 Cosmo Scholar - Henry H. Work Science Award from the Cosmo Club Foundation for his work.

Clinton told The North Star that as technology advances, he wants to see the African population included in more research and health studies. “I think the most important thing is getting this information out there and making a connection between contemporary African Americans, present-day African Americans, and their ancestors,” he said.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.