One day about 200 years ago, a woman enslaved on a tobacco plantation near Annapolis, Maryland, tossed aside the broken stem of the clay pipe she was smoking in the slave quarters where she lived.
Clay pipes were soft and fragile, and the stem bore marks where she had clenched it in her teeth as she worked.
But the stem bore something else she could never have imagined: her DNA.
Last week, experts announced that DNA had been gleaned from the pipe stem and linked back to modern-day Sierra Leone, in West Africa, and probably to the Mende people who have lived there for centuries.
It may be the first time a physical connection has been suggested between an ancient artifact, an American slave, and the African group from which she may have come, experts said.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Nancy Daniels, 70, a genealogist from Laurel, Maryland, who has not been linked to the pipe stem but thinks she is a descendant of slaves who worked on the plantation. “I’m sitting here about ready to cry. I’m sorry. I’m so happy. ... Thank God for the DNA.”
It was “a mind blower,” said Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist with the Maryland Transportation Department’s State Highway Administration. She helped lead the research.
“We knew that this was so cutting edge, and could help archaeologists in the future ... that we really wanted to shout it from the rooftops,” she said.
Details of the discovery were initially reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“In this particular context, and from that time period, I think it’s a first,” said Hannes Schroeder, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen who also worked on the project.
“To be able to get DNA from an object like this is quite exciting,” he said. “Also it’s exciting for descendant communities. Through this technology, they’re able to make a connection not only to the site but potentially back to Africa.”
The pipe stem was recovered from the site of a slave dwelling discovered in 2015 during a dig at the old Belvoir plantation in Crownsville, Maryland, where slaves lived from 1736 to 1864.
“I knew there was the possibility ... of DNA,” Schablitsky said.
“We’re always spitting into tubes to figure out where we’re coming from,” she said. “It’s in the forefront of our minds. Whenever there’s a criminal case, everybody looks to the DNA to solve the case and save the day.”
Archaeologists often think about recovering DNA when they find an artifact that could have come into contact with saliva or blood, she said.
And used pipe stems are all over, she said: “Everybody was smoking tobacco in the 19th century. It was the thing to do.”
Schablitsky contacted a colleague, Ripan Malhi, who oversees the Malhi Molecular Anthropology Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to see whether DNA could be extracted.
Malhi said it was rare for a nonhuman artifact to have human DNA on it “when it’s over 100 years old, and if there was DNA on it, it’s probably too degraded to analyze.”
One of his students, Kelsey Witt Dillon, agreed to try.
In late 2017, the stems were tested, and two of them seemed to have DNA, but only one had enough for further analysis.
“I was surprised,” Malhi said.
Furthermore, the DNA seemed to be linked to Africa and to be female.
Schablitsky was informed.
“This is fantastic,” she said she told him.