Slaves' graves to tell stories long buried

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A paper trail documents their lives as human property, from their passage across the Atlantic to their sale as slaves for sugar plantations. Now a newly discovered burial ground promises to shed light on the lives and deaths of Africans in the Caribbean.

Researchers from Denmark and the U.S. Virgin Islands want to unearth up to 50 skeletons next year, hoping to learn about their diet, illnesses and causes of death.

Descendants of slaves could discover ancestors through DNA tests. At public meetings, Virgin Islanders have also embraced the excavations as a way for Europeans to recognize their historic role in the slave trade -- and perhaps to make amends.

Most slaves in the Americas were buried in unmarked graves, and studies of slave graveyards ''are rarer than hen's teeth. The science that will come out of it will just be extraordinary,'' said David Brewer, an archeologist with the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The slaves are buried in shallow graves beneath mounds of stones and conch shells, some marked by small, illegible headstones. Brewer stressed that the bones will be disturbed as little as possible and reburied exactly as they were found.

One fingernail-sized shaving will be taken from each skeleton for a database of African DNA that could reveal links to other slave populations.

''This is the closest we can possibly get to telling the story of their lives as they knew it,'' said Pia Bennike, an anthropologist leading the team from the University of Copenhagen.

More than 100,000 enslaved Africans, mostly from what is now Ghana, arrived in the Danish West Indies from 1617 to 1807.

Many were sold at slave markets and shipped to the American colonies while thousands remained as the property of Danish colonists.
David Brion Davis, a Yale University historian, notes that Caribbean slaves died much faster than those on the mainland.

''Sugar production was a very, very taxing -- almost lethal -- kind of occupation,'' he said.

The Danes outlawed slavery in 1848. The United States bought the three-island territory from Denmark in 1917. An island group is hoping the project will boost its case for reparations from Denmark.

Davis said he is particularly interested in whether the genetic testing shows how often blacks and whites interbred.

He said the study holds great potential. ''There are probably gaps we don't even know about that will be filled in.''

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