One day about 200 years ago, a woman enslaved on a tobacco plantation near Annapolis 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.
This 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, 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 M. 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 Friday. “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, Md., where slaves lived from 1736 to 1864.
“No one had known it was there,” Schablitsky said.
Along with silver and brass buttons, broken teacups, a porcelain doll, and other artifacts from the early 1800s, four broken pipe stems were found.
“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 a personal 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.”
Made out of clay, they often broke, were discarded, and are often found on archaeological sites.
Schablitsky knew that the clay in the pipes absorbed saliva, and that DNA seems to bind with the silica in the clay. “So you basically have the perfect storm for an archaeological and scientific breakthrough,” she said.
She carefully plucked the pipe stems from the dirt with sterilized forceps, and placed them in a paper bag inside an acid-free plastic envelope.
She stored the stems in her kitchen freezer beside a bag of frozen brussel sprouts. (Brussels sprouts have no special qualities of preservation, she said. They were just on the same shelf.)
She 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.
“I was dubious,” Malhi said Thursday. “I was like, ‘Well, it’s probably not going to work. But if you want to try, let me talk to folks in my lab and see if there’s someone who’s willing to work on this.”
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.”
But 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.
“That turns the stereotype of smoking in the 19th century on its ear,” she said. But remember the context: “You’re in a slave quarter ... where meals were prepared by a cook, who was enslaved, who was a woman, and that’s going to be a place where she was living.”
Malhi said he couldn’t narrow down the apparent lineage of the DNA further. But he enlisted Schroeder, in Denmark, who he said had a more expansive database of African DNA. And that enabled the apparent Mende connection.
It was a crucial link.
“As soon as people stepped on those slave ships in Africa ... whether they were from Benin or whether they were from Sierra Leone, wherever they were from, that identity was ... lost,” Schablitsky said.
“Their humanity is stripped from them,” she said. “Who they are as a people is gone.”
It is not known with certainty whether the woman was from what is today Sierra Leone, or if her parents were.
“It’s likely her parents probably were,” the archaeologist said. “It’s also possible she was and she did come ashore there in Annapolis. But that’s kind of where the science stops. Then we have ... to turn and look at history.”
She said there is research showing that a slave ship route — one of thousands — existed between what is now Sierra Leone and Annapolis.
On Aug. 8, 1718, for example, a British slaver, the Margaret, arrived in Annapolis with 117 captives, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.
The ship had left the previous December from Bunce, or Bance, Island, a major slave trading fortress and depot in the current Sierra Leone.
Perhaps the woman or her ancestors were aboard the Fox, an American slaver that arrived in Annapolis from Sherbro Island, about 70 miles south of Bunce, in July 1765.
The Fox, based in New London, Conn., had left West Africa with 109 slaves, but nineteen had apparently died en route.
According to the database, the human cargo aboard the Fox and the Margaret made up some of the more than 120,000 people who arrived from Africa and into slavery in the Chesapeake region, where some of their descendants are likely to be living today.