The GCAS prefers to restrict our blog posts to the US Southwest/Northwestern Mexico region on this here website, but we always make an exception for advances in DNA technology. From a Washington Post article dated March 15, 2019:
"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....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."
Little to no documentation remains, or ever existed, about the people like her who arrived in our country by force and in chains. This new forensic breakthrough is working to restore the legacy of these Americans and inform their descendant communities about their lives. What does this have to do with amateur archaeology in the US Southwest? These advances in DNA technology may soon be applied to even older artifacts from our region, where people migrated in and out for centuries with little to no documentation of their own paths. It is exciting to consider that our area's Native communities may one day benefit from new knowledge about who their ancestors were and what may have become of them.
Today's scientists no longer need a large quantity of DNA to obtain a large amount of information. They can extract DNA from a nanogram of material; by comparison a single grain of salt comprises about 58,000 nanograms. The only remaining hurdle seems to be how old a sample of material can be, without being too degraded for DNA analysis.
This Washington Post article also illustrates why it is so important to leave artifacts where you find them. Had a casual visitor picked up the fragments of that 18th-Century woman's clay pipe and taken them home for a temporary curiosity before throwing them away, all the information that forensic scientists obtained from the pieces would have been lost forever. The next broken clay pipe, potsherd, or arrow point might help identify a member of one of the many cultures here in the Americas, where they came from, and where they went.
Science is so cool.
/s/ webmaster [That image of a clay pipe up at the beginning of this post is not the clay pipe in question, but shows what a contemporaneous clay pipe may have looked like. The second image, of the potsherd, is legit local and once photographed was put right back where it had been picked up.]