Ancient DNA and bioarchaeological perspectives on European and African diversity and relationships on the colonial Delaware frontier

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2019 Oct;170(2):232-245. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23887. Epub 2019 Jul 4.


Objectives: Ancient DNA (aDNA) and standard osteological analyses applied to 11 skeletons at a late 17th to early 18th century farmstead site in Delaware to investigate the biological and social factors of settlement and slavery in colonial America.

Materials and methods: Osteological analysis and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequencing were conducted for all individuals and the resulting data contextualized with archaeological and documentary evidence.

Results: Individuals of European and African descent were spatially separated in this colonial cemetery. The skeletal remains exhibited differences in osteological features and maternal genetic ancestry. A specific mtDNA haplotype appeared in a subset of the European-descended individuals suggesting they were maternally related. Individuals of African descent were not maternally related, and instead showed a diversity of haplotypes affiliated with present-day Western, Central, and Eastern regions of Africa.

Discussion: Along with the bioarchaeological and documentary evidence, the aDNA findings contribute to our understanding of life on the colonial Delaware frontier. Evidence of maternal relatedness among European-descended individuals at the site demonstrates kin-based settlements in 17th century Delaware and provides preliminary identifications of individuals. The maternal genetic diversity of the individuals with African descent aligns with the routes of the trans-Atlantic slave trade but broadens our understanding of the ancestries of persons involved in it. Burial positioning, osteological pathology, and lack of maternal kinship among individuals of African descent provide tangible evidence for the emergence of racialized labor and society in Delaware during the late 17th century.

Keywords: bioarchaeology; colonization; mitochondrial DNA; trans-Atlantic slavery.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Archaeology
  • Black People* / ethnology
  • Black People* / genetics
  • Black People* / history
  • Black or African American
  • Cemeteries / history
  • Child, Preschool
  • Colonialism / history*
  • DNA, Ancient / analysis
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Delaware
  • Enslavement / history*
  • Female
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • White People* / ethnology
  • White People* / genetics
  • White People* / history


  • DNA, Ancient
  • DNA, Mitochondrial