The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Sugar, health, and slavery: forty years of bioarchaeological research at Newton Plantation, Barbados


1Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, Auburn University, 2Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, 3Department of Anthropology, University of South Carolina

Saturday 9:30-9:45, Galleria North Add to calendar

Newton Plantation (ca. 1660-1820), Barbados has provided insight into the lives of enslaved Africans for 40 years. Excavations by Handler (1971-1973) led to craniodental studies (n=101) by Corruccini and colleagues, supporting extremely poor nutrition [LEH (20%), hypercementosis (89.4%), caries (20%)], congenital syphilis (3%), and disparities between skeletal (29 years) and historical (20 years) life expectancy. High bone lead (117.6+/-94.9 μg/g) suggested epidemic levels of lead poisoning from contaminated rum, but bone lead has since become suspected of diagenesis. Subsequent excavations (n= 49 plus 35-40 commingled) by Shuler and Pasquariello (1997-1998) revealed skeletal life expectancy (19.95 years) closer to historic predictions, similar LEH and caries rates, high periostitis (41%), and low mean stature in males (169 cm) and females (159 cm), but a surprising lack of severe and/or historically-documented diseases (e.g., syphilis, TB, leprosy). Isotope analyses (δ13C, δ15N, δ18O and 87/86Sr) on bone and dental material by Schroeder and colleagues provided the first clear evidence of Barbadian (n=18) versus African birth (n=7). Most recently, we have explored the potential for alcohol-related birth defects due to ethanol and lead exposure within this population. High dental lead (0.2 μg/g to 47.3 μg/g) values, equivalent to blood values of 2.0 μg/dl to 473 μg/dl, correlate with early mortality (p=-0.079) but not with congenital defects (e.g., co-occurring vertebral and mandibular anomalies), which was unanticipated. Here, we synthesize 40 years of geospatial, mortuary, osteological, and biochemical data from Newton to discuss quality of life for these enslaved sugar producers within a larger global and temporal framework.

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