Histories of La Isabela, named after Spain's queen and Columbus's patron and located in what is today the Dominican Republic, suggest its population was made up only of men from the fleet of 17 vessels that comprised Columbus's second visit to the New World. But the first analysis of the remains of 20 individuals excavated two decades ago by Italian and Dominican archaeologists portray a different picture, suggesting that living among the Spaniards at La Isabela were native Tanos, women and children, and possibly individuals of African origin. If confirmed, that would put Africans in the New World as contemporaries of Columbus and decades before they were believed to have first arrived as slaves.
The study conducted by the Wisconsin researchers relied on isotopic analysis of three elements: carbon, oxygen and strontium.
Carbon isotope ratios provide reliable evidence of diet at the time an individual's adult teeth emerge in childhood. For example, people who eat maize, as opposed to those who consume wheat or rice, have different carbon isotope ratio profiles locked in their tooth enamel.
"Heavy carbon means you were eating tropical grasses such as maize, found only in the New World, or millet in Africa, neither of which was consumed in Europe" at the time, says Burton.
Oxygen isotopes provide information about water consumption and also can say something about geography as the isotopic composition of water changes in relation to latitude and proximity to the ocean. Strontium is a chemical found in bedrock and that enters the body through the food chain as nutrients pass from bedrock to soil and water and, ultimately, to plants and animals. The strontium isotopes found in tooth enamel, the most stable and durable material in the human body, thus constitute an indelible signature of wher
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University of Wisconsin-Madison