Profile and initial elemental determination of soil samples collected from the New York African Burial Ground Remains

Candice Duncan, Ph.D.1,2

  1. W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory, Howard University

  2. National Human Genome Center, Howard University Hospital


Soil analysis is an important tool to understand the bioanthropology of human habitation and grave locations. Analysis of metals, phosphorus and other molecules can built a portrait of the environmental conditions in which populations of interest existed. The New York African Burial round and the W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory each contain numerous grave soil samples that can enhance current understandings of the daily lives of these 17th and 18th century populations. The initial determinations on the grave soil samples includes:
1. Determination of total soil mass collected. The one bag soil sample will be weighed, soil transferred into a sealed glass container and cloth bag weighed. The cloth bag will also be transferred into a sealed glass container for future chemical analysis.
2. A grab sample of X grams will be collected, and set aside in a sealed glass container, for future chemical and microbiological analysis.
3. A sieving process will be used to determine the particle size of soil composition to classify soil material (i.e. sand, silt, etc.).
4. A pictorial classification will be created to identify and separate all soil and non-soil (i.e. hair or bone) materials with the remaining sample.
An EPA Method 3052 will be used for the acid digestion of the soil followed by atomic absorption (AA) spectroscopy to determine the iron, lead, copper, magnesium, zinc, calcium and silver compositions of the grave soil. These data will permit complex analytical chemistry assessments upon which we can construct a rich portrait of the environmental toxins to which these individuals were exposed and identify possible gene X environment interactions at this site.

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