What Could You Do With 400 Years of African American Biological History? The Construction of the 4Cs Database

By Cameron Clarke

This summer, as part of an effort to integrate big data statistical analysis into productive, useful, and socially conscious research projects, the W. Montague Cobb Laboratory has begun parsing some of the collections under its curation and integrating the information into an interactive research database. This project takes a new perspective in biological-historical research. By combining centuries of African and African-American biological and historical information, the Cobb Lab gives researchers access to a functional perspective of African-American biological history over multiple generations, instead of the single, narrowly focused studies that are usually conducted. This increased breadth and scope of subject data has numerous potential applications, such as isolation of health disparities, disease susceptibility, microevolution studies, and ancestral DNA analysis. The creation of the database itself required the digitization and organization of the historical records and autopsy reports of more than a thousand individuals, from two major collections: The New York African Burial Ground Collection (NYABG) and the Cobb Collection (CC) The New York African Burial Ground Collection is a collection of samples from the nation’s largest and earliest burial ground for Africans and African-Americans. Established at some time in the late 17th century, it contains human skeletal remains from AfricanAmericans from the late 17th to the late 18th centuries. The more than 400 individuals unearthed and housed in the collection represents a cross-section of the more than 15,000 individuals that were buried there. The database will contain information about these individuals ranging from age, gender, and temporal group, to skeletal biology, oral microbiome, and ancestry reports. The Cobb Collection is W. Montague Cobb’s own conception. With nearly 1000 individuals from the 19th and 20th century, and with detailed laboratory records on each individual, the Cobb Collection is one of the nation’s largest collections of human skeletal remains, the largest and most extensive collection containing a majority of African-American samples. With these two collections, the interactive database will give researchers access to historical, sociological, and biological information from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, allowing the construction of epidemiological narratives spanning nearly 20 generations. This focus on the potential to analyze four centuries of data is the project’s namesake: 4Cs. The project was conceived by Dr. Fatimah Jackson, the director of the W Montague Cobb Research Lab, and the database is being assembled by Cameron Clarke, an undergraduate student, and double major in Biology and Community Health. The database should be complete by the Fall 2015.. ***