Biogenic lead levels in human skeletal remains from the cemetery of the British Royal Navy hospital (1793-1822CE) at English Harbour, Antigua West Indies
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Though lead has been known to be a cause of human poisoning since ancient times, it was a widely used metal. The relationship between ancestry or age and lead exposure in the Colonial period of Antigua, West Indies was explored by comparing the lead levels in bone samples from individuals of two different ancestries, African and European, from a cemetery associated with a British Royal Navy hospital (1793-1822CE) at English Harbour in Antigua, West Indies. The non-segregated nature of this cemetery is believed to have been unique for the period, and allowed for more direct comparisons between ancestral groups in this study. Cortical samples from the fibular diaphysis of 24 male individuals were analyzed for lead by ICP-MS. The mean lead levels were found to be 74.3±51.8ppm for the African population, and 87.7±78.6ppm for the European population. No significant difference was found between the mean lead levels of the two ancestries. Furthermore, no discernible pattern in lead levels was found in relation to the individuals’ ages. The biogenic origin of the lead was confirmed by scanning the bone samples using synchrotron radiation X-ray fluorescence imaging (SR-XFI). Visible evidence of incorporation of lead into the microstructures of bone indicated that lead uptake likely occurred during the individuals’ lifetimes. These results are in contrast to previously published studies comparing lead levels of individuals from similar and contemporaneous populations. The outcomes of this research suggest naval personnel of both African and European ancestry at English Harbour in Antigua, West Indies had very similar experiences with regards to lead exposure. Their exposure to the toxic metal was not consistent over time, however, as steady exposure would likely have resulted in a positive correlation of lead level with individual age. This study assists in addressing historical questions regarding both the prevalence of lead poisoning in the British Royal Navy during the Colonial period and lead’s potential involvement in the deaths of naval personnel.