Will Oakwood Remains Find Their Families?

Researchers look for relatives of unidentified bodies

The Oakwood Cemetery Chapel, where 36 unidentified bodies were discovered in 2016 (Photo by John Anderson)

In 2016, maintenance on the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel was halted when the remains of 36 unidentified people buried in the latter part of the 1800s were discovered below. They were exhumed and transferred to Texas State University, where dental samples were taken, then reinterred in 2021. Now, researchers at the University of Connecticut, in partnership with UT-Aus­tin's Department of Anthropology, have released the first report with DNA findings about their race, geographic origins, diet, and more. Next year, you may be able to find out if they were related to you.

The initial study at Texas State, in partnership with Hicks & Co., an environmental and archaeological consulting firm, found remnants of coffin hardware, clothes, and artifacts such as a crucifix. The focus of this new report is the physical DNA and isotopes culled from teeth. In a presentation Tuesday evening, researchers explained how they conducted the study using isotopic data gathered from 27 of the 36: "Our bodies change a small amount each day as tissues are created and destroyed. The isotopes we eat and drink are part of these changing body tissues, making them a handy record of how we lived our lives," explained UConn Ph.D. candidate Corrin Laposki.

“DNA has yet to play a significant role in telling Texas history. This study will be one of the first to add new lines of evidence to that which is available to scholars.” – UConn’s Samantha Archer

Oxygen isotopes, specifically, are shaped by a variety of environmental factors such as temperature and the composition of the water the person drank. These can offer clues as to where the person lived. For example, in North Amer­ica, corn was the main ingredient in 1800s diets; in Europe and Asia, it was wheat and oats. The Oakwood people represent a diverse spectrum of origin – through isotopic analysis, researchers found that many were likely to have been born on the Gulf Coast and other parts of Texas and Mexico, while one could have come from as far as China. Going forward, Laposki plans to further flesh out regional rainfall patterns to pinpoint more exact birthplaces.

The second piece of the study uses DNA, which reveals genetic sex, migration patterns, foods and pathogens that describe diet and disease, and even epigenetic markers that indicate stress and trauma experienced during an individual's lifetime. Luck­ily, because the subjects are from a relatively recent era, researchers can further contextualize the genetic findings with 1800s texts: "The field of historical ancient DNA is becoming increasingly important for the study of major events in recent human history, such as European colonialism of the North and South American partners and the transatlantic slave trade," explained UConn's Samantha Archer. Genealogy can also help specify relationships, as DNA "can't always reveal the exact nature of a person's biological relationship to you. It can only narrow down the options."

Early next year, there may be an opportunity for anyone to submit their saliva for DNA testing to see if they have any relation to the Oakwood people. "My hope is for the final report to consider multiple lines of evidence," said Archer, who will conduct oral histories and ethnographic interviews in addition to the physical research. If the project gains approval from UConn's Institutional Review Board, saliva sample collection will begin in early 2024. In the interim, the research team will continue to do lab work and to work with the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel team to increase community collaboration. "My hope is that we establish a collaborative partnership where folks in Austin feel like actual research partners in this project rather than people I simply consult with every so often."

The final report will be released in the summer of 2025 and will illuminate the whole process from 2020-25; but the research will be ongoing. "Only a handful of ancient DNA studies have been conducted on human populations in Texas, and this study might be the first to study this many individuals from a historical rather than prehistoric context," noted Archer. "DNA has yet to play a significant role in telling Texas history. This study will be one of the first to add new lines of evidence to that which is available to scholars.

"This is really pushing at the boundaries of what has been possible only within the last couple of years," Archer said. "And, so, if we do find a family link, this would be one of the first studies to do that."

See more about the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel project at austintexas.gov/oakwoodproject.

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Oakwood Cemetery Chapel, UT-Austin, archaeology

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