Sickly slaves, soldiers and sailors. Contextualising the Cape's 18th–19th century Green Point burials through isotope investigation

Linda Mbeki*, Lisette M. Kootker, Henk Kars, Gareth R. Davies

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Strontium isotope data of multiple dental enamel samples, and carbon and nitrogen isotope data of dentine and bone collagen samples from 27 individuals excavated from the mid-18th to mid-19th century Victoria & Albert Marina Residence paupers burial ground in the vicinity of Green Point, Cape Town, provide information about the Indian Ocean slave trade and the experience of the economic underclass at the post-creolisation colonial Cape. Based on childhood diets, and/or the presence of dental modifications, and/or non-local 87Sr/86Sr values, 17 individuals (63%) were identified as non-local. Relatively high δ15Ncancellous values (mean 14‰) compared to individuals from contemporaneous burials (mean 12‰) suggest increased exploitation of marine resources, the consumption of salted meat and fish and/or peri-mortem nutritional and/or water stress in the economic underclass population. The latter scenario lends support to the interpretation that the burial site is linked to the Old Somerset hospital (1818–1845) and perhaps the Dutch East India Company (VOC) hospital (1697–1786) that catered to the highly diverse and mobile lower rungs of VOC society, comprising slaves, soldiers and sailors. The bioarchaeological data are also consistent with an alternate but not mutually exclusive hypothesis; that the population turned to a more affordable protein source after emancipation. These data demonstrate that a bioarchaeological approach to burial sites can illuminate social nuances and in this case make the precarious existence of the Cape economic underclass more tangible.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)480-490
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017


  • (Forced) migration
  • Cape Town
  • Carbon and nitrogen isotopes
  • Indian Ocean slavery
  • Paleodietary assessment
  • Strontium isotopes


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