Oakwood Cemetery exhumed remains to get DNA testing

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The human remains exhumed during the 2017 Oakwood Cemetery chapel restoration project will have DNA testing, according to a memo sent to the mayor and city council from Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD).

Director Kimberly McNeeley said that PARD had been in discussions with Dr. Deborah Bolnick, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut about how anthropological genetics techniques might be applied to the Oakwood Cemetery remains.

“Dr. Bolnick is an anthropological geneticist and biological anthropologist who explores how sociopolitical forces, historical events, and social inequalities shape human genomic and epigenomic diversity, as well as human biology more broadly,” McNeeley said in the memo to the mayor and city council.

McNeely also says the analysis of DNA from the remains will offer an opportunity to learn more about the identities, family connections and life experiences of the exhumed people.

The tests will allow researchers to know the genetic ancestry, genetic sex, their diet, experiences with disease, experiences of stress and trauma and patterns of genetic variation among those individuals.

“If the preservation of the DNA in the Oakwood Cemetery remains is sufficient to permit these analyses, living individuals who think they may have a familial connection may be able to submit a saliva sample to the Bolnick lab for DNA analysis, allowing relatedness to be assessed,” said McNeely.

To analyze the DNA, minimally destructive or non-destructive techniques are used to extract a tooth or bone sample from the remains of the individuals selected for DNA testing. Those samples would be interred with the remains of that individual. These samples would be tested in the new Ancient DNA Laboratory at the University of Connecticut.

McNeely says the collaboration with Bolnick offers an unprecedented opportunity because of the lack of studies in the post-colonial American south and few studies of marginalized communities — such as black, Hispanic and poor white communities — in the United States.

Bolnick was a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin from 2005 to 2018 and is now affiliated with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut. Bolnick’s focus of research is to assess the genetic and epigenetic effects on colonial settlers in the southern United States and central Mexico.

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