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Andreana Cunningham

Meet Andreana Cunningham, assistant professor of archaeology, anthropology, and African American & Black Diaspora Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her studies use archaeology as a tool for anthropological research regarding the forced migration of Africans and their descendants through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. She aims to identify how complex slave trade routes and modes of enslavement have given rise to diverse and distinct biological and social outcomes for diaspora groups. Professor Cunningham also seeks to highlight cultures and communities that are often left out of the conversation surrounding migration emanating from forced displacement. 

One of her current research projects includes working with artists in Saint Helena to create portraits to commemorate individuals whose remains were carefully excavated from formerly enslaved burial grounds in the South Atlantic region. Professor Cunningham shares her bioarchaeological findings with the Saint Helenian artists so that they can reference the archaeological and anatomical evidence in the several renderings they create for each individual. 

Why archaeology and anthropology? 

Anthropology is something I had been interested in for a long time and just didn’t know it was anthropology at the time. As a kid I was very interested in primatology and was obsessed with Jane Gooddall. And then I found anthropology again in the context of forensic anthropology. That was kind of an entry into realizing that there are so many different ways of practicing anthropology and of doing work that qualifies as anthropology. 

With archaeology in particular, it’s a really unique way of using the tangible, or the past, to reinterpret what we think we know about our history and use these small slices of time to add context to those histories. So I find it to be a really useful resource, especially in the area that I study, which is the African diaspora, because it is known to have a very sparse history. Of course there’s a lot of historical records around it, but there are a lot of gaps in terms of knowing about the perspectives of enslaved people and learning about their culture and the details of their day to day lives. So archaeology can give some really important insight into those areas. 

Where does your research in studying the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade come into conversation with these topics? 

I have been taking an interdisciplinary approach to examining patterns of slave trade migration, as well as the experiences and biological outcomes that are happening as a result of the slave trade. Part of the contributions that I’ve been trying to make to the field is to redefine what we consider the boundaries of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. So my work isn’t necessarily doing genetic or ancestry work, that’s not really what I’m after. It’s more so being able to think about what’s connected to one another and what the similarities and differences are in terms of how biological and social Afro-descendant groups have formed in these spaces across the diaspora. 

Could you describe some of your ongoing research? 

The lab that I’m building is meant to be a space that encourages interdisciplinary collaboration centered around understanding the slave trade. The project that the lab will be working towards, once it’s fully set up, is to build a digital database that’s aimed at digitizing archives from both historical records as well as archaeological archives to synthesize these studies across different bioarchaeological studies of the African diaspora. We’ll be able to synthesize it as both a research source for scholars as well as a public facing resource that is grounded in community feedback. 

I’m having a good time at the site where I do research in Saint Helena. I’m collaborating with St. Helenian artists to produce reconstructive portraits that are intended to use both anatomical, archaeological and artistic evidence to interpret what some of the people buried at the formerly enslaved burial ground may have looked like while they are alive.  It’s meant to be a process that’s very interpretive. The types of material we’re working with have a lot of gaps because in most cases working with skeletal material. And that has limits to what you can actually know about what your facial features look like. 

You usually have to refer a lot to historical records or ideas of how anatomy generally works to come up with some kind of image. I kind of have to embrace that idea of not being able to know it all and not being able to put it all together. We’re aiming to produce several images – several interpretations – of each to embrace that idea that we can’t really get at a full picture but acknowledging the diversity of origins that represent this cultural heritage site. So that’s still an ongoing project, but it’s one that I’m excited about. 

What are some of the conclusions of your research? 

I see my contributions as being more cultural in nature, particularly as it relates to identity construction and how people relate to their pasts and can engage with it meaningfully. I think that by including other parts of the African diaspora that aren’t usually included in framework, it allows some really interesting conversations and dialogue to be facilitated. For example, one of the sites where I work is the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, which has a mixed race population and has a combination of English settlers, Afro-descendant and Southeast Asian enslaved people, and Southeast Asian indentured laborers. And so you have this very diverse population that has different ideas and connections to racial identities but also an awareness of being part of this broader diasporic community. So we have this framework that’s a bit different from what we see in terms of how Afro-descendants are making claims to their identity and understanding themselves in the US or Caribbean, for example. It’s really interesting to put these types of sites in comparison and see how these histories have formed differently based on these migration histories. 

Where did your inspiration to conduct these projects in anthropology come from? 

Part of it has been seeing how the field has actively responded to these inward critiques on the ethics in the field. Midway through my dissertation project, I made pretty substantial changes to my work in terms of the commitment that I wanted to make in actively consulting communities. With changing my research questions and the methods that I was using, I had to take a pretty close examination of what I was doing and whether it was sitting right with me. Seeing those dialogues already happening within the discipline, were really helpful for me to start really grappling with whether the work that I was doing was helpful and whether it was continuing towards this pursuit of learning more about the slave trade history, but doing so in a respectful way that is beneficial to Afro-descendants. 

Interview by Kelly Broder (COM’27)