Forensics experts at the University of Dundee Scotland say that the bones most likely belonged to a man from modern-day Tunisia who spent about a decade living in England before he died.
“I believe that this is the first physical evidence of Africans in medieval England,” said Jim Bolton, a historian at Queen Mary, University of London who wasn’t involved in the discovery.
“Finding a skeleton like this is of major interest,” he said.
The man — who appears to have died of a spinal abscess — was identified as African by studying his skeleton and the historical record of the friary where he was buried.
“It’s not just the skin tone, it’s a question of bone structure,” said Xanthe Mallett, an expert at the Center for Anatomy and Human Identification in Dundee. She said the size of the nasal bone or the shape of the orbits differed depending on whether skeletons were European or African.
“You can have an idea of where somebody is from by looking at their skeletal features,” she said.
Researchers were able to pin the man to Tunisia using isotope analysis, a technique which looks at the mix of elements that build up in a person’s teeth, bones or other tissues. Since people from different areas tend to accumulate such elements in different ways, analysis of their remains can sometimes pinpoint where they grew up, where they lived or even their diet.