Home / Science / Three African skeletons found in Mexico show horrors of early slavery in the new world

Three African skeletons found in Mexico show horrors of early slavery in the new world



A skull analyzed in the new study, as well as tubes for gene and isotope tests.

A skull analyzed in the new study, as well as tubes for gene and isotope tests.
picture:: Rodrigo Barquera

Three skeletons of African individuals were discovered at a mass grave in Mexico City. They represent some of the first Africans to come into slavery in the New World. An interdisciplinary analysis of these remains sheds new light on this dark period of history and the harsh conditions that the first wave of enslaved Africans in America suffered from.

“To the best of our knowledge, they are the earliest genetically identified first-generation Africans in America,” said the authors of a new one paper, published today in Current Biology.

The three skeletons found in Mexico City were buried in a mass grave near the former Real de San José de los Naturales hospital. This early hospital dates from the early colonial period of New Spain and was mainly used to treat indigenous peoples. All three skeletons date from this early colonial period in the 16th century, which means that these people were among the first Africans to be kidnapped and brought to America via the transatlantic slave trade.

An interdisciplinary analysis of these remains paints a bleak picture of their lives and shows evidence of fake migration, physical abuse and exposure to infectious diseases.

“By using molecular methods to examine the origin and disease experience of these people and assess the skeleton[s] For signs of life experience and cultural affinity, we shed some light on the identity, culture, and life of those people whose history has largely been lost, ”wrote the authors in the new study, by Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Science of human history.

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This story dates back to 1518, when Charles I of Spain approved the transfer of enslaved Africans to the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which at that time spanned most of what is now Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts of the United States and Canada. By 1779, according to the researchers, an estimated 130,000 to 150,000 Africans had been forcibly relocated to the Viceroyalty. Around 70,000 of these arrived between 1600 and 1640. In the new publication, the authors explained the sudden increase in resettlement of enslaved people:

… partly due to a decline in the indigenous workforce, which is due both to the victims of the numerous conflicts during the European conquest and to diseases (including smallpox, measles and typhoid fever) that devastated almost 90% of the population. Creoles, Africans, mulattos, and other African descent groups have been thought to be more resistant to these diseases than indigenous Americans and Europeans, making them desirable goods. In addition, Las Leyes Nuevas (The New Laws) of 1542 banned the use of Indian workers as slaves in New Spain.

To analyze the three skeletons, the authors combined genetic and isotopic evidence as well as physical evidence derived from the remains.

The evidence that these people came from Africa came from several sources. First, her upper teeth showed evidence of decorative placement, a well-known cultural practice by some African tribes. Second, these three individuals shared a Y chromosome line that correlates strongly with people from sub-Saharan Africa and is now the most common genetic line among living African Americans. And third, tooth isotopes extracted from their teeth showed that individuals were born outside of Mexico after spending all of their youth in Africa.

Skulls and tooth decoration patterns observed on the skeletal remains.

Skulls and tooth decoration patterns observed on the skeletal remains.
picture:: San José de los Naturales Collection, Osteology Laboratory (ENAH), Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: R. Barquera & N. Bernal

The analysis of the skeletons suggests that these people were subjected to physical abuse and intensive manual labor, such as: B. Muscle patterns on bones and signs of hernias on vertebrae. Other evidence indicated “nutritionally inadequate nutrition, anemia, infectious diseases and blood loss,” the authors wrote.

These enslaved Africans were also victims of extreme violence. One skeleton had five copper shots fired from a weapon while another showed signs of skull and leg fractures. None of these injuries resulted in death, but all three died prematurely.

“And since they were found at this mass burial site, these people likely died in one of the first epidemic events in Mexico City,” said Rodrigo Barquera, the study’s lead author and PhD student at the MPI SHH, in a press release. “[We] can say that they survived the abuse that they received. Their story is difficult, but also strong, because even though they suffered a lot, they persevered and were resistant to the changes that were forced on them. “

The analysis also led to the detection of two known pathogens, namely the virus responsible for the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and the bacterium responsible for yaw (Treponema pallidum pertenue), which causes symptoms similar to syphilis. What is important is that this is the earliest evidence of HBV and greed in America.

Joint and bone damage to the skeletal remains: (A) severe bone wear, (B) signs of a hernia on vertebrae, (C and D) greenish color as an indication of a copper ball.

Joint and bone damage to the skeletal remains: (A) severe bone wear, (B) signs of a hernia on vertebrae, (C and D) greenish color as an indication of a copper ball.
picture:: San José de los Naturales Collection, Osteology Laboratory (ENAH), Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: R. Barquera & N. Bernal

“Although we have no evidence that the HBV line we have found has established itself in Mexico, it is the first direct evidence of the introduction of HBV as a result of the transatlantic slave trade,” said Denise Kühnert, co-author of the study and expert in infectious diseases at the MPI SHH. “This offers new insights into the … history of the pathogen.”

The same could apply to greed, as was common in America during the colonial period. Before the new study, however, the oldest genetic evidence of yaw came from a European colonist from the 17th century.

“It is plausible that yaw was not only brought to America through the transatlantic slave trade, but later also had a significant impact on disease dynamics in Latin America,” added Kühnert.

Of course, this is one of the more difficult aspects of the new study. Linking the presence of HBV and greed in these people to the spread of disease from Africa to America is at best a precarious affair. Future research is needed.

The new paper offers a devastating snapshot of life during the early colonial period and the enormous difficulties that tens of thousands of people from Africa had to endure.


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