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 analysed in the new study, along with tubes for genetic and isotope testing. (Image: Rodrigo Barquera)

Three skeletons belonging to African individuals have been uncovered at a mass grave in Mexico City. They represent some of the first African people to arrive into slavery in the New World. An interdisciplinary analysis of these remains is shedding new light on this grim period of history and the harsh conditions endured by the first wave of enslaved Africans in the Americas.

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

Found in Mexico City, the three skeletons were buried in a mass grave near the former site of the Hospital Real de San José de los Naturales. This early hospital dates back to the early colonial period of New Spain and was primarily used to treat indigenous peoples. All three skeletons date back to this early colonial period in the 16th century, which means these individuals were among the first wave of Africans to be kidnapped and brought to the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade.

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

“By investigating the origin and disease experience of these individuals through molecular methods and evaluating the skeleton[s] for signs of life experience and cultural affinity, we illuminate, in some measure, the identity, culture, and life of these people whose history has largely been lost,” wrote the authors in the new study, co-authored by Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The origin of this story goes back to 1518, when Charles I of Spain authorised the transfer of enslaved Africans to the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which at the time included most of what is now Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts of the U.S. and Canada. By 1779, an estimated 130,000 to 150,000 Africans had been forcibly relocated to the Viceroyalty, according to the researchers. Of these, some 70,000 arrived between 1600 and 1640. Writing in the new paper, the authors explained the sudden increase in relocation of enslaved individuals:

…in part due to a reduction in the indigenous labour force that resulted from both casualties in the many conflicts during the European conquest and from diseases (among them, small-pox, measles, and typhoid fever) that devastated nearly 90% of the native population. Creoles, Africans, mulattoes, and other African-descended groups were thought to have higher resistance to these diseases compared to Indigenous Americans and Europeans making them desirable assets. Further to this, Las Leyes Nuevas (The New Laws) of 1542 prohibited the use of Native American labour as slaves in New Spain.

To analyse the three skeletons, the authors combined genetic and isotopic evidence, along with physical evidence gleaned from the remains.

Proof that these people came from Africa came from multiple sources. First, their upper teeth showed evidence of decorative filing, a known cultural practice of some African tribes. Second, these three individuals shared a Y-chromosome lineage that is strongly correlated to people from sub-Saharan Africa and is now the most common genetic lineage among living African Americans. And thirdly, dental isotopes extracted from their teeth showed that the individuals were born outside of Mexico, having spent their entire youth in Africa, according to the research.

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

Analysis of the skeletons suggests these people were subjected to physical abuse and intense manual labour, such as muscle-derived patterns on bones and signs of hernia on vertebrae. Other evidence pointed to “nutritionally inadequate diets, anemia, parasitic infectious diseases, and blood loss,” wrote the authors.

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

“And since they were found in this mass burial site, these individuals likely died in one of the first epidemic events in Mexico City,” explained Rodrigo Barquera, the first author of the study and a graduate student at MPI SHH, in a press release. “[We] can tell they survived the maltreatment that they received. Their story is one of difficulty but also strength, because although they suffered a lot, they persevered and were resistant to the changes forced upon them.”

The analysis also resulted in the detection of two known pathogens, namely the virus responsible for Hepatitis B virus (HBV) and the bacterium responsible for yaws (Treponema pallidum pertenue), which causes symptoms similar to syphilis. Importantly, this is the earliest evidence of HBV and yaws in the Americas.

Joint and bone damage found on the skeletal remains: (A) extensive bone wear, (B) signs of hernia on a vertebrae, (C and D) greenish coloration as evidence of a copper bullet. (Image: Collection of San José de los Naturales, Osteology Laboratory, (ENAH), Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: R. Barquera & N. Bernal)

“Although we have no indication that the HBV lineage we found established itself in Mexico, this is the first direct evidence of HBV introduction as the result of the transatlantic slave trade,” said Denise Kühnert, a co-author of the study and an expert in infectious diseases at MPI SHH. “This provides novel insight into the… history of the pathogen.”

The same could hold true for yaws, which was common in the Americas during the colonial period. Prior to the new study, however, the oldest genetic evidence of yaws came from a 17th-century European colonist.

“It is plausible that yaws was not only brought into the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade but may subsequently have had a considerable impact on the disease dynamics in Latin America,” added Kühnert.

Needless to say, this is among the trickier aspects of the new study; linking the presence of HBV and yaws in these individuals to the spread of diseases from Africa to the Americas is a precarious proposition at best. Future research is needed.

The new paper presents a devastating snapshot of life during the early colonial period and the tremendous hardships endured by the tens of thousands of people abducted from Africa.