The story of three African slaves during Spanish colonialism, told by their bones

The story of three African slaves during Spanish colonialism, told by their bones

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Despite the infamy of the transatlantic slave trade, scientific research has yet to fully explore the history of African slaves brought to Central and South America. Now new research, published in the journalCurrent Biology, tells the story of three African slaves from the 16th century.

The three individuals were found inside a common grave at the Hospital Real de San José de los Naturales, in LaMexico City, a former hospital site largely dedicated to serving the indigenous community.

"The bones are around 600 years old, but from the archaeological record we can say that they could not be buried before 1529, the oldest record in the hospital," he says. Rodrigo Barquera, a graduate student at the Max-Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

However, the authors were able to identify its African origin. “Their genetics suggest that they were born in Africa, where they spent their entire youth. Our tests point to a South or West African origin before being transported to the Americas, ”says Barquera.

Bones count physical difficulties

To conduct the study, the scientists used a combination of genetic, osteological, and isotopic analyzes and determinedwhere in africa they captured them,physical difficulties that they experienced as slaves and how newpathogens they may have carried with them across the Atlantic.

The study presents a rare picture of theslaves life Africans during the early days of Spanish colonization and how their presence may have shaped the dynamics of thediseases in the New World.

A close examination of their bones reveals a life of grave difficulties once they reached the Americas. Anthropologists found large muscle attachments in the upper body of a skeleton, likely pointing to continuous physical labor.

Another individual had remains of copper bullet wounds, while the third had a series of fractures to the skull and legs.

However, the team was also able to say that the abuse did not end their lives. “With our osteobiographies we can say thatsurvived to the mistreatment they received. Their story is one of difficulty, but also one of strength, because although they suffered a lot, they persevered and resisted the changes that were imposed on them ”, says the expert.

Transfer of pathogens

According to the authors, enslaved Africans of the first generation arrived in central New Spain very early during the colonial period, and with them, new diseases (or at least new strains) were imported.

“As they were found at this mass burial site, we think that these individuals likely died in one of the first eventsepidemic in Mexico City, ”says Barquera.

From the remains, the researchers recovered the genetic material of two pathogens that infected two of the individuals while they were alive. "We found that one of them was infected with the hepatitis B virus, while another was infected with the bacteria that cause yaws, a disease similar to syphilis," he says.Denise Kühnert, a mathematician working on the phylogeny of disease, from the Max-Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

"Our phylogenetic analyzes suggest that both individuals contracted their infections before they were forcibly taken to Mexico," he confirms.

"This is theearliest evidence of yaws in the Americas and belongs to a group of yaws treponemes that are prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. This means that it is the earliest evidence that the yaws was introduced to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade, ”says Barquera.

This is particularly significant for yaws, as it was quite common in Mexicans during the colonial period. "It is plausible that yaws was not only introduced to America through the transatlantic slave trade, but that it may subsequently have had a considerable impact on the dynamics of the disease in Latin America," says Kühnert.

By conducting the study in this interdisciplinary way, researchers can now answer profound questions about the roots of Mexican culture.

“We want to know how pathogens arose and spread during the colonial period in New Spain, but we also want to continue exploring the life stories of the Africans who were brought here and in other parts of the Americas. That way they can occupy a more visible place in the history of Latin America, ”says Barquera.

"We unravel the life story of three individuals who would otherwise have no voice and who belonged to one of the most oppressed groups in the history of the Americas," concludes the lead author.Johannes Krause, archaeologist and professor at the German institute.


Barquera, R. "Origin and Health Status of First-Generation Africans from Early Colonial Mexico".Current Biology. April 30, 2020.
Source: SINC.

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