Three African Skeletons from Early Colonial Mexico Reveals the Tale of First-Generation Slaves

In 1518, Charles 1 of Spain issued an authorization to transport African Slaves to Mexico. The slaves were forcefully abducted into the transatlantic slave trade and taken to Mexico. Centuries later, the heritage of the slaves has become an important aspect of the cultural and genetic heritage carried by the larger population of Mexicans.

Study Reveals a lot of Things About Slaves

The findings published by Current Biology offers insights into the lives and health status of the first generation African Slaves before and after they were forced into a life of slavery. The study is based on the analysis of the remains of three Africans who were buried in the 16th Century mass grave discovered at the San José de Los Naturales Royal hospital in Mexico. 

Researchers discovered that the front teeth of the three individual had decorative modifications which are consistent with the ritual practices observed in African slaves in Portugal. The practice is still practiced today by sub-Saharan people living in West Africa.  When the genetic information of the individual’s teeth was extracted, it confirmed they were indeed Africans, perhaps among the earliest to be forcefully brought to America.

Genetic analysis also indicated that the partial linage of all the individuals carried a Y -Chromosome, which is highly predominant in West African and also a common amongst African Americans.  The genetic signature obtained from the molars showed that the three men originated from parts of Western or Sothern Africa. The isotopic and genetic data extracted from the teeth of the three Africans indicate that they were both born and raised outside Mexico.

According to Lourdes Marquez, Muffin, an archeologist, the trauma etched on their skeletons showed that they were slaves. Osteological analysis of their bone revealed a life of hardship, conflict, and trauma once they arrived in Mexico. Anthropologists discovered large muscle attachments on the upper body of one of the skeletons, which point to continuous physical labor.  One of the individuals was found with healing needles (used in traditional medicines) in the thoracic cavity as well as a gunshot wound. The second individual showed thinning of the skull bones, mainly associated with anemia and malnutrition. The third guy’s skeleton indicated the signature of stress from demanding physical labor, as well as a poorly healed broken leg.  

Study Revealed Slaves Were Infected With Several Viruses and Bacteria

From the remains, researchers also uncovered the genetic material of two pathogens that infected the two individuals when they were still alive. One individual suffered from the hepatitis B virus, which is usually found in West Africa. While the other one was infected with a bacterium (Treponema pallidum), a causative agent of yawsa disease that shares similarity with syphilis, both microbes were closely related to African strains, meaning that they contracted the infections in Africa before they were forced into slavery and bought to Mexico. 

Osteobiographies of these men showed they suffered a tremendous ordeal, but they survived.  Their tale is one of hardship but also strength. They endured and adapted to the changes inflicted on them.  Scientists are yet to find a link between the deaths of these individuals and the hardship they experienced; scientists are not sure what killed them. 

Even though they were buried in a mass grave in the colonial hospital cemetery that can be linked to an epidemic like measles or smallpox, scientists didn’t find any sign of infectious disease in their remains. 

These findings paint a clear picture of the cruelty of the transatlantic slave trade and its biological impact on the people living in this new world. Also, it shows us that it’s not always about the Native (American) or European experiences; the Africans are part of the story too.


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