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New Analysis Suggests These Three Men Were Among the First Africans Enslaved in the Americas

Buried in a mass grave in Mexico City, the trio may have been part of the first generation abducted from their homeland and brought to the New World

The men's remains, found in a 16th-century mass grave in Mexico City, bear signs of trauma and disease. (Rodrigo Barquera)
smithsonianmag.com

New research bears witness to the brief, traumatic lives of three African men whose remains were laid to rest in a mass grave in Mexico City around the mid-16th century.

According to genetic and chemical analysis, the men—two of whom suffered from debilitating diseases—were born outside of Mexico, likely in western or southern Africa. The trio’s warped bones suggest they endured malnutrition and backbreaking work, while healed fractures hint at physical abuse. All three died between the ages of about 25 and 35.

Taken together, the findings—published this week in the journal Current Biology—indicate that the men were among the first generation of Africans abducted from their homeland and enslaved in the Americas.

“We studied their whole skeletons, and we wanted to know what they were suffering from, not only the diseases but the physical abuse too so we could tell their stories,” lead author Rodrigo Barquera, an ancient DNA expert at Germany’s Max-Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, tells Nicholas St. Fleur of the New York Times. “It has implications in the whole story of the colonial period of Mexico.”

The researchers’ analysis highlights the genetic and cultural connections between modern day Mexicans and the roughly 130,000 to 150,000 enslaved Africans sent to the Viceroyalty of New Spain—encompassing what is now California, the central and southwestern United States, and land east of the Gulf of Mexico—between 1518 and 1779.

Mexican mestizos with white European and indigenous American ancestry celebrated their heritage “very strong[ly] after a little bit of struggle, but they usually leave out the African roots when they’re talking about this story,” Barquera tells Kristen Rogers of CNN.

He and his colleagues hope their research will help publicize enslaved Africans’ stories and address “the erasure of history in the self-identities of Mexican peoples,” according to CNN.

Three skulls
The three skulls' filed teeth are clearly visible. (R. Barquera & N. Bernal)

The mass grave in which the men were buried was attached to a hospital established around 1530 to treat the region’s indigenous population, which endured brutal treatment at the hands of Spanish colonizers and was decimated by European diseases such as smallpox. Workers happened upon the grave while constructing a new subway line in downtown Mexico City between 1988 and 1994.

The skulls—unearthed in 1992—stood out among hundreds due to their owners’ decoratively filed front teeth, reports the Times. This pointed style was previously observed among enslaved Africans in Portugal.

To more conclusively determine the skeletons’ origins, the researchers analyzed samples taken from each skull’s molars. The teeth contained isotopes of strontium, carbon and nitrogen, suggesting their owners grew up outside of Mexico, according to Bruce Bower of Science News. DNA extracted from the molars yielded genetic signatures linked to western or southern Africa.

Remnants of disease found on the skeletons allowed the scientists to sequence the pathogens’ genomes and gain a clearer understanding of how the transatlantic slave trade spread various ailments. One of the men had a strain of the virus that causes hepatitis B; another suffered from yaws, a syphilis-like bacterial infection of the skin, bones and cartilage.

The diseases’ viral and bacterial genomes were genetically similar to strains most often seen in Africa, leading the researchers to suggest that enslaved Africans may have been responsible for inadvertently introducing these diseases to the Americas.

“We are always so focused on the introduction of diseases from the Europeans and the Spaniards,” Johannes Krause, an ancient DNA expert at Max-Planck and co-author of the new paper, tells the Times, “that I think we underestimated also how much the slave trade and the forceful migration from Africa to the Americas contributed also to the spread of infectious diseases to the New World.”

Radiocarbon dating suggests the men lived between 1436 and 1626. Given the hospital’s age and the fact that the remains were found in the deepest, oldest strata of the burial site, the three were likely laid to rest in the middle of the 16th century.

Hannes Schroeder, an archaeologist at the University of Copenhagen who wasn’t involved in the research, tells the Times that the paper’s interdisciplinary nature allows it to “paint a very detailed picture of the lives of these individuals, their origins and experiences in the Americas.”

In doing so, Schroeder adds, the study “reminds us once again of the cruelty of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the biological impact it had on individuals and populations in the New World.”

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