Bones Tell the Story of African Slaves in Spanish Colonies

The bones of slaves carried from Africa to the Americas by Spaniards carry the records of both their mistreatment by their captors and the pathogens they carried with them to the New World.

Skulls and dental decoration patterns for the three African individuals. The skeletons are part of the collection of San José de los Naturales, guarded at the Osteology Laboratory of the Post Graduate Studies Division at the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. (Photo by R. Barquera and N. Bernal)

(CN) — Through a genetic analysis of the remains of three Africans enslaved by Spain in the 16th century, researchers gained insight on a small narrative within the transatlantic slave trade and the trade’s impact on Latin America, according to a study released Thursday.

From the slave trade’s beginnings in 15th century Spain to its collapse in the 19th century, between 10 and 19 million Africans were enslaved and forcibly deported to the Americas and to Caribbean colonies.

Between 9 and 15 million survived the journey to the so-called New World, where disease and conquest had already decimated close to 90% of the indigenous population, according to the study.

Using a combination of genetic, osteological and isotope analyses on bones recovered in Mexico, researchers set out to paint a portrait of enslaved Africans’ lives in the Americas.

Rodrigo Barquera, a researcher at the Max-Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said in a statement genetic analysis helped researchers determine where on the continent the Africans were from and where they were likely abducted.

“Their genetics suggest they were born in Africa, where they spent all of their youth,” said Barquera, first author of the study. “Our evidence points to either a Southern or Western African origin before being transported to the Americas.”

Genetic and isotope data was extracted from the individuals’ teeth, researchers said.

From these bone analyses, researchers also developed an understanding of the physical hardships people experienced during enslavement and what pathogens they may have carried with them across the Atlantic.

Johannes Krause, archaeogeneticist at the Max-Planck Institute, said the findings illustrate enslaved Africans’ hardships during Spanish colonization and how their forced journey to the New World may have spread disease.

“Using a cross-disciplinary approach, we unravel the life history of three otherwise voiceless individuals who belonged to one of the most oppressed groups in the history of the Americas,” said Krause, senior author of the study.

Skull fractures, gunshot wounds and muscular insertions found by researchers were among the signs of continuous physical labor and violence faced by enslaved Africans, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Copper bullets caused gunshot wounds in the skeleton of one individual while another skeleton’s upper body showed signs of large muscle insertions, evidence of vigorous labor.

Researchers said the evidence of abuse, such as skull and leg fractures, demonstrates that violence didn’t end the individuals’ lives.

“Within our osteobiographies we can tell they survived the maltreatment that they received,” Barquera said. “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 bones were recovered at a mass grave at San José de los Naturales Royal Hospital in Mexico City, which researchers describe as an ancient hospital that was largely devoted to servicing the indigenous community.

Barquera said the remains were likely buried during a turbulent disease outbreak in 16th century Mexico.

“Having Africans in central Mexico so early during the colonial period tells us a lot about the dynamics of that time,” said Barquera. “And since they were found in this mass burial site, these individuals likely died in one of the first epidemic events in Mexico City.”

Two individuals carried genetic material of two pathogens that infected them while they were alive, according to Max-Planck Institute researcher Denise Kühnert.

“We found that one individual was infected with hepatitis B virus (HBV), while another was infected with the bacterium that causes yaws — a disease similar to syphilis,” Kühnert said in a statement. “Our phylogenetic analyses suggest that both individuals contracted their infections before they were likely forcibly brought to Mexico.”

The findings, showing the earliest human remains with HBV and yaws in the Americas, suggest enslavers likely introduced these diseases into Latin America during its early colonial history.

“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,” Kühnert said.

In an email, Barquera said researchers did not find detailed information about individuals’ diets.

“Even though we got insights into the diets, further information is not available as such studies may require the analysis of dental calculus, for example, in search for proteins and other biomolecules that would shed light on that specific question,” Barquera said. “These individuals did not have any dental calculus at the time we performed the analyses so we are, for now, not able to tell more about their diets.”

Researchers plan to continue the analysis on the remains of enslaved Africans to further the goal of drawing a more comprehensive portrait of the impact their presence had in the shaping of the Americas, Barquera said.

“We want to get insights into how pathogens emerged and spread during the colonial period in the New Spain, but we also want to continue to explore the life stories of the Africans brought here and other parts of the Americas,” said Barquera. “That way they can take a more visible place in Latin American history.”

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