The story of three African slaves during Spanish colonialism, told through their bones – sciencedaily

Despite the infamy of the transatlantic slave trade, scientific research has yet to fully explore the history of the African slaves brought to Latin America. In a study published April 30 in the journal Current biology, scientists tell the story of three 16th-century African slaves identified from a mass burial site in Mexico City. Using a combination of genetic, osteological and isotopic analyzes, the scientists determined from where they were likely captured in Africa, the physical hardships they endured as slaves, and the new pathogens. that they were able to take with them across the Atlantic. This study paints a rare picture of the lives of African slaves during early Spanish colonization and how their presence may have shaped the dynamics of disease in the New World.

“Using an interdisciplinary approach, we uncover the life story of three otherwise voiceless individuals who belonged to one of the most oppressed groups in the history of the Americas,” says lead author Johannes Krause, archaeogeneticist and professor at Max-Planck. Institute of Human History Sciences.

The three individuals were found in a mass grave at the Royal Hospital of San José de los Naturales in Mexico City, a former hospital site largely devoted to the service of the indigenous community. “Having Africans in central Mexico so early in the colonial era tells us a lot about the dynamics of that era,” says first author Rodrigo Barquera, graduate student at the Max-Planck Institute for Science of human history. “And since they were found at this mass burial site, these people likely died in one of the first epidemic events in Mexico City.”

Researchers extracted genetic and isotopic data from the teeth of individuals, reconstructing their lives before slavery. “Their genetics suggest that they were born in Africa, where they spent all their youth. Our evidence points to a South African or Western origin before being transported to the Americas,” says Barquera.

Careful examination of their bones revealed a life of serious hardship once they arrived in the Americas. Anthropologists have found large muscle insertions in the upper body of a skeleton, likely indicating continuous physical work. Another individual had the remains of copper gunshot wounds, while the third had a series of fractured skull and legs. The team was also able to say, however, that the abuse did not end their lives. “Within our osteobiographies, we can say that they survived the mistreatment they suffered. Their story is a story of difficulty but also of strength, because although they suffered a lot, they persevered and have resisted the changes imposed on them, ”says Barquera.

In the remains, the researchers also recovered genetic material from two pathogens that infected two of the individuals while they were alive. “We discovered that one individual was infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV), while another was infected with the bacteria that causes yaws – a disease similar to syphilis,” says Denise Kühnert, co – lead author, mathematician working on the phylogeny of disease, Max-Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “Our phylogenetic analyzes suggest that both individuals contracted their infections before they were likely forcibly brought to Mexico.”

These are the first human remains from the Americas in which HBV and yaws were identified, suggesting that the slave trade may have introduced these diseases to Latin America very early in the colonial period. This is particularly significant for yaws, as it was quite common among Mexicans during the colonial period. “It is plausible that yaws was not only introduced to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade, but that it may subsequently have had a significant impact on the dynamics of the disease in Latin America.” , said Kühnert.

By conducting science in this interdisciplinary manner, researchers are now able to answer deep questions about the roots of Mexican culture. “We want to get a glimpse of how pathogens emerged and spread during colonial times in New Spain, but we also want to continue to explore the life stories of the Africans brought here and to other parts of the world. Americas. In this way, they can take a more visible place in the history of Latin America, ”says Barquera.

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Edward K. Thompson