Earliest African slaves were beaten, shot and riddled with disease

Three skeletons unearthed in a mass grave in Mexico reveal the first African slaves transported to Latin America by Spanish conquistadors 500 years ago were beaten, shot and riddled with disease

  • All individuals were found to have been born in Africa despite burial in Mexico 
  • Analysis of the remains from a mass grave found evidence of a premature death 
  • Lived in the 16th-century and are among earliest slaves abducted from Africa 
  • One individual led a physically demanding life, one was shot with a copper bullet and another had evidence of several broken bones 

Some of the earliest people forced into slavery in Latin America in the 16th century have been revealed, shedding light on their tragic lives. 

Three male skeletons were unearthed in a mass grave on the grounds of Hospital Real de San José de los Naturales, an early colonial hospital in Mexico City. 

Analysis of their remains, including their teeth, reveals they were abducted from their homes in sub-Saharan Africa, trafficked across the Atlantic and subjected to horrific physical abuse. 

One person led a physically demanding life of physical labour, another was shot with a copper bullet and the other had evidence of repeated broken bones. 

All survived these injuries but suffered premature deaths, likely induced by years of extreme hardship at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. 

One of the individuals also suffered with hepatitis B while another was afflicted with a syphilis-like infection called yaws, which affects a person’s bones.  

Three skeletons (pictured, the skulls and teeth of these remains) found in a mass grave on the grounds of Hospital Real de San José de los Naturales were studied by scientists 

Pictured, the skull of one of the individuals studied, in which the dental modifications which helped identify the person of African origin are apparent. Tubes used for isotope and genetic tests, both of which were carried out as part of our study, are also seen 

In the 1500s, Charles I of Spain authorised the infamous transport of the first African slaves to the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

His decree signalled enslavement, misery and death for an untold number of people. 

Many Africans were stripped of their identity, culture and individuality when subjugated by the colonists, and little is known about who the first slaves were and how they became victims of one of humanity’s most heinous periods. 

Now, researchers from the Max Plank Institute for the Science of Human History are attempting to shed some light on the plight of these people.  

Analysing the bones and DNA samples, scientists were able to determine from where in Africa they were likely captured, the physical hardships they experienced as slaves, and what pathogens they may have carried with them across the Atlantic. 

The three individuals in the study first caught the attention of the team due to their distinct dental modifications.

All possessed a filling in the upper front teeth consistent with traditional African culture. It is still seen in some groups living in western Africa today. 

Genetic analysis showed all three individuals shared a Y-chromosome lineage that is highly prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is also the most common trait found in modern-day African-Americans. 

This information was then combined with isotope data from the teeth, which confirmed all three were definitively born outside of Mexico. 

Analysis of their bones revealed a clear picture of physical hardship and premature death.  

The authors of the research say their findings prove the trio may were among the very first Africans to reach the Americas after being abducted from Africa.

Hernán Cortés – born in Medellín, Spain, in 1485 – first made a name for himself when he helped Diego Velázquez in his conquest of Cuba.

In 1518, at the age of 33, he convinced Velázquez to let him lead an expedition to Mexico, following in the footsteps of conquistador Juan de Grijalva who led an expedition to Yucatán in 1518. 

After forming alliances with indigenous peoples, Cortés marched on Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital led by Moctezuma II.

After a failed attempt at taking the Tenochtitlán in 1520, Cortés returned in 1521 and began a three-month siege which ultimately let the Spanish to take control.

Immense cruelty was inflicted on indigenous peoples under Cortés’s orders, as well as countless lives lost due to diseases brought over from the West.

He died in Seville on December 2, 1547.

Pictured, evidence of an African slave who was shot. Green coloration seen in picture C and D was acquired by contact with copper on the cervical vertebrae and a rib. The person is believed to have survived this and died of other causes 

Three male skeletons were unearthed in a mass grave on the grounds of Hospital Real de San José de los Naturales (pictured), an early colonial hospital in Mexico City

Study senior author Professor Johannes Krause, an archaeogeneticist involved in the study, said: ‘Combining molecular biology, isotopic data and bioinformatic tools with classical historical, anthropological and archaeological evidence allowed us to gain insights into the life history of some of the earliest African slaves in the Americas.

‘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.’ 

Study lead author Rodrigo Barquera, a graduate student, said: ‘Modern lab techniques allow us to gather incredible amounts of data from very little biological material.

‘The amount of information we can give back to archaeologists, anthropologists and society today using only one tooth from each individual is something we could only dream about just 10 years ago.

‘Having Africans in central Mexico so early during the colonial period tells us a lot about the dynamics of that time.

‘And since they were found in this mass burial site, these individuals likely died in one of the first epidemic events in Mexico City.’

The skeleton of one individual was marked with large insertions where his muscles attached to the bones, indicating a lifetime of gruelling physical labour that caused him to develop significant muscle mass.  

Another individual’s bones were marred by a gunshot wound, which turned green – potentially due to contact with a copper bullet fired by a tempestuous slave owner.

The last individual had clear evidence of healed skull and leg fractures. However, all three individuals are not believed to have died from any of these wounds.  

Mr Barquera said: ‘We can tell they survived the maltreatment that they received.

‘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 team was able to reconstruct the genomes of diseases the people suffered from. 

One individual was infected with a strain of the Hepatitis B virus (HBV) often found in western Africa today.

Dr Denise Kühnert, part of the Max Planck, research team, said: ‘Although we have no indication that the HBV lineage we found established itself in Mexico, this is the first direct evidence of HBV introduction as the result of the transatlantic slave trade.’

Another individual was infected with Treponema pallidum pertenue which is similar to syphilis and causes yaws, a painful infection of the bones similar to syphilis that affects joints and skin.

The same strain of yaws has been previously identified in a 17th Century colonist of European descent, suggesting the establishment of the disease lineage of African origin in the early colonial population of Mexico. 

The research was published in the journal Current Biology.  

How the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century shaped Latin America 

Backed by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Christopher Columbus led four voyages which expanded the Spanish Empire’s rule to the Americas.

Colonisation began in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean.

Spain’s colonial power continuously grew with settlements in Hispaniola, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

In 1513, the Spaniards stretched their influence to what today is known as Florida, the southern state of the United States.

Francisco Hernández de Córdoba led a failed invasion when he landed in the Yucatan peninsula in 1517.

The expedition failed when his army was almost completely wiped out during a battle in the town of Champotón against the Mayans.

Hernán Cortés would later find success in conquering the Aztec empire, a battle he first initiated with 500 men in 1519.

The Aztects lived in Central Mexico from the 14th to the 16th Centuries.

Cortés formed an alliance with other native tribes to invade the Aztec Empire’s capital city of Tenochtitlán.

The Spanish would overpower the Aztec Empire, capturing its last ruler Cuauhtémoc on August 13, 1521, thus converting Mexico into another Spanish colony.

In 1696, King Charles II issued an order that made Spanish the official language as colonisers were no longer required to learn the indigenous languages.

Mexico started its march towards independence with a series of battles that started brewing in 1810.

It gained its independence in September 1821.

Mexico was the first colony whose independence was recognised the Spaniards.

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