Some of the earliest people forced into slavery in Latin America in the 16th century have been revealed and shed light on their tragic lives.
Three male skeletons have been excavated 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 that they have been abducted from their sub-Saharan African homes, trafficked across the Atlantic, and have been the victims of horrific physical abuse.
One person led a physically demanding life of physical labor, another was shot with a copper bullet, and the other had repeated bone fractures.
All survived these injuries, but suffered premature deaths, likely from years of extreme hardship at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors.
One of the individuals also suffered from hepatitis B, while another suffered from a syphilis-like infection called yaws, which affects a person’s bones.
Three skeletons (depicted, 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
Depicted, the skull of one of the persons examined, in which the dental modifications that helped identify the person of African descent are clear. Tubes used for isotope and genetic testing, both of which were conducted as part of our research, are also being seen
In the 16th century, Charles I of Spain authorized the infamous transportation of the first African slaves to the Viceroyalty of New Spain.
His decree meant slavery, misery and death for an untold number of people.
Many Africans were stripped of their identity, culture and individuality when subjected to them by the settlers, and little is known about who the first slaves were and how they fell victim to one of the most horrific periods of humanity.
Now researchers at the Max Plank Institute for the Science of Human History are trying to shed some light on the plight of these people.
By analyzing the bones and DNA samples, scientists were able to determine where in Africa they were likely to be captured, the physical hardships they experienced as slaves, and which pathogens they may have carried across the Atlantic.
The three individuals in the study first caught the team’s attention because of their obvious dental modifications.
All had a filling in the upper teeth, in accordance with traditional African culture. It is still seen in some groups living in West Africa today.
Genetic analysis showed that all three individuals had a Y chromosome line common in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is also the most common trait found in modern African Americans.
This information was then combined with isotope data from the teeth, confirming that all three were born definitively outside of Mexico.
Analysis of their bones provided a clear picture of physical deprivation and early death.
The study authors say their findings prove that the trio may have been one of the very first Africans to reach America after they were kidnapped from Africa.
How conquistador Hernán Cortés helped initiate Spanish rule in central Mexico
Hernán Cortés meets the Aztec emperor Montezuma, 1519
Hernán Cortés – born in 1485 in Medellín, Spain – first made a name for himself as he helped Diego Velázquez conquer 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 native peoples, Cortés marched to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital led by Moctezuma II.
After a failed attempt to capture the Tenochtitlán in 1520, Cortés returned in 1521 and began a three-month siege, eventually allowing the Spaniards to take control.
Cortés commissioned enormous cruelty to indigenous peoples, as well as countless lives lost to diseases borne by the West.
He died in Seville on December 2, 1547.
Depicted, evidence of a shot African slave. Green color seen in photos C and D was obtained by contact with copper on the cervical vertebrae and a rib. The person would have survived and died for other reasons
Three male skeletons were excavated 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 Johannes Krause, an archaeologist who was involved in the study, said, “By combining molecular biology, isotopic data, and bioinformatics tools with classical historical, anthropological, and archaeological evidence, we gained insight into the life history of some of the earliest African slaves in America.
“By unraveling a cross-disciplinary approach, we unravel the life histories of three otherwise voiceless individuals who were among one of the most repressed groups in American history.”
Lead researcher Rodrigo Barquera, a graduate student, said, “Modern laboratory techniques allow us to collect incredible amounts of data from very little biological material.
“The amount of information we can give back today to archaeologists, anthropologists and society with just one tooth from each individual is something we could only dream of ten years ago.
“Having Africans so early in the colonial period in central Mexico tells us a lot about the dynamics of the time.
“And since they were found on this mass grave, these individuals likely died during one of the first epidemic events in Mexico City.”
One person’s skeleton was marked with large insertions where his muscles were attached to the bones, indicating a life of grueling physical labor through which he developed significant muscle mass.
Another individual’s bones were marred by a gunshot wound, which turned green – possibly due to contact with a copper bullet fired by a dashing slave owner.
The last person had clear evidence of healed skull and leg fractures. However, it is not believed that all three individuals died from any of these wounds.
Mr. Barquera said, “We can see that they survived the mistreatment they received.
“Their story is one of difficulty but also of strength, because although they suffered many, they persisted and withstood the changes forced upon them.”
The team was able to reconstruct the genomes of diseases where people suffered from.
One person was infected with a strain of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) that is common in West Africa today.
Dr. Denise Kühnert, part of the Max Planck research team, said, “While we have no indication that the HBV lineage we found was located in Mexico, this is the first direct evidence of HBV introduction due to the transatlantic slave trade. ‘
Another individual was infected with Treponema pallidum pertenue, which is similar to syphilis and causes vultures, a painful bone infection similar to syphilis affecting joints and skin.
The same millet strain has previously been identified in a 17th-century settler of European descent, suggesting that the African-origin disease lineage is located in Mexico’s early colonial population.
The study is published in the journal Current biology.
How the Spanish Conquest of the 16th Century Shaped Latin America
Supported by the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Christopher Columbus led four journeys extending the rule of the Spanish Empire to America.
Colonization started in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean.
Spain’s colonial power grew continuously with settlements in Hispaniola, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
In 1513, the Spaniards expanded their influence to what is today known as Florida, the southern state of the United States.
Francisco Hernández de Córdoba led a failed invasion when he landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1517.
The expedition failed when his army was almost completely wiped out during a battle in the city of Champotón against the Maya.
Hernán Cortés would later be successful in conquering the Aztec empire, a battle he first started 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 capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlán.
The Spaniards would overpower the Aztec empire and conquer the last ruler Cuauhtémoc on August 13, 1521, transforming Mexico into another Spanish colony.
In 1696, King Charles II issued an order making Spanish the official language as settlers were no longer needed to learn the native languages.
Mexico began its march towards independence with a series of battles that began to brew in 1810.
It became independent in September 1821.
Mexico was the first colony whose independence was recognized by the Spaniards.