Skeletons reveal living conditions for slaves in the 16th century

Hyperaxion May 7, 2020

A study brings new information on the living and health conditions of Africans brought to Central America during Spanish colonization.

A study led by the Max Planck Institute in Germany and recently published in the Current Biology magazine reveals that the living conditions of African slaves brought to Central America during Spanish colonization involved mistreatment and serious infections.

Skeletons reveal living conditions for slaves in the 16th century
The skull of one of the individuals studied along with tubes for genetic and isotope testing. (Credit: San José de los Naturales, Post Graduate Studies Osteology Laboratory, Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia / Rodrigo Barquera).

The skeletons were found inside a mass grave at the San José de los Naturales Royal Hospital in Mexico City. “Their genetics suggest they were born in Africa, where they spent all of their youth. Our evidence points to either a Southern or Western African origin before being transported to the Americas,” details Rodrigo Barquera, the study’s lead author, in a statement.

The analyzes also allowed the researchers to determine the physical characteristics and possible diseases that these slaves had. One of the individuals, for example, was infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV), while another had a bacterium that causes yaws, a disease that affects the body’s skin, bones, and cartilage. “These individuals likely died in one of the first epidemic events in Mexico City,” notes Barquera.

The study also points out that the lives of these people were full of hardships. One of them had large muscle insertions (the part of the muscle that connects to the bone), probably due to continuous physical labor; another had remnants of gunshot wounds from copper bullets; the third had a series of fractures in the skull and legs.

But it seems that they didn’t die from any of these factors. “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,” adds the researcher.

The team of researchers intends to continue analyzing these and other bones to better understand this period in Mexican and American history. “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. That way they can take a more visible place in Latin American history,” says the research leader.

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