The Story Of African Skeletons Buried In Mexico Reveal The Horrors Of The Slave Trade

Skulls and dental decoration patterns for the three African individuals in Mexico City. Collection of San José de los Naturales, Osteology Laboratory, (ENAH), Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: R. Barquera & N. Bernal.

Three African skeletons unearthed in Mexico are detailing the horror of the early Atlantic slave trade, along with the transfer of culture, ideas, and pathogens that occurred in the 1500s.

Archeologists have recently pieced together the story of these three people using a range of genetic analysis, isotopic techniques, and historical evidence. The team, led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, reported their findings in the journal Current Biology today.

The skeletons were unearthed from a mass burial pit dug in the 16th century CE near the San José de los Naturales Royal Hospital of Mexico City. Genetic analysis showed that all three individuals were male with a Y-chromosome lineage that’s commonly found in people of Western or Southern African descent. By no coincidence, it's also the most common Y-chromosome lineage among African Americans today. 

Their bones clearly indicate these three men were not born in Mexico. Researchers can get a rough idea of where a skeleton was born (or spent most of their life) based on the isotopic composition of the bone, as this indicates what the people ate, which in turn reflects the geology of where their food supply grew. In the case of these three skeletons, they appear to have spent much of their early life outside of Mexico and the Americas. Instead, the levels are more representative of the arid grasslands or the coastline of West Africa.

The skulls also bear signs of distinct teeth sharpening modifications on their upper front teeth, a cultural practice recorded among many African slaves that's still carried out by certain groups living across Africa today.

It’s evident these enslaved individuals were in poor health. One man’s tooth contained evidence of a strain of the hepatitis B virus typically found in present-day West Africans. While it’s uncertain when hepatitis B infections first occurred in the Americas, the researchers contend that African slaves brought a novel genetic form of hepatitis B to Central America.

"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," Denise Kühnert, team lead of the research at the Max Plank Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI SHH), explained in a statement. "This provides novel insight into the phylogeographic history of the pathogen."

Another one of the men was infected with the bacteria Treponema pallidum pertenue, which causes yaws, a painful infection that affects mainly the skin, bone, and cartilage. The particular strain of bacteria was previously identified in 17th-century colonists of European descent. 

"This study sheds light into early cases of yaws after the European colonization of the Americas," said Aditya Kumar Lankapalli of MPI SHH. "Future studies should focus on understanding the transmission and introduction of this pathogen to the Americas. More high-coverage ancient Treponema genomes will allow us to get a better understanding of the coevolution and adaptation of this pathogen to humans."

Of course, this research covers just three individuals out of millions of people whose lives were tyrannized through the transatlantic slave trade. While many of these experiences are currently obscured, it's hoped that advances in archaeogenetics, such as those displayed in research, could help to reveal more of these long-lost stories.  

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