Scientists study the first African slaves in Mexico

The first African slaves lived in Colonial Mexico between 1436 and 1626

Mexican and German scientists collaborate in genetic research about the first African slaves in Colonial Mexico
Skull found in 1992 in downtown Mexico City during the construction of a subway line - Photo: Taken from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History's Facebook account
English 01/08/2020 17:01 Mexico City Actualizada 18:03

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The first African slaves in the Americas were found at the Real de San José de los Naturales Hospital in downtown Mexico City; they lived during the first years of the Colonial period, between 1436 and 1626, and suffered from hepatitis B and yaws, as confirmed by the studies done by Mexican and German researchers.

The confirmation was done from the analysis of three skeletons, men who died when they were between 25 and 35 years old, in which they performed three kinds of studies: osteological, with which they were able to obtain the biography of each one through their bones; genetic, with which they were able to identify their diseases; and that of strontium isotopes, with which they estimated their place of origin.

The analysis was done by German biochemist Johannes Krause and ENAH pharmaceutical biochemist Rodrigo Barquera, who is doing his Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) in Germany.

In an interview, Rodrigo Barquera explains that the archeological space of the San José de los Naturales Hospital was found in 1992 during archeological rescue works related to the construction of the Metro’s Line 8, in the historical center, near the San Juan de Letrán station.

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Some authors had already suggested that there were skeletons of African origin among the remains of the site, nevertheless, there had not been studies to confirm the hypothesis.

“We noticed there was a lack of African roots in the country’s genetic studies and this affects society. Since it is missing, the African root is not part of the collective imagery. We look to vindicate African roots through anthropological genetics.”

The bone remains underwent several tests, including an osteological one, which reveals the individual’s biography through bones: “The bones and prints in them were analyzed on detail trying to look something in that that corresponded to infectious pathologies, traumas, development, or nutrition.”

The genetic study, which was divided into two sections, consisted of the analysis of population genetic with which they were able to show they were individuals without any kind of racial mixing “that belonged to an African tribe that could only be found in western and southern Africa.

“The other part of the genetic studies showed that these individuals were affected with Hepatitis B and a bacteria called Treponema pallidum, which causes yaws and which is quite similar to syphilis. This gives us information about the introduction of diseases caused by transatlantic slave trafficking.”

The third study involved strontium isotopes, “which led us to make an estimate of their place of origin. With the isotopes, we could see they were not born in the American continent and that it is quite likely that they were born in Africa, where they possibly spent their youth before being captured and moved to America.”

Rodrigo Barquera mentioned that from all the skeletons found, they chose three individuals because they have tooth ornaments patterns that are consistent with others found in African groups, a hypothesis they have already proved, and obtained other information, such as the men died when they were between 25 and 35 years old.

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Rewriting history
The MPI-SHH researcher says that the Discovery is major because now they can give genetic identity to three individuals that seem to only be skeletons.

“We found no signs of mixing. In general, the study allows us to strengthen the idea that these African roots are also part of Mexicans, not only biologically speaking, but also culturally and socially. We have African heritage due to those who arrived during the Colonial period.”

The bodies were found at the Real de San José de los Naturales Hospital, something that must be taken into account, according to Barquera, because by decree of the Spanish Crown, it was founded to provide health services to indigenous people.

“Finding these non-indigenous remains in this space has several implications; one of them is that they were found in a mass grave and due to the dates obtained from carbon-14 testing, it makes us think it could be evidence of the first epidemics that took place in the New Spain.”

The researcher adds that during the Viceroyalty, it was asserted that Africans were not susceptible to diseases that were killing indigenous groups in the American continent and that is why they needed African slaves to cover the contributions imposed by the Spanish crown.

“Finding them there means that Africans were also hit by these diseases and that it was a lie used by New Spain’s government to bring slaves. The historical implications are major.”

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New hypotheses
The tests done to the three individuals did not reveal their cause of death, as explained by Barquera, but the researchers were able to prove that all the traumas they suffered in life, were healed, “this means that they didn’t die from physical abuse.

“The hepatitis B and Treponema pallidum pathogens we found usually cause chronic infections that can kill people; this is not the case because usually, these infections take several decades to undermine the organism, and in the individual with Treponema we were able to see he had spent several years with the disease but without serious effects, that is, it was in process but not on a terminal stage. It is quite likely that the died of the unknown disease known as cocoliztli, whose identity is still unsolved.”

Although they have concluded the tests with the three individuals, Barquera’s team is currently studying twenty skeletons from the same context “to have an idea of the genetic composition at the beginning of the Colonial period because history mentions Spaniards, Tlaxcaltecs, and Aztecs, but now we see this and we don’t know which new surprise we’ll find with the analysis.”

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