Three men were buried in Mexico 500 years ago. DNA and bones reveal their stories of enslavement

Genes, chemical clues, and the filing of teeth into shapes all point to West Africa as the birthplace of these three individuals, although they were buried in a mass grave in colonial Mexico City. R. BARQUERA AND N. BERNAL/COLLECTION OF SAN JOSÉ DE LOS NATURALES/OSTEOLOGY LABORATORY, MEXICO CITY

In the late 1980s, workers excavating a new subway line in downtown Mexico City stumbled upon a long-lost cemetery. Documents showed it had once been connected to a colonial hospital built between 1529 and 1531—only about 10 years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico—for Indigenous patients. As archaeologists excavated the buried skeletons, three stood out. Their teeth were filed into shapes similar to those of enslaved Africans from Portugal and people living in parts of West Africa. Now, chemical and genetic analyses confirm these individuals were among the first generation of Africans to arrive in the Americas, likely as early victims of the burgeoning transatlantic slave trade.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, tens of thousands of enslaved and free Africans lived in Mexico. Today, almost all Mexicans carry a small amount of African ancestry. Rodrigo Barquera, a graduate student in archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, suspected the remains might offer a window into lives often left out of historical records. To confirm their origins, he and his adviser Johannes Krause extracted DNA and analyzed chemical isotopes, including strontium, carbon, and nitrogen, from their teeth. Their DNA revealed that all three were men with ancestry from West Africa. (Researchers couldn’t connect them to particular countries or groups.) And the ratios of the chemicals in their teeth, which preserve a signature of the food and water they consumed as children, were consistent with West African ecosystems, the researchers report today in Current Biology. “It’s really nice to see how well the different lines of evidence come together,” says Anne Stone, an anthropological geneticist at Arizona State University, Tempe, who wasn’t involved with the research.

All three skeletons show signs of trauma and violence. The men were likely in their late 20s or early 30s when they died. Before that, one man survived several gunshot wounds, and he and another man showed a thinning of their skull bones associated with malnutrition and anemia. The third man’s skeleton showed signatures of stress from grueling physical labor, including a poorly healed broken leg. These signs of abuse make it likely that the men were enslaved rather than free, Krause says.

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