Posted on May 2, 2020

3 Africans in Mexico City Grave Tell Stories of Slavery’s Toll

Nicholas St. Fleur, New York Times, May 1, 2020

The three skulls were unlike hundreds of others in the 16th-century mass grave uncovered at the San José de los Naturales Royal Hospital in Mexico City. Their front teeth were filed decoratively, perhaps as a ritual custom, unlike those of “los naturales,” the Indigenous people who made up the majority of bodies at the colonial burial site. Archaeologists concluded the three individuals were most likely enslaved Africans, but they needed more evidence to be certain.

Now, researchers have extracted genetic information from the individuals’ teeth, confirming they were Africans, perhaps among the earliest to be stolen from their homeland and brought to the Americas.

“We studied their whole skeletons, and we wanted to know what they were suffering from, not only the diseases but the physical abuse too so we could tell their stories,” said Rodrigo Barquera, a graduate student at the Max-Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. “It has implications in the whole story of the colonial period of Mexico.”


In 1518, King Charles I of Spain, authorized the direct transportation of enslaved people from Africa to the Americas. In 1542, he enacted Las Leyes Nuevas, “The New Laws,” which prohibited the colonists in the Viceroyalty of New Spain from using Indigenous people as slaves. The law liberated thousands of Indigenous laborers, but increased the demand for enslaved Africans, Creoles, mulattoes and other African-descended people to work as servants, cooks, miners and field workers. Between 1518 and 1650, some 120,000 enslaved Africans arrived in what is now Mexico.


The three individuals’ remains were recovered in 1992 during construction of a new subway in the city. Archaeologists noticed their teeth had decorative filings, which were observed in enslaved Africans in Portugal, and the practice continues today in some sub-Saharan ethnic groups. That led the researchers to suggest the individuals were Africans.

“We don’t know exactly if they were ‘negros esclavos’ or ‘negros libre,’” said Lourdes Márquez Morfín, an archaeologist at the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, referring to the distinction then made between slaves or freemen. But the trauma etched in their skeletons suggests they were slaves.

“One had these gunshots,” said Mr. Barquera, referring to five pieces of buckshot in the man’s chest cavity. {snip}

Some of the men showed signs of nutritional deficiencies, skull and leg fractures and shoulder deformities, suggesting they performed backbreaking work and suffered harsh physical abuse. {snip}

Mr. Barquera and his team removed a molar from each of the three skulls to extract and analyze their DNA. The genetic signatures obtained from the molars showed the three men had their origins in Western or Southern Africa. {snip}