Photo in the News: Skeletons of First African Slaves in Americas?

Photo: Skeletons in a Mexico grave
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January 31, 2006—Skeletons unearthed in a burial ground in Mexico could be the oldest remains of African slaves in the New World, scientists report.

The remains, seen above in this photo released today, date from the late 16th to mid-17th century. They were found at an archaeological site in Campeche, which was a major Spanish port city during the reign of the conquistadors.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Autonomous University of the Yucatán were helping to excavate a cemetery near the foundations of a centuries-old church.

The scientists decided to research the origins of the bodies after noticing decorative filings on the teeth of some of the skulls, a practice characteristic of African tribespeople of the period.

Unique chemical signatures found in the teeth allowed the researchers to determine that the people found in the grave had been born in Africa. The scientists believe that European settlers might have shipped slaves to Campeche from the West African port of Elmina to serve as domestic workers.

The find is significant, the researchers say, because it illustrates how quickly slavery became a part of the New World economy.

"It does mean that slaves were brought here almost as soon as Europeans arrived," study co-author T. Douglas Price of UW-Madison said in a press release.

—Victoria Gilman

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