African-Americans in the Americas by the end of the 16th Century

The above is a picture of Africa-American remains discovered in Campeche, Mexico. According to a story in the Wisconsin State Journal:

Tiesler discovered the slaves’ remains buried in a colonial- era graveyard that was unearthed in 2000 during a remodeling of Campeche’s public square. The remains are from the late 16th century and the mid-17th century.
“This,” Price said, “is the earliest documentation of the African Diaspora in the New World. It does mean that slaves were brought here almost as soon as Europeans arrived.”


In the Campeche graveyard, Tiesler and other archaeologists found individuals of a number of different ethnicities, including Amerindians and Europeans.
They were also surprised and perplexed to find remains that appeared to be of African origin. Some of these latter individuals appeared to have teeth which had been filed, a decorative practice common in Africa.

The methodology for determing the age and geographical origins of the skeletons was fascininating – using stable isotope analysis on the enamel if the teeth:

Over the last 10 years, the two UW-Madison researchers have perfected a way of analyzing the enamel from teeth to pinpoint the geographic origin of ancient peoples. The lab they now run is one of only three in the world doing such work.
Tiesler, who was very familiar with the lab’s work, enlisted the researchers’ help in solving the riddle of the Campeche skeletons. She sent them molars from several skeletons in the graveyard and asked that they be analyzed and their origin determined.
Monday, Price and Burton offered a tour of their lab and an explanation of their work. They do their sleuthing by using spectroscopy to analyze a chemical element called strontium in the enamel of teeth.
Tooth enamel, explained Burton, forms during gestation and early childhood. The foods consumed during infancy and childhood contain strontium, which carries nutrients passed from the bedrock through soil and water to plants and animals.
The signature of that strontium is evident in the enamel of molars and, once deciphered, can be used to connect the owner of the tooth to a particular geologic and geographic region on Earth.
Using these techniques, the researchers are conducting a broader study of the movement of ancient peoples through Mesoamerica.


In the Campeche project, the UW-Madison scientists were asked to do a blind study, meaning they were simply sent 10 teeth from the Campeche graveyard and no information about what teeth belonged to what skeletons. In fact, Burton assumed he was getting all Mesoamerican teeth.
When Burton did his initial analysis, however, strontium readings from four of the teeth “were like nothing we had ever seen.”
The other six teeth had readings that linked the origin of the owners to an area primarily of limestone geology, similar to much of the Yucatan coast. But the strontium data for the other four teeth were so high that they suggested origin in an area underlain by very ancient granite bedrock.
Ghana is underlain by rocks of a geologic formation called the West Africa Craton, an area that dates back more than 1 billion years to the earlier stages of the continent. The country is also the site of the infamous Elmina fortress and prison, with its grim “Door of No Return,” through which African slaves passed on their forced journey to the Americas.


Further evidence linking the skeletons to Ghana came from previous archaeological work done on New York City’s famous “African Burial Ground.”
Researchers there, hypothesizing a similar origin for slaves in that newer cemetery, analyzed well water from Ghana and found strontium levels as high as those in the teeth studied by Burton and Price.

The results of the research is currently In Press in the AJPA. You can also find more info here and here.
Fascinating stuff! Skeletal Biology (or bioarchaeology if you prefer) at its’ finest!

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