The oldest slave burial site in the Atlantic

Photograph: © José Guillén, of the archaeological company Tibicena, 16th century site discovered in 2009 in the town of Santa María de Guía (Gran Canaria).

During the 16th century, fourteen men and women were buried in a strange manner, on Gran Canaria. They were hard workers, some prayed to Allah, many believed in the gods of their native Africa, and another was entrusted to San Francisco (Saint Francis), but all were laid to rest outside of the cemetery. They were slaves.

European colonisation of the Americas and the exploitation of its natural resources required a slave population to satisfy the labour shortages and maintain low production costs. African populations were selected to be enslaved because they came from tropical environments and had lower death rates as well as agricultural and technological skills.

The Atlantic slave trade promoted by Europeans between the 16th and 19th centuries forcibly moved at least 12 million people from Africa to America to be sold mainly as labourers on large plantations in the Caribbean and South America. During the 16th century, this phenomenon was closely connected with the sugar industry, one of the main pillars of the new Atlantic economy.

However, the earliest Atlantic slave plantations were located in the Macaronesian archipelagos, including Madeira, the Canary Islands, and the Cape Verde Islands, at the central–eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean. Textual evidence indicates the existence of sugar cane factories in these regions from the early middle 15th century.

Historical documents mention the use of slave labor in this, the first “New World” known to Castilians and Portuguese before they embarked on their conquest of the continent newly discovered by Columbus. The sugar cane plantations financed those discoveries almost from their beginnings.

The Canary Islands in particular were an important part of the Atlantic trade networks, acting as a primary exporter of sugar cane and a hub for trade between Europe, Africa and America. They were the only Macaronesian archipelago that was inhabited when the Europeans arrived, however, lacked a large native population for labor, causing wealthy investors to seek cheap or unpaid laborers from Europe and Africa. Though references to slavery from the very beginning of the conquest, in the fifteenth century, are abundant but have until now lacked any physical evidence.

Eight researchers from the universities of Stanford (USA), Cambridge (UK), Santa Elena (Peru), Las Palmas and the Basque Country and the Archeological specialist company, Tibicena, last year published evidence, in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology, that a rare necropolis found back in 2009 at the Finca Clavijo, in Guía on the north of the island of Gran Canaria, during some works there, is as they suspected: a burial site for slaves from various races. But not just any such burial site: “It is the oldest slave cemetery in the Atlantic world, the earliest antecedent of the African diaspora which is known” says University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria archaeologist Jonathan Santana, the main signatory of the article.

The scientists looked at the bodies recovered in that necropolis (eight intact skeletons along with six others) using various techniques to find out about their lives, and their deaths: forensic medicine, DNA analysis and molecular analysis, archeology and all the accumulated knowledge from slave-holdings in the US and the Caribbean.

Forensics revealed that these people died young, most in their twenties, and with spinal injuries suggesting that they had done very hard work, similar injuries have been documented on cane plantations in South Carolina, Suriname, and Barbados. The remains have been dated by Carbon 14 to between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 17th, but there are two factors that help to further define their origin: a four maravedíes resellada coin (Spanish farthing) minted by the Cabildo of La Palma in 1559 and a 16th century medal with the images of Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francisco) and the Immaculate Conception.

The DNA of these people, in all eleven cases in which the analyses proved viable, revealed that one was without doubt an Aboriginal Canarian (a woman), while four are probably black individuals and six others belong to a lineage present both in Europe and the North of Africa.

“Given that there are many historical references to the slave trade in the Canaries, coming from North Africa, we think that these individuals were Moorish,” explains Rosa Fregel, a University Of Stanford biologist specialising in DNA from ancient populations. Her colleague Santana points out that it is rare for an aboriginal native to appear, because at that time the Church and the Crown had already prohibited enslavement of the indigenous Canarians and even allowed them to accede to positions within the cabildos as “old Christians” (“cristianos viejos”), a privilege at the time still witheld from the descendants of Muslims and Jews. “Maybe it’s a mestizo woman.”

The way they were buried is also curious, because it differs from Christian rituals, and cannot be clearly linked with Islam, nor does it fit with Aboriginal practices, but suggests a type of syncretism very common in Creole (mixed) societies, whereby various religions and customs are intertwined; a fact which reinforces the value of the site, notes Fregel.

All of them were buried on their side, two of them lie with their heads towards the East (perhaps towards Mecca) and others were buried next to beads of glass, beads typical of some African burial rites. There are also Christian elements, such as the Francis of Assisi medal, which matches up with the find being less than a kilometer from a former Franciscan convent, although the researchers have not ruled out that this could be used to hide or mask African rituals.

The authors assume that these were sugar cane plantation slaves, because this was the first large monoculture that was planted in the Canaries, where they developed the machines to process the cane that they later took to America, “los ingenios” (the “mills”).

“Sugar was the oil of the sixteenth century, an industry that made the Canaries attractive to great fortunes throughout Europe and that led to the capture of slaves in Africa before even before they were taken to America, because it required a lot of labor,” says Santana in summary.

When they wrote their article last year, the archaeologists had already found sugar molds at the same site, clearly indicating what these lands, in the municipality of Guia, had been used for.

Just three months ago, civil works revealed the remains of the great sugar mill of Santa María de Guía, dated between the 15th and 16th century.

Now, the team of archaeologists is seeking further funding to continue their excavations because there clear indications that this the first known slave burial site in the Atlantic may contain much more than just these 14 bodies.