Mystery of 17thC African Slave Buried in a Prehistoric Site

An African man who lived 350 years ago was buried in a prehistoric shell midden in Amoreira in Portugal. 

Image credit: Filipe Rocha

The first-generation African, probably from Senegambia, would have arrived in Portugal via the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Researchers from Uppsala University and Universidade de Lisboa have estimated that he died around 1630 and 1760.

For more than three centuries, Africans were brutally dislocated from their homeland while forced to adopt a new religion, a new name, and a new language. African communities in Portugal developed strategies to preserve their socio-cultural identity and values, similarly to what is documented in the Americas.

Luciana Gaspar Simões sampling human bones from archaeological collections at the Museum of Natural History and Science, University of Porto, Portugal. Image credit: Rita Peyroteo Stjerna, Uppsala University

Examining his genetic signature indicates African ancestry, while dietary isotope analysis shows that for most of his life, his diet consisted of plant foods commonly found in Senegambia, but not in Portugal at that time, plus a minor consumption of low trophic level marine foods (such as bivalve molluscs). The oxygen isotopic signal in the bone bioapatite reflects the ingested water at the place of origin, which could be narrowed to the coastal areas of western Africa, in present-day Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia.

The researchers were curious as to why he was buried in such an unusual place – an 8,000 year old site.

Like many other archaeological sites, Amoreira was probably known by the local populations as an ancient burial ground, given the abundance of animal and human bones at the site. This grave seems to have been arranged with a layer of sand, suggesting a level of preparation for a burial in a seemingly deviant place; in Portugal, from the Middle Ages up to mid-nineteenth centuries, the dead were generally buried in religious grounds, but this one was not.

The researchers found that, up to present day, shell middens are actively used in western Africa. In Senegambia in particular, the usage of shell middens includes ancient and modern cemeteries. The burial of this individual in a Portuguese shell midden could indicate the recognition of the site as a meaningful place by the African community of Amoreira, possibly according to West African socio-cultural traditions. In fact, other examples of non-Christian funerary practices have been identified in a cemetery of enslaved people in the Canary Islands. Future investigations may clarify if this was an isolated event or part of a broader movement.

Continuing their investigations the researchers wanted to identify the man. They found a document from the local church dated to Nov 1st, 1676, which mentions the murder of a young man named João at Arneiro da Amoreira, which is precisely the area where the bone remains were found. However, the church registers state that the victim was buried in the churchyard, but the bones we found were buried at Amoreira. Additionally, the murdered man is described as brown or dun, possibly describing an interracial individual, but the results show that both mother and father were of African ancestry.

Despite the incompleteness of the human remains and the historical records, the intersection of several lines of investigation enabled the reconstruction of specific aspects of the life and death of a first-generation African individual in Portugal during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade period, which would not otherwise have been possible to scrutinise from the skeletal material in the archaeological context. More importantly, assert the researchers, it shows the value of multidisciplinary research to investigate individual African life-histories in Early Modern Europe which have been obscured in large-scale studies.

Link: Article: Rita Peyroteo Stjerna, Luciana G. Simões, Ricardo Fernandes, Gonçalo Lopes, Torsten Günther, Mattias JakobssonMultidisciplinary investigation reveals an individual of West African origin buried four centuries ago in a Portuguese Mesolithic shell middenJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Open Access

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