Bones that talk

Excavations in the port area of the city of Rio de Janeiro reveal hitherto ill-known aspects of slavery

Slave market on Rua do Valongo street, Debret, watercolor on paper, c. 1816-1828. Reproduction of the book "Debret e o Brazil – Obra Completa", Ed. Capivara publishing house, 2009One of the “meat shops” of the Valongo market in the somewhat optimistic view of Debret as he showed only a few slaves overseen by the tradesmanSlave market on Rua do Valongo street, Debret, watercolor on paper, c. 1816-1828. Reproduction of the book "Debret e o Brazil – Obra Completa", Ed. Capivara publishing house, 2009

The National Institute of Criminalistics establishes a series of procedures for investigating a crime: recognition, which puts boundaries on the scene of the crime and preserves it; careful documentation and scientific observation of the site; the search for proof and evidence to be collected; and scientific analysis in a laboratory of the evidence gathered by the expert investigators. It is at the point where these areas overlap that the solution of a murder, for instance, can be found. Would it be possible to use the same procedures to “clarify” a centuries-old crime, with millions of victims? Recent research conducted by Brazilian universities indicates that using the same cross-discipline methods, bringing together historians, archeologists, geneticist (paleogeneticists) and pathologists might finally and properly cover one of the greatest crimes ever: slavery.

“To understand the reality of slavery, one must penetrate archives, unearth the past and submit the material evidence to laboratory analysts. One must overcome the mere historiography of documents or the economic views that only considers slavery from the point of view of the means of production. Slavery has to be made material,” says Tânia Andrade Lima, an archeologist from the Nacional Museum in Rio de Janeiro and the coordinator of the Valongo quay excavation project, at the port that one million Africans passed through between 1811 and 1831. It was the work on the Porto Maravilha port, i.e., the renovation of the Rio port area, which started this year, with a view to revitalizing the area for the 2016 Olympics, that enabled the archeologists to reopen the “scene of crime,” unseen since 1843, when it was covered with 60 centimeters of surface material and turned into the Imperatriz [Empress] quay, where Teresa Cristina, the future wife of emperor Pedro II, was received. “There were other places, but Valongo was chosen to delete the stains of past slavery,” says Tania. These “stains” surrounded the entire quay, forming the Valongo complex. Nearby houses stored and marketed the blacks.

Those who became ill were taken to the neighboring lazaretto, where treatment boiled down to bleeding conducted by black barbers .Those who did not survive were buried with total disregard in mass graves a few meters away from the quay. Therefore, this is a dream site for any archeologist, bringing to light, every day, loads of personal and ritual objects of the so-called “new blacks,” the captives newly-arrived from Africa: large and small beads, shells, pipes, earrings with the Islamic half-moon, and even “sitting-stones for the orixás,” the African gods. Priests and African religion and culture experts are helping to catalogue and recognize the findings.

“The Valongo complex was instituted to remove the blacks from downtown Rio de Janeiro, as they were considered a threat to health, ‘disease carriers’ and a public order risk,” explains the historian Cláudio Honorato, author of the study Valongo: o mercado de escravos do Rio de Janeiro [Valongo: the Rio de Janeiro slave market] (Fluminense Federal University/ UFF, 2008). “Valongo was part of the ‘national civilization’ project, which gained strength when Rio became the capital of the Empire. However, this turned out to be a paradox: the creation of a ‘European’ court but with mobs of blacks moving freely on the streets. It was thought that the solution would be to use the slaves to create a city worthy of the king. This movement, however, further increased the demand for slaves, making it impossible for the city to get rid of its ‘backward features’. It was necessary to somewhat reduce such promiscuity, so the slave market was moved away from the Palace area, to a distant and uninhabited place: Valongo, a natural port in the Gamboa area,” built by order of the viceroy, the Marquis of Lavradio. Very soon, however, the slave trade attracted the local population and the site turned into one of Rio’s liveliest places. Besides the quay, the Valongo complex included 50 “meat houses,” where the newly arrived blacks were traded. “The first one we went into had 300 children. The eldest may have been 12 years old and the youngest, no older than 6. The poor little things were crouching in a warehouse. The smell and the heat in the room were repugnant. The thermometer indicated 33º C and it was winter!” wrote Charles Brand, an Englishman, in 1822.

024-029_MateriadeCapa_190-2After spending 60 days on a tumbeiro [slave ship], the Africans, exhausted and ill, had to endure a lack of proper food, clothing and housing. This, combined with the punishments inflicted upon them, led them to become prone to catching the viruses, bacilli, bacteria and parasites that flourished among the dense population of Rio. More than 4% of the slaves died almost immediately upon arrival, between disembarkation, quarantine and display in the marketplace. A place was needed to bury a large number of dead. And so the Pretos Novos (New Blacks) Cemetery came into being. “The high mortality rate would explain the rise of imported labor, as more deaths meant bringing in more slaves. In the last six years of this cemetery, there were more than one thousand burials a year in it,” states the historian Júlio César Pereira, from Fiocruz, author of À flor da terra [Near the ground surface](Garamond, 2007). The relocation of the court to Rio increased the arrival of captives via the port of Rio: if in 1807 fewer than 10 thousand had been brought in, by 1828 this figure had risen to 45 thousand. This year was also a record one for the cemetery, more than 2 thousand new blacks having been buried there. “With no coffin and not a scrap of clothing, they are thrown into a grave that isn’t even two feet deep. They take the deceased and chuck him into the hole like a dead dog, then they throw a bit of earth over and if any part of the body remains uncovered, they pound it with bits of wood, making a mash of earth, blood and excrements,” described the traveler Carl Seidler in 1834. However, the site was aligned with the thinking and the rules that had led to the establishment of the complex: “Unsold slaves won’t leave Valongo even after they’re dead.”

Estimates indicate that the cemetery received more than 20 thousand bodies before it was closed down in 1830, due to the complaints of the neighbors, who feared the “miasmas” coming from the cadavers “near the surface of the ground,” along with the interruption of slave traffic, even though it continued illegally. The place fell into oblivion and was eventually covered over by the city, which expanded in the port areas in the late nineteenth century. It was only rediscovered in 1996 during the remodeling of a house, when workers drilling the holes for piles came upon thousands of teeth and human bone fragments. As in a “crime scene,” it became necessary to find out who the victims were. Determining the geographic origin of the five million slaves forced into coming to Brazil is crucial for several fields of knowledge, as it provides clues on the genetic and cultural background of Brazilians, many of whom are of mestizo origin. “The slave trade caused one of the mankind’s greatest population movements. Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, more than 10.7 million arrived alive at the end of the crossing,” states the historian Manolo Florentino, from UFF, author of Em costas negras [On black coasts] (Companhia das Letras, 1997). “The slave ships’ records are unreliable when it comes to the origin of the Africans, since the embarkation port, recorded in the archives, didn’t always reflect the geographical origin of the blacks, sometimes captured inland, kilometers away from the coast,” he notes.

Dental arcade recovered at the cemetery showing the ritual incisions made in teeth by Africans

Pretos Novos InstituteDental arcade recovered at the cemetery showing the ritual incisions made in teeth by AfricansPretos Novos Institute

In this task, geneticists provide the historians with major contributions, as shown in the article “Africa in the genes of the Brazilian People” (Pesquisa FAPESP, issue 134), on the research of geneticist Sérgio Danilo Pena, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), who compared the pattern of genetic alterations shared by Africans and Brazilians. As a result, Pena helped to review the historical version according to which most of the slaves came from the central-western part of Africa. This notion disregarded the relevant participation of the west African blacks. “That is why it is essential to resort to transdiciplinarity to understand slavery. Each focus is limited in dealing with the questions and no single field of knowledge is sufficient. The genetic studies are highly informative, but their starting point is the analysis of Brazilians who descend from slaves,” says Pena. Hence the importance of the Pretos Novos Cemetery, as it contains primarily the remains of African slaves that had just arrived in Brazil.

The records of the Church of St. Rita, which managed the site, enable us to state that 95% of the bodies were of “new blacks” (the other 5% were apparently of Ladino slaves). This unique site gave rise to the recently completed bio-archeological study Por uma antropologia biológica do tráfico de escravos africanos para o Brasil: análise das origens dos remanescentes esqueletais do Cemitério dos Pretos Novos [For a biological anthropology of the traffic of African slaves into Brazil: an analysis of the origins of the skeletal remains of the Pretos Novos Cemetery], coordinated by the bio-anthropologist Ricardo Ventura Santos, from the National School of Public Health of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Ensp/Fiocruz). For this study, the isotopic composition of the strontium in the tooth enamel of the samples collected in 1996 was analyzed, to determine the geographic origin of the remains. “The teeth are formed during childhood and are not renovated, allowing us to find out where people lived during their early years. Strontium is like a geochemical DNA and it exists in the form of two isotopes, the numbers of which are 86 and 87. The ratio between them are geochemical signatures tied to the characteristics of the rocks of a given region,” explains Sheila de Souza, who is also working on this project. The research revealed a great diversity of ratios, which indicates (and confirms) that the slaves brought to Rio came from several African regions. It also confirmed that they were young, newly arrived, African blacks.

The researchers established this as a result of finding “deliberate modifications of the teeth,” cuts made in the dental arcade for cultural reasons and that are typical of certain African regions, such as Mozambique. This, in a way, corroborates Pena’s thesis. “We also witnessed the polishing of teeth, which generates microscopic scratches, typical of the dental hygiene of the African groups that used small sticks on their teeth and chewed plants as ‘toothpaste’. This practice is limited to the new blacks, because once they arrived here, it became impossible to keep it up. The teeth of the Ladinos lack these marks,” says Sheila. The variability of the strontium ratios observed contrasts with what has been found in other slave cemeteries in the Americas. It is greater, for instance, than what was measured in the Africans buried at the New York Burial Ground, the American slave cemetery found in Manhattan in 1991.

“Contrary to North America and other areas of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro received a larger number of captives with a greater ethnical and genetic diversity,” states Santos. One can identify that the basic food of these individuals during their childhood contained no form of seafood. “It makes excellent sense. The arrival of the royal family increased the demand for slaves, culminating in the golden phase of slave traffic, which legitimated a de facto situation: the Crown no longer had a monopoly, which resulted in free access to the trade. Therefore, few parts of the continent remained immune to the traffickers, so that between 1760 and 1830, Rio actually received blacks from many African regions, according to records,” notes Florentino. “Additionally, pattern of traffic was also confirmed, indicating action from the coast to the inner continent, in search of those who had migrated from the seaside.”

024-029_MateriadeCapa_190-1One can even demonstrate the undocumented path of illegality. In 1815, Portugal and England signed a treatise whereby the purchase of slaves and slave traffic north of the Equator was prohibited. “The research studies of Pena and Santos show that, in practice, despite this prohibition, smugglers were active in the area. Though saying they were sailing to Angola, they would take a detour, to Nigeria, where they would get slaves that they would then record as Angolan,” says the historian. The analysis of the cemetery also revealed an ill-known aspect of the slave traffic: the youth of the captives. “The remains are of very young blacks,” says Santos. Some 780 thousand children were enslaved and sent to Brazil as of the mid-nineteenth century, because they were more “malleable” than adults were and they withstood the crossing better. Toward the end of the slave traffic age, in particular in Rio, one out of every three slaves was a child. “The slave-owning elite, sensing that slave traffic was coming to an end, started looking more for women, i.e., for more uteruses to generate slaves, and for children, who would work for longer after the traffic came to a halt,” explains Florentino.

New excavations in the cemetery corroborated this practice. It was evidenced by the presence of the young people’s skulls and arcades. The prospections were resumed by the team of Tania Lima, who, fearing the real estate speculation around the site, because of Porto Maravilha port, put the archeologist Reinaldo Tavares, from the Nacional Museum, in charge of drawing up a map of the cemetery, for the study O Cemitério dos Pretos Novos: delimitação especial [The Cemetery of the New Blacks: special boundaries]. The dimensions of the cemetery are unknown. According to descriptions dating back to when it was active, its size was similar to a present-day soccer pitch. The archeologist is suspicious of this measurement, however, since it seems too small for so many bodies.

By digging trenches around the site, he is looking for its boundaries. “You don’t have to dig more than 70 centimeters deep to find bodily remains,” he says. The place was a mass grave where bodies were thrown after days piled up in a corner. Whenever the big grave became full, it would be reopened and the remains incinerated and destroyed, making way for new bodies. “We also find urban waste mixed in with the bones: food, glass, building materials, dead animals, trash. The initial thesis was that the cemetery had become the neighborhood’s open dumping ground once the cemetery was closed. However, the excavations indicate that it was still operating when the trash was thrown in with the bodies.”

Genetics only add to the symbolic weight of such disregard. “The slaves entered Brazil via the Northeast or Rio. The very geographical closeness led slaves from West Africa to the Northeast and those from Central Africa to Rio. Of the latter, most were Bantus,” says Pena. Therefore, this is the ethnic group whose bodies presumably fill the cemetery. From the quay and the warehouses, they could see how their dead were treated. “For the Bantus, undignified burial makes it impossible for the dead and their forbears to be reunited, a core belief of this ethnicity. One can imagine that they must have felt condemned to a ‘second death,’ being aware that their final resting place would be erased from memory,” observes Júlio César. The living, however, did not enjoy very good chances either: only one third of the new blacks would live, in slavery, for more than 16 years.

The cause of these early deaths was the large range of diseases with which the slaves lived, as shown in the paleogenetic research of Alena Mayo, from the Fiocruz Laboratory of Molecular Genetics of Microorganisms, which tracks, via DNA, the diseases of colonial Rio. At the slave cemetery of Praça XV square, for example, the bones revealed that 7 out of every 10 captives were infected with protozoa or helminths. “This was due to the slaves being very poorly fed, combined with the bad conditions of hygiene in which they lived,” says Alena. The genetic discovery proves several aspects of the classic study of the American historian Mary Karasch, A vida dos escravos no Rio de Janeiro [Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro] (Companhia das Letras, 2000), such as the statement that “the conditions under which the slaves lived and the diseases killed more than the physical violence of captivity.”

The researcher studied the Pretos Novos cemetery, where she found traces of tuberculosis, with a total of 25% of positive samples. “The inhuman conditions in which they were transported caused those slaves who were susceptible to contract the disease, at that time common in the city, upon arriving.” This also leads one back to the documental research conducted by the American: “The mortality of the newly arrived Africans at Valongo was not related only to the terrible conditions of the slave ships. Even if they survived the crossing, they faced a greater challenge at the quay: adapting to the new and terrible conditions of life, so as not to succumb promptly to Rio diseases.”

One particular excavation resulted in important findings. “Bones in the church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo in Rio, found in seventeenth century tombs of people of European origin, although very degraded, tested positive for tuberculosis in 7 out of 10 ribs analyzed,” states Alena. At the site, the researchers also found bones of native Indians and blacks. Comparing the remains, the researcher concluded that not only was tuberculoses rampant in the city in the seventeenth century, but that the colonizers were the party responsible for introducing the disease in Rio, given that only the Europeans tested positive for tuberculosis. “In studies I conducted on pre-Columbian material, I found intestinal helminthiasis and Chagas’ disease. We concluded that these were not brought by the Europeans. In colonial Brazil, to the contrary, one can see the role of Europeans in the introduction and dissemination of epidemic diseases such as tuberculosis.” Therefore, the fear of the “diseases of the negroes,” which led to the creation, precisely 200 years ago, of the Cais do Valongo quay, were unfounded. There is no perfect crime when different fields of knowledge come together.

Scientific article
JAEGER, L. H. et al. Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex detection in human remains: tuberculosis spread since the 17th century in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Infection, Genetics and Evolution. Forthcoming.