Skeletons in Mass Portuguese Burial Site Belonged to African Slaves

Interdisciplinary research involving geneticists, anthropologists and archaeologists suggests that many of the 158 skeletons found in a Portuguese burial site were those of African slaves from the 15th – 17th Century.

Recent rescue excavations by a Portuguese team at an underground car park in Valle da Gafaria revealed a sinkhole, which incorporated a former burial site outside the medieval walls of the city. The skeletal remains were meticulously removed before subsequent state-of-the-art anthropological and genetic analyses were conducted.

“These genetic analyses revealed an affinity to West African or Bantu-speaking (Central to Southern African) populations in some of the DNA samples, which is in agreement with what is expected from historical records, and with some of the archaeological elements that suggested African ancestry,” said Dr Daniel Bradley, Professor of Population Genetics in the School of Genetics and Microbiology at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

Specialised archaeological methods assessed the body deposition and manipulation in order to study evidence of violence such as trauma to the body and head and bounding of the hands and feet with ropes. Standard anthropological methods were applied to the identification of age and sex of each individual.

The research team believe that around one third of the skeletons were from sub-adults (under-18’s) and that only 3% were from people aged 30 or more. The identification of sub-Saharan African morphological characteristics was based on the assessment of traits such as the shape and measurements of the eye orbits and nasal cavity, and the assessment of dental traits such as tooth filing common in African people in that time.

“Many of the skeletons were found in uncommon burial positions indicating that the slaves had their limbs tied to their necks or in other cases both hands tied to their backs. In other cases the hands were placed in strand position in the front. These burial positions provide us with a detailed and disturbing glimpse into the early period of the European African slave trade,” added Dr Ron Pinhasi, Associate Professor in the Earth Institute and School of Archaeology, University College Dublin.

These data from such distressed burials indicate an African contribution to a low-status stratum of Lagos society at a time when this port became a hub of the European trade in African slaves, which formed a precursor to the transatlantic transfer of millions. The city of Lagos (some 300km south, in the Algarve) was an important European harbour in the early Atlantic Slave Trade, with African slaves believed to have been present in Portugal as early as 1440.

Lead author Rui Martiniano is a Portuguese researcher in Trinity College Dublin funded by Bridging the European and Anatolian Neolithic (BEAN), which is an interdisciplinary Marie Curie EU-funded project. He said: “This work shows the power of combining these incredibly diverse methods to uncover slices of history that may otherwise remain obscure.”

The peer-reviewed paper, which appeared in the international journal Scientific Reports can be viewed here:


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