Research sheds light on the multi-ethnicity of an early colonial city in Mexico

Ancient DNA analysis has identified individuals of Indigenous Maya, European, and West African origin in the city's cemetery.

A team of researchers have successfully retrieved ancient DNA from an early colonial cemetery in the port city of Campeche, Mexico, revealing new information about the ethnic diversity of its founding population.

Located along the Yucatán Peninsula, the city was founded in 1540 by Spanish conquistadores as San Francisco de Campeche. It replaced the nearby Maya settlement of Ah Kin Pech (Can Pech).

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, its historic city centre still retains much of its old colonial Spanish architecture.

Explorations at the main plaza of Campeche. The left image shows burial distribution, the middle the excavation in progress in 2000 (photograph courtesy of Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), and right a grid of the excavation area and test pits (courtesy of INAH & Laboratorio de Bioarqueología/Autonomous, University of Yucatan).

In 2000, rescue excavations in the main plaza of Campeche, led by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), uncovered the remains of an early colonial church and cemetery containing 129 burials.

The cemetery was in use for at least 140 years, from the mid-16th to late 17th century.

The burials were densely packed, with the deceased positioned on their back and their heads orientated towards the setting sun, as in line with the standard Catholic funerary practices of early Hispanic colonies.

Previous isotopic analysis suggested individuals of Native American, European, and African origin were buried side by side in the cemetery.

Now, as discussed in a paper recently published in Antiquity, researchers from Harvard University have uncovered further information about the geographic origins of those interred.

The team conducted ancient DNA analyses on petrous bone samples from ten individuals, and identified six as females and four as males. None were closely related.

They identified mitochondrial lineages commonly found among Indigenous Maya populations within eight of the individuals.

The study also revealed that the other two individuals had entirely non-Native ancestry. One, a female who died in their early 20s, was of West African origin, and the other, a middle-aged male, had European ancestry.

Colonial sources attest that Juan Cortés, slave of the soldier Juan Sedeño, was the first African registered in New Spain. Image courtesy of Arqueología Mexicana/Raices.

Lead isotope values from the male individual also indicated that they were born and spent part of their childhood in south-western Spain before migrating to Campeche.

‘Early colonial Campeche had a multi-ethnic population, where previously disparate groups mixed for the first time under Hispanic rule,’ said Professor Vera Tiesler from Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, and co-lead author of the research.

‘The spatial distribution of the locals and immigrants of different ancestries across the Campeche cemetery confirms the prompt forced integration of all populations into this new way of life,’ she added.

Yet, although they were buried together, the team found no evidence of mixed ancestry, suggesting the different ethnicities maintained some degree of separation in life.

According to Dr Jakob Sedig from Harvard University, and co-lead author of the research: ‘These results provide insights into the individual lives and social divides of the town’s founder communities and demonstrate how ancient DNA analyses can contribute to understanding early colonial encounters.’