Finds of a surprising kind: About 350 years ago, a man from West Africa was buried in a place in Portugal where Stone Age people were once buried. According to the research of archaeologists, it is likely that it was brought to the region with others from West Africa as part of the slave trade. Scholars say he may have been buried there by his community at the ancient burial site due to traditional customs from his homeland.
The focus is on the site of Amoreira, located about 80 kilometers northeast of Lisbon on the Tagus River – also known as Tejo. About 8000 years ago, hunters and gatherers in the area buried their dead in piles of mussel shells there. This emerges from the investigations carried out there since the nineteenth century. In 1930, archaeologists also discovered an unusual tomb. While it was similar to the others, it contained the well-preserved remains of an unusually large human.
On the trail of a special dead man
Together with other finds from Amoreira, the bone remains ended up in the archives of the University of Porto. A research team from Uppsala University and the University of Lisbon has now dedicated a detailed study of these unusual discoveries. For clues to the identity of the dead, they performed radiocarbon dating, genetic testing, and isotope analysis on samples taken from the remains.
As the team reported, their findings showed that the bone remains did not come from a dead man in the Stone Age, but from a man who died between 1630 and 1760. But that wasn’t the only surprise: His genetic signature indicates West African ancestry. The results of isotope analysis also showed that for most of his life he ate foods that were not popular in Portugal at the time. Certain isotopic signals in the bone material also indicated that the man had swallowed water that has characteristics typical of coastal regions in the Senegal and Gambia region.
Buried according to West African traditions?
From these findings, the researchers concluded that the first generation of Africans came to Portugal via the slave trade at that time. But why was he buried in this strange place? Because in Portugal, from the Middle Ages until the middle of the nineteenth century, the dead were usually buried for religious reasons only. Until now it was assumed that this also applied to slaves who were forced to convert to Christianity. As the researchers explained, the burial of non-Christians may reflect the kidnapped’s attempt to preserve their original social and cultural identity and values in their local communities.
According to the team, Amoreira was probably already known to locals as an ancient burial site due to the visible bones. Another clue comes from West Africa: As the researchers’ research revealed, mussel deposits in West Africa are still used as burials to this day. They often serve as special burial sites in the Senegambia region. Thus, the burial at the Portuguese seashell mound could indicate that the African community at Amoreira recognized this site as important. Accordingly, the man may have been buried there in accordance with the social and cultural traditions of his homeland in West Africa.
Scholars conclude that perhaps further investigations can clarify whether the discovery represents a special case or whether it is a more widespread burial practice of slavery victims.
Source: Uppsala University, professional article: Journal of Archaeological Sciences, doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2022.103370