Sunday, January 3, 2016

Bones Of Indigenous Victim Reveal Brutality Of European Colonization Of Gran Canaria

The subtropical island of Gran Canaria, off the west coast of Morocco, was the focus of European expansion and colonization in the 15th century. Between 1478 and 1483, the Crown of Castile, a Medieval state in modern-day Spain, subjugated the local population through armed conflict, slavery, and death caused by weapons and diseases the native Canarians had never encountered. A majority of the native population perished in this colonization effort, but archaeological evidence from this time period is scant. Recent research on a man found buried in a traditional way, however, reveals massive sharpforce trauma to his head, arm, back, and pelvis, and researchers believe he may represent the first clear evidence for the brutality of European colonization on Gran Canaria.

Writing in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, a team of archaeologists headed by Jonathan Santana-Cabrera of Santa Elena State University in Ecuador lays out the evidence for European-on-native violence in the skeleton of a man from the Los Acarreaderos burial ground on Gran Canaria. The skeleton was discovered in a collective grave that had four additional bodies, all wrapped in textile shrouds and deposited in a natural cave, typical for pre-Hispanic burials on the island. He was in his 20s when he died, and carbon dating puts his death during the time at which the Crown of Castile was establishing a colonial regime in this island chain.

In assessing the instances of sharp trauma — such as linear or V-shaped cut marks — the researchers discovered a total of 13 wounds in the upper body. These wounds were inflicted by one or more swords swung from different angles of attack. All injuries occurred at the same time, there are no signs of healing, and their severity would certainly have caused the man’s death. Based on close analysis of the lesions, Santana-Cabrera and colleagues were able to re-create the mechanism of most of the injuries, revealing the violent way this man died.

The main injury to the skull, for example, was caused by an “impact so powerful,” the researchers write, “that it completely split the cranium.” Characteristics of the bone further show that “the attack came from behind” and that the assailant “may have been in a higher position than the victim.” Another skull trauma is seen in the left eye orbit, and it completely separated the frontal bone of the skull vault from the bones of the face. “This direction indicates that the assailant was probably positioned opposite the victim.”

The man’s left arm was also cut in several places. Intense cracking of the bone and a V-shaped notch in the upper part of the humerus suggest a sideways blow while the victim was holding his arm in front of him. Additional blows to the middle part of the left upper arm bone were even more forceful and demonstrate that the victim was in fact raising his arm, almost certainly in a futile attempt to ward off the sword blows.

Although less forceful, additional traumatic cut marks were found on the man’s shoulder blades, neck, and sternum, showing attacks from both the front and behind, as well as sword thrusts to his pelvis at the height of his hipbones that may have come from the side. It is impossible, though, to tell for certain the order of the blows, just that they occurred in the same short time-frame. The injuries sustained by this victim were to areas that Europeans would have protected with armor.  The indigenous Canarians, however, fought naked or protected only by their normal clothing made from animal skins and textiles. But many did have wooden shields, usually held in the left hand, so this man’s arm injuries could be explained as an attempt to disarm him. No artifacts were found with the body, but long-bladed weapons were standard issue for the Castilian troops who conquered Gran Canaria in the late 15th century.

“This case represents an extremely violent episode in which one or several assailants inflicted serious injuries with completely different weapons from those normally used by the indigenous population of Gran Canaria,” the authors explain. The wounds themselves occurred at the time of death and almost certainly caused it, and they are “a clear indicator of the speed and aggressiveness of the attack, the likely participation of several assailants, and the victim’s scarce possibilities of effective defense.”

In fact, the murder of this man may have been done to send a message. The very high number of injuries from different directions has a parallel in Castilian historical accounts of the conquest, in which colonial soldiers attacked native leaders to demoralized the Canarians and force them to flee or surrender. This attack’s aim was “not only to kill the victim but also to intimidate the enemy, as described in written sources contemporary with the conquest,” the researchers note.

The carbon-14 date of the skeleton cannot unfortunately pinpoint the exact time at which this man died. It is possible that a small group may have maintained its indigenous funerary rituals following the conquest, meaning this man was killed during widespread repression of indigenous culture for refusing to change his ways. But based on historical records, Santana-Cabrera and colleagues think that his death is more likely related to Castilian incursions into the Agaete Valley, a stronghold that fell at the end of the conquest of Gran Canaria in 1483.

The unfortunate victim found buried in an indigenous grave on Gran Canaria, the authors conclude, “represents an early example of the interpersonal violence between Europeans and natives that became frequent on both sides of the Atlantic from that time onwards.”

Killgrove, Kristina. 2016. “Bones Of Indigenous Victim Reveal Brutality Of European Colonization Of Gran Canaria”. Forbes. Posted: Available online:

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