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Bioarchaeology of the Spanish Missions

by Clark Spenser Larsen

Skeletal diagram used by bioarchaeologists.
When most Americans consider what happened when European colonists first encountered Native Americans they believed were Indians, two thoughts come to mind. First, that Europeans brought with them all sorts of infectious diseases--measles, smallpox, common cold, influenza, yellow fever, and so forth--resulting in the deaths of millions and the destruction of the Indian “race.” Second, and especially relating to the Spanish conquest is the notion that Europeans spent a great deal of time and effort in confronting and killing native peoples. Historians reinforce the former idea, with their accounts framed by what historical documents and other records have to tell. These records speak to the rapid spread of infectious disease throughout the Americas that resulted in widespread death. The second notion--conquest and death by violence--is a perception that has been promulgated by what many call the “Black Legend.” According to the legend, Spaniards went to any extreme to acquire the gold and glory that they were after. I have to admit that these notions were the substance of my own perception of the early colonial world of the Americas, especially before I engaged in a research program that has taken the last twenty years of my professional career to develop.

The Record of the Bones

Skeletal remains offer a wonderful source of information about who we are as human beings. In particular, our health and quality of life, and our physical activity and lifestyle, leave evidence in our bones. Markers on teeth and bones reveal the consequences of poor diets, physiological stress, and living in impoverished (or wealthy) environments. Physical activity and lifestyle refers to demand work and other activity place on the body (including the skeleton). In our study of the mission and pre-mission Indians from Georgia and Florida, we started out by basing our assessment of quality of life on information gained from reconstructing the native diet.

The health of the mission Indians appeared to be worse than that of their pre-contact predecessors. But contrary to the popular myth that the Spaniards wiped out the native people in this region (as elsewhere), we have learned that the people persisted for at least two centuries following initial contact in the early sixteenth century. Indeed, they coexisted with Spaniards in these missions.

Clark Spencer Larsen is Distinguished Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Ohio State University.

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