By Kari Lydersen - the Washington Post
The first planned colonial town in the New World was founded in 1494, when about 1,200 of Christopher Columbus's crew members from the 17 ships that made up his second journey to the Americas settled on the north coast of what is now the Dominican Republic.
Beset by mutiny, mismanagement, hurricanes and disease, the settlement of La Isabela lasted only a few years.
The ruins remained largely intact until the 1950s, when a local official reportedly misunderstood the order from dictator Rafael Trujillo to clean up the site in preparation for visiting dignitaries, and had them mostly bulldozed into the sea.
Little remained but the skeletons below ground in the church cemetery, which lay undisturbed until excavations began in 1983.
In the past few years, sophisticated chemical studies of the skeletons, especially their teeth, have begun to yield new insights into the lives and origins of Columbus's crew.
The studies hint that, among other things, crew members may have included free black Africans who arrived in the New World about a decade before the slave trade began.
La Isabela was not the first settlement established by Columbus. When the Santa Maria ran aground off Hispaniola on Christmas Eve, 1492, during his first voyage, the 39 stranded sailors built a fort they christened La Navidad. When Columbus returned the next year, the fort had been burned and the crew massacred.
The study of the La Isabela skeletons grew out of a project in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, where in 2000 researchers were surprised to find the remains of West Africans among those buried in a mid-16th-century church cemetery in Campeche.
Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina from the Autonomous University of Yucatan invited T. Douglas Price, director of the Laboratory for Archaeological Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, to do isotopic analysis of those skeletons' teeth.