A new book edited by Heather Edgar, professor of Anthropology at The University of New Mexico, and Cathy Willermet, professor of Anthropology at Central Michigan University, explores how Mexican populations have been shaped both culturally and biologically by the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.

Edgar and Willermet arranged the symposium of scholars in 2020 from which the book grew, wrote the introduction, edited the volume and authored three chapters.


The Biocultural Consequences of Contact in Mexico: Five Centuries of Change explores how Mexican populations have changed in the years following the defeat of the Aztec empire, Edgar explained. Essays in the book focus on Central Mexico, Yucatan, and Oaxaca, providing a cross-regional perspective, and they highlight Mexican scholars’ work and viewpoints.

“In 1521 several Native cultural groups from central Mexico teamed with recently arrived Spanish forces to defeat the Aztec Triple Alliance and topple the government of Tenochtitlán. As the new government formed, the Spanish attempted social control through the castas system, which developed as a way to organize society according to parentage and social construction of race, including españoles (Spaniards), indios (indigenes) and negros (Africans). However, this pattern quickly gave way to ever more complex systems of classification. Children of españoles and indios were called mestizo; children of mulatos (the offspring of negros and españoles) and indios were called lobos... Ladinos were free Spanish-acculturated Blacks with their own corporate identities... Such terms defined not only one’s heritage but also one’s potential for educational and economic opportunity, including land ownership…” the book explains in the first chapter.

The chapters in the book examine how the castas system affected individual and group access to power, social mobility, health, and mate choice, Edgar said. Book contributors illuminate the poorly understood extent that this system—and the national identity of mestizaje that replaced it—caused inequality and the structural violence of stress and health disparities, as well as genetic mixture. Five hundred years after the Spanish first clashed with Aztec forces and began to influence modern Mexico, this volume adds to discussions of colonialism, the reconstruction of biosocial relationships, and the work of decolonization.

Contributors include UNM alumni Corey Ragsdale, now an associate professor of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University, and Kate Rusk, a quantitative UX researcher. The rest of the contributors are scholars from other institutions, about half from the U.S. and half from Mexico. Contributors to this volume drew on diverse methods from Archaeology, Bioarchaeology, Genetics, and History to examine the response to European colonization, providing evidence for the resilience of the Mexican people in the face of tumultuous change.

Edgar is also a forensic anthropologist for the UNM Office of Medical Investigator and author of Dental Morphology for Anthropology: An Illustrated Manual.

The Biocultural Consequences of Contact in Mexico: Five centuries of change is available from the University Press of Florida.

Photo by Genaro Servín

Related articles