Chinese indentured mine labour and the dangers associated with early 20th century deep-level mining on the Witwatersrand gold mines, South Africa

07 Jul 2016

Trauma analysis in archaeological human remains can aid our understanding of cultural practices, socioeconomic status, environmental and social conditions, and even aspects of a person’s occupation. For this reason, fracture patterns and frequencies can be useful in making inferences about the environment people lived and worked in. This is especially true for the 20th century mining industry where unskilled migrant labourers were often subjected to harsh working and living conditions. In this study, the skeletal remains of 36 Chinese indentured mine labourers, who worked and died on the Witwatersrand mines, South Africa, during the period AD 1904–1910, were assessed for evidence of trauma. Historical information suggests that these indentured Chinese labourers were unfamiliar with the workings of deep-level mines and as a result sustained many work-related injuries. Analyses suggest low frequencies of ante-mortem trauma. In the few instances where they occurred, these healed fractures most probably reflect injuries already sustained in China, some time before Chinese indentured employment on the Witwatersrand mines. A high frequency of traumatic lesions, specifically peri-mortem fractures, however, suggests a drastic shift in their working environment attesting to the hazardous working conditions associated with deep-level mining in the early 20th century.