There are approximately 30 million people living in slavery today.* This trade in human beings is happening in developing nations and in our own backyards. From Taiwan to Oklahoma, people are being moved through secret networks against their will and without much recognition by wider society. In all of these countries, slavery existed in the past.
The United States criminalized slavery in 1863 and most Americans today view slavery as “history”. In this belief, we have unwittingly allowed slavery to persist, hiding in shadow. Historic slavery is connected to present day slavery and archaeological research provides insight into the origins of slavery, who becomes enslaved, and how slaves might be treated.
Although the practice of enslaving others is an ancient practice, research by anthropologists indicate that slavery is not a practice shared by all societies.
For example, many groups across western Africa and Native North America chose not to participate in the capture and exchange of other peoples. We know that slavery is not a “human institution” that has or always will exist. For most societies that did practice slavery, vulnerable populations were targeted: the poor, the marginalized, those without families—essentially people living on the edges of society. Human traffickers today follow a similar model and continue to target the impoverished and marginalized for capture and trafficking—people who are trying to find work and those that are vulnerable because they are on their own.
Archaeological evidence, including the skeletal remains of the enslaved, indicate that the economic and social value of slaves directly impacted how they were treated. In the U.S. South for example, the average price of a field laborer was the equivalent of $40,000 to $80,000 today. While archaeological evidence from many plantations provide evidence of the brutal treatment of slaves (shackles and leg irons recovered from sites; evidence of repeat trauma from skeletal remains), slaves were nonetheless treated as valued investments and some attention was placed to ensuring they were minimally provided for. This is in direct contrast to how slaves are treated today. People are purchased cheaply (in Thailand a teenage girl can be purchased for $800), exploited for significant profit, not provided health care or basic necessities, and then discarded after a few years.
Today, the trafficked are not seen as “people” or even an investment to be minimally cared for, but as a means to an economic end; lives are very cheap and people are disposable.
Archaeologists studying slavery remind us that slavery was as much a social practice as an economic one. Human trafficking exists today because societies support it. They support it by ignoring it, they support it by not taking trafficking seriously, and they support it by claiming that slavery is a “thing of the past,” refusing to recognize that it continues in the present. Societies and their economies must fundamentally change before human trafficking can end, and it is up to all of us to continue drawing attention to this issue until it is taken as seriously as historic slavery.