Makers of Assassin's Creed Excavate a Real Pirate

How a video game set in the age of pirates set off a real-life treasure hunt Ubisoft

Hunting for one of Spain's most colorful forgotten adventurers, a team of archaeologists in white sterile jumpsuits removed a 4,400-pound marble tombstone in the floor of the Santo Domingo church in La Laguna, Tenerife.

They were looking for the remains of a slave trader, philanthropist, devout Catholic and ruthless privateer named Amaro Rodríguez Felipe, who terrorized enemy ships in the Americas and around his native Canary Islands in the 18th century. He is better known as Amaro Pargo, taking the Spanish name of the snapper fish, though even by that name he has been largely forgotten.

Local journalist Domingo Barbuzano uncovered many of Pargo's documents while writing a book on the privateer in 2003. But the mission to unearth his remains and find out more is the initiative of the makers of Assassin's Creed, a series of videogames whose latest installment features an 18th-century Welsh privateer-turned-pirate in the Caribbean.

While studying the history of pirates during the development of the game, researchers came across Pargo and were surprised that such a colorful character had not attained the celebrity of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. The Spanish unit of Ubisoft, the French company that produces Assassin's Creed, decided to hire an archaeological firm and a university forensic lab to investigate, even though Pargo is not featured in the games.

In December, the team started work at Pargo's tomb in the church of Santo Domingo. Thanks to Barbuzano's discovery of Pargo's will, they expected to find not just his remains but those of his parents and his bodyguard, said to be a black giant of a man named Cristóbal Linche, who died three months after Pargo. What they found when they descended the small flight of stairs and peered into the small, vaulted tomb, which contained three stone slabs for laying bodies to rest, was a jumbled mess of thousands of human bones.

Since then, Dr. Angel Fuentes, who leads the forensic laboratory at Madrid's Autonomous University, and six of his students have unraveled the puzzle and found that the bones in the crypt belong to eight adults and around 10 children.

A mix of Sir Francis Drake and the Count of Monte Cristo, Pargo amassed a fortune trading homemade wine and spirits with Spanish colonies Cuba and Venezuela. Legend says he was undefeated in battle, his fleet a scourge to English, Dutch and pirate ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean. A friend to the clergy on his home island of Tenerife, about 200 miles off the coast of southern Morocco, Pargo donated heavily to the Catholic Church and charities for children and the poor.

Privateers were sea captains with special permission from their respective countries to attack enemy ships during wartime and seize the booty on board. While the line between privateer and pirate was largely this piece of paper, once the Spanish king named Pargo "Lord of the Noose and Blade," giving him a royal license to kill, Pargo's ships flew the monarch's flag.

Tales abound of Pargo's treasure, a bounty of gold, silver and gems catalogued in a bound manuscript marked with a D. Since his death in 1747, people have torn apart many buildings associated with him, looking for the priceless hoard. A cave on the island's rocky coast is rumored to have been one of the privateer's hideouts. Pargo's will says he left his fortune to his niece.

The prize for the latest treasure hunters is knowledge rather than gold. Recently, the team completed identification of the bones using DNA samples from known relatives and by comparing the bones to facts left in Pargo's will. Fuentes said his team has rebuilt the skeletons of Pargo, his mother and father, and Linche. The remains of Pargo's confidant stood out because of his size and indicators in the skull that occur more frequently in black Africans than white Europeans.

The other four adults showed signs of very poor health and were likely Pargo's family members, interred in the tomb at a later date. The children, Fuentes said, died very young and were probably put in the tomb because its location in the church was deemed closer to God.

Pargo's skeleton showed he was a robust man, around 5 feet 4 inches tall, which during his lifetime was a normal height, Fuentes said. Linche lived up to his hype, measuring 6 feet tall, and was also very robust. Both men lived well, but showed signs of suffering injuries.

Although Pargo sired one child out of wedlock in Cuba, the boy was never accepted by the family, and history lost track of him. Lacking a direct descendant, the lab compared the DNA found in teeth with the descendants of Pargo's sister. Fuentes says the family was very helpful, and two of them came to Madrid to visit the laboratory. "They were both named Amaro," he says. "Apparently, the first male child born in the family is always named Amaro."

All of the skeletons, in separate boxes, were reinterred in Pargo's tomb in mid-March.

Private financing for cultural projects, while commonplace in the United States, is rare in Spain. Culture and heritage usually fall under government supervision and get subsidies, but authorities have cut budgets for historical and archaeological work to almost nothing since the beginning of the global economic crisis in 2008. The Canary Islands' annual budget for cultural heritage has fallen 88 percent since 2011, to 539,000 euros. This year, the islands' government plans to double that.

The involvement of a video game maker was a surprise to some, but Assassin's Creed is known for its attention to historical detail. For previous Assassin's Creed games, Ubisoft consulted with historians at Notre Dame, Montana State University and the University of Montreal, in addition to using a Mohawk speaker to translate and play the role of a character from the American Revolution.

"Beginning with Gladiator, Hollywood began to take more care with historical details, and video games have continued this concept," says Fuentes. "I would never have expected historical rigor and video games to coincide, but that's what happened."

When Pargo was trading and marauding, the Canaries were essential ports for travel between Spain and the Americas due to the trade winds that connected the islands to ports such as Cartagena de las Indias in Colombia. As a result, the archipelago's jagged coastlines teemed with pirates.

According to José María Blanco, a retired Spanish navy captain with the Institute of Naval History and Culture, Spain formed a navy, in the modern sense, in 1717. But it continued to rely on privateers for much of the century to keep its merchant ships safe and to inflict damage on the enemy.

"In the 18th century," Blanco says, "99 percent of the commerce was transported by ships. So who controlled the seas controlled the land. And what the European powers focused on were the Americas."

There is only one known depiction of Pargo, in a painting in a small church he founded in Tenerife, and the next possible step in the project is to reconstruct his face from his skull. With each new nugget of information about the man, the researchers say, we learn more about the period.

"People talk about Pargo's treasure," says Fuentes, "but he is the treasure."