The tribe that Columbus discovered did not become extinct: their descendants live on

The inhabitants of Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico are genetically related to the Taínos, who were not eradicated but assimilated.

Landing of Columbus by Dioscoro Puebla (1862)

A thousand-year-old tooth has provided genetic evidence that so-called “tainos“, the first Native Americans to feel the full impact of European colonization after the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the The new Worldthey still have living descendants in the Caribbean nowadays.

The researchers were able to use a woman’s tooth found in a cave on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas for sequence the first complete human genome in the Caribbean. The woman lived sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, at least 500 years before Columbus make landfall in the Bahamas.

The results provide unprecedented insight into the genetic makeup of the Taíno, a label commonly used to describe the indigenous people of that region. This includes the first clear evidence that there has been some degree of continuity between the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and contemporary communities living in the region today.

Such a link had previously been suggested by other studies based on modern DNA, but none of them were able to turn to an ancient genome. The new research finally provides concrete evidence that indigenous ancestry in the region has survived to the present day.

Comparing the ancient genome of the Bahamas with that of the Puerto Ricanscontemporariesthe researchers found that they were most closely related to ancient Taíno than any other indigenous group in the Americas. However, they argue that this feature is unlikely to be exclusive to Puerto Ricans and are convinced that future studies will reveal similar genetic legacies in other Caribbean communities.

The finds are likely to be especially significant for people in the Caribbean and elsewhere who have long claimed indigenous Taíno heritage, despite some historical narratives incorrectly calling them “extinct“. These misrepresentations have been heavily criticized by historians and archaeologists, as well as by descendant communities themselves, but until now they lacked clear genetic evidence to support their case.

The study was conducted by an international team of researchers led by Dr. hannes schroeder and the teacher Eske Willerslevunder the project ‘ERC Synergy NEXUS1492‘, whose findings are detailed in an article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

They came from the Amazon

Lead author Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, who carried out the research as part of the ‘NEXUS1492’ project, calls it a “fascinating” finding. “Many history books say that the indigenous population of the Caribbean was practically annihilated, but those who self-identify as Taínos have always advocated continuity,” he points out. “Now we know they were right all along: there has been some form of genetic continuity in the Caribbean.”

Willerslev, who works at the Cambridge University St. John’s College (UK) and the University of Copenhagen, notes that “it has always been clear that people in the Caribbean have indigenous ancestry”, but that “because the region has a complex history of migration, it was difficult to test whether this was specifically indigenous to the Caribbean, until now.”

The researchers were also able to trace the genetic origins of the indigenous people of the Caribbean island, showing that they were more closely related to the groups speaking Arawak who live in parts of the north of south america nowadays. This suggests that the origins of at least some of the people who migrated to the Caribbean date back to the Amazon and Orinoco basinswhere the Arawakan languages ​​developed.

The Caribbean was one of the last parts of the Americas to be populated by humans from about 8,000 years ago. At the time of European colonization, the islands were a complex mosaic of different societies and cultures. The “Taíno” culture was dominant in the Greater Antilles and parts of the Lesser Antilles, as well as in the Bahamas, where the people were known as lucayanas.

To trace the genetic origins of the Lucayans, the researchers compared the ancient Bahamian genome with previously published genomic data sets for more than 40 present-day indigenous groups of the Americas. In addition, they searched for traces of indigenous Caribbean ancestry in current populations by comparing the ancient genome with those of 104 Puerto Ricans contemporaries included in the 1000 Genomes Project. The 10-15 percent indigenous ancestry of this group was shown to be closely related to the ancient Bahamian genome.

Assimilation instead of extinction

As indicated Jorge Esteveza descendant of the Taínos who helped the project team, this discovery shows that “the real story is from assimilation” and not “total extinction”. “Although this may have been a matter of scientific research for them, for us, the descendants, it is vtruly liberating and uplifting“, says Estévez, who says he feels really grateful to the researchers.

Although the indigenous communities of the Caribbean were based on the islands, the researchers found very little genomic evidence of isolation or inbreeding in the ancient genomeor. This reinforces previous genetic research led by Willerslev, which suggests that early human communities developed surprisingly extensive social networks.

“Archaeological evidence has always suggested that a large number of people who colonized the Caribbean were originally from South America and that they maintained social networks that extended far beyond the local scale,” says Professor Corinne Hoffman of the Leiden University and researcher of the ‘NEXUS1492’ project.

“Historically it has been difficult to back this up with ancient DNA due to poor conservation, but this study shows that it is possible to obtain ancient genomes from the Caribbean and that opens up exciting new possibilities for research.”

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