AncientPages.com - Many history books will tell you that the indigenous population of the Caribbean was all but wiped out, but people who self-identify as Taíno have always argued for continuity. Now we know they were right all along.
The Taíno Indians were the first indigenous Americans to feel the full impact of European colonization after Columbus arrived in the New World. Their encounter with the Europeans was devastating, but new research offers genetic evidence clearly showing the Taíno people were never wiped out.
Using a 1,000-year-old tooth to sequence the first complete ancient human genome from the Caribbean, researchers can now confirm the Taino people are not extinct and still have living descendants in the Caribbean today.
The tooth, found in in a cave on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas belonged to a woman who lived at least 500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot in the region.
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen who carried out the research as part of the NEXUS1492 project have compared the ancient Bahamian genome to those of contemporary Puerto Ricans and discovered they were more closely related to the Taíno than to any other indigenous group in the Americas.
An ancient tooth has offered evidence the Taíno people are still alive today. Credit: University of Copenhagen.
However, scientists argue that this characteristic is unlikely to be exclusive to Puerto Ricans alone and are convinced that future studies will reveal similar genetic legacies in other Caribbean communities.
The findings are likely to be especially significant for people in the Caribbean and elsewhere who have long claimed indigenous Taíno heritage, despite some historical narratives that inaccurately brand them "extinct". Such 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.
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“It's a fascinating finding. Many history books will tell you that the indigenous population of the Caribbean was all but wiped out, but people who self-identify as Taíno have always argued for continuity. Now we know they were right all along: there has been some form of genetic continuity in the Caribbean,” Dr. Hannes Schroeder from the University of Copenhagen said.
Columbus landing in the New World (image courtesy of Library of Congress)
The researchers were also able to trace the genetic origins of the indigenous Caribbean islanders, showing that they were most closely related to Arawakan-speaking groups who live in parts of northern South America today. This suggests that the origins of at least some the people who migrated to the Caribbean can be traced back to the Amazon and Orinoco Basins, where the Arawakan languages developed.
“It has always been clear that people in the Caribbean have Native American ancestry, but because the region has such a complex history of migration, it was difficult to prove whether this was specifically indigenous to the Caribbean, until now,” Professor Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen said.
The Caribbean was one of the last parts of the Americas to be populated by humans starting around 8,000 years ago. By the time of European colonization, the islands were a complex patchwork of different societies and cultures. The "Taíno" culture was dominant in the Greater, and parts of the Lesser Antilles, as well as the Bahamas, where the people were known as Lucayans.
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“I wish my grandmother were alive today so that I could confirm to her what she already knew. It shows that the true story is one of assimilation, certainly, but not total extinction. I am genuinely grateful to the researchers. Although this may have been a matter of scientific inquiry for them, to us, the descendants, it is truly liberating and uplifting,” Jorge Estevez, a Taíno descendant who works at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and assisted the project team, said.
"Archaeological evidence has always suggested that large numbers of people who settled the Caribbean originated in South America, and that they maintained social networks that extended far beyond the local scale. Historically, it has been difficult to back this up with ancient DNA because of poor preservation, but this study demonstrates that it is possible to obtain ancient genomes from the Caribbean and that opens up fascinating new possibilities for research," Professor Corinne Hofman from Leiden University said.
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