Ancient DNA Contradicts Historical Narrative of ‘Extinct’ Caribbean Taíno Population

Researchers create Caribbean’s first complete ancient human genome, find Taíno genes in living people

In this April 10, 2015 photo, Brayan Lopez, 9, plays a Taino wood drum while students perform a ceremonial dance in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico. ASSOCIATED PRESS

For as long as historians have posited that the Caribbean’s indigenous Taíno population was wiped out within 50 to 100 years of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World, individuals have contested that narrative, citing their own family oral histories as evidence. Now, a recent DNA analysis of a 1,000-year-old tooth, is affirming their claims and highlighting the Taíno people’s resilience.

Science magazine’s Lizzie Wade reports that an international team of researchers has found “direct molecular evidence” refuting the myth of Taíno extinction—in fact, the new genetic study shows connections between a modern Caribbean population and the Taíno.

The team’s study, which was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, relied on a millennia-old skeleton found on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. According to a University of Cambridge press release, the skeleton belongs to a woman who lived in the Bahamas sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries.

Wade writes that archaeologists discovered the woman in the Preacher’s Cave, which once served as a haven for shipwrecked Puritans. Although researchers were initially drawn to the site by its link with the European arrivals, they soon found artifacts linked with pre-contact indigenous groups.

Hannes Schroeder, an ancient DNA researcher at the University of Copenhagen, tells Wade that the search for intact DNA in the Caribbean equated to navigating “uncharted waters.” Typically, DNA survives better in cold, dry environments.

Luckily, the team was able to extract DNA from one of the woman’s teeth. According to the release, this DNA enabled them to sequence the Caribbean’s first complete ancient human genome.

Comparisons between the ancient genome and a sample of 104 present-day Puerto Ricans found the latter group possessed between 10 to 15 percent Native American ancestry. Although the study states that the extent to which this component reflects Taíno ancestry is unclear, there remain “clear similarities” between Puerto Ricans and the Taíno.

Jada Benn Torres, a genetic anthropologist at Vanderbilt University, explains to Science magazine’s Wade that native Caribbean groups have long said the Taíno population was not completely eradicated by colonialist brutality.

“These indigenous communities were written out of history,” she says. “They are adamant about their continuous existence, that they’ve always been [on these islands]. So to see it reflected in the ancient DNA, it’s great.”

Jorge Estevez, a project team member​ at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, grew up hearing stories about his own Taíno ancestry. The study, he says in a statement, confirms what he and his relatives had always known.

“It shows that the true story is one of assimilation, certainly, but not total extinction,” he explains. “...To us, the descendants, it is truly liberating and uplifting.”

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