What Ancient DNA Reveals About the First People to Populate the Caribbean

New study suggests a group of migrants almost totally replaced the islands’ original population

Archaic Age points
Archaic Age people—like the ones who made these blades—arrived in the Caribbean around 6,000 years ago. William Keegan / Florida Museum of Natural History

Thousands of years ago, two groups of people settled the Caribbean in distinct waves, a sweeping new DNA survey suggests.

Published in the journal Nature, the findings—drawn from the genomes of more than 250 ancient individuals—offer insights on the region’s inhabitants in the centuries prior to European invaders’ arrival.

“We now have a much clearer picture of the biological interactions that took place—or didn’t take place—between groups of genetically distinct people in the ancient Caribbean,” says study co-first author, Kendra Sirak, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, in a statement.

The first of the two groups arrived in the Caribbean around 6,000 years ago. Archaic Age foragers hailing from Central or South America, these individuals were genetically related to the Arawak-speaking people of northeast South America. Later, around 2,500 to 3,000 years ago, a group of farmers and pottery makers known as the Ceramic Age people migrated to the area from South America. As Carl Zimmer reports for the New York Times, this new group seems to have almost totally replaced the original population, with only a small amount of genetic mixing between the groups.

Per National Geographic’s Andrew Lawler, the more than 700 islands scattered across the Caribbean were some of the last places colonized by early humans. The disappearance of most of the Archaic Age people was likely the result of violence or disease related to the newcomers. Crucially, however, this trend wasn’t universal across the region.

“The remarkable thing is that the Archaic way of life seems to survive in western Cuba until about 900 [A.D],” study co-author William Keegan, an archaeologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, tells National Geographic. “They apparently lived unmolested and with little mixing.”

What Ancient DNA Reveals About the First People to Populate the Caribbean
Ceramic age people developed a variety of art in many styles. These pieces date to around 1200 A.D. Corinne Hofman and Menno Hoogland / Florida Museum of Natural History

In the centuries after the Ceramic Age people’s arrival, pottery styles changed dramatically. Though researchers had previously thought that this shift coincided with the introduction of new groups from outside of the region, the ancient DNA suggests otherwise.

“The same population developed extraordinarily different artistic styles over time,” says co-first author David Reich, also a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, in the statement. “It highlights the creativity and dynamism of these ancient people.”

Reich’s lab relied on a relatively new technique: extracting DNA from a dense piece of bone in the inner ear. This allowed the team to obtain genetic material from people who lived as long as 3,100 years ago. (Due to the warm, wet climate of the Caribbean, such DNA extraction was previously impossible.)

Working in consultation with cultural institutions and representatives of local Indigenous communities, the team analyzed DNA from 174 people who lived in Venezuela and the Caribbean over a span of almost 3,000 years, as well as 89 previously sequenced samples.

The research challenges previous estimates of the population of the island of Hispaniola—modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic—at the time of Europeans’ arrival in the 15th century. Writing for the New York Times, Reich and Orlando Patterson, a sociologist at Harvard, note that early European settlers estimated the number of people living on the islands at one to four million. More recent scholarship has placed the population at 250,000 to one million, but the new study indicates that the number was actually closer to tens of thousands.

“This study is significant to the way in which we understand how ancient people settled this region,” co-author Michael Pateman, an archaeologist at AEX Bahamas Maritime Museum, tells the Bahamas-based Eyewitness News. “Using DNA evidence to support the findings means that the results can shed new light on how we once thought the people who settled the Caribbean and the Bahamas lived their lives during the Ceramic Age.”