Researchers from the University of Cophenhagan in Denmark have found that descendants of the first indigenous Americans – the Tainos are still living in the Caribbean today.
It was previously believed that the Tainos became “extinct” shortly after the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
However, the researchers used the tooth of a woman found in a cave on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas to sequence the first complete ancient human genome from the Caribbean.
The woman lived at some point between the 8th and 10th centuries, at least 500 years before Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas.
According to the researchers, the results provide “unprecedented insights into the genetic makeup of the Taíno” and 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. None of these, however, was able to draw on an ancient genome.
The new research finally provides concrete proof that indigenous ancestry in the region has survived to the present day.
The researchers, in comparing the ancient Bahamian genome to those of contemporary Puerto Ricans, found that they were more closely related to the ancient Taíno than any other indigenous group in the Americas.
However, they 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 study was carried out by an international team of researchers led by Dr Hannes Schroeder and Professor Eske Willerslev within the framework of the ERC Synergy project NEXUS1492.
The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
“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,” said lead author Schroeder,who carried out the research as part of the NEXUS1492 .
Willerslev, who has dual posts at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen, said: “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.”
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.
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.
To trace the genetic origins of the Lucayans the researchers compared the ancient Bahamian genome with previously published genome-wide datasets for over 40 present-day indigenous groups from the Americas.
In addition, they looked for traces of indigenous Caribbean ancestry in present-day populations by comparing the ancient genome with those of 104 contemporary Puerto Ricans included in the 1000 Genomes Project.
Although indigenous Caribbean communities were island-based, the researchers found very little genomic evidence of isolation or inbreeding in the ancient genome.