Historic DNA Exhibits People Settled Caribbean in 2 Distinct Waves

When Dr. Juan Aviles went to school in Puerto Rico, the teachers taught him that the island’s indigenous people, the Taino, disappeared shortly after Spain colonized them. Violence, disease and forced labor wiped them out, destroyed their culture and language, the teachers said, and the colonizers populated the island with enslaved people, including indigenous peoples from Central and South America and Africans.

But at home, Dr. Aviles another story. His grandmother told him that they were descended from Taino ancestors and that some of the words they used were also from the Taino language.

“But my grandmother had to drop out of second grade, so I didn’t trust her at first,” said Dr. Aviles, now a doctor in Goldsboro, NC

Dr. Aviles, who studied genetics at the graduate school, took action to connect people in the Caribbean to their genealogical history. And recent research in the field has led him to discover that his grandmother was on to something.

For example, a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature shows that an average of about 14 percent of the ancestors of the people in Puerto Rico go back to the Taino. In Cuba it is around four percent, while in the Dominican Republic it is closer to six percent.

These and similar results based on DNA found in ancient Caribbean skeletons offer new insights into the history of the region. They show, for example, that the Caribbean islands were populated by the mainland in two different waves and that the human population of the islands was also lower than originally assumed. But those who lived in the islands before the colonial contact were not completely wiped out; Millions of people living today have inherited their DNA, along with traces of their traditions and languages.

Before the advent of Caribbean genetic studies, archaeologists provided most of the clues as to the origins of people in the area. The first human inhabitants of the Caribbean appear to have lived primarily as hunters and gatherers, catching game on the islands and fishing at sea while also tending small gardens of crops.

Archaeologists have discovered some burials of these ancient people. In the early 2000s, geneticists managed to fish a few tiny pieces of preserved DNA out of their bones. Significant advances in recent years have made it possible to extract entire genomes from ancient skeletons.

“We went from zero complete genomes two years ago to over 200,” said Maria Nieves-Colón, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Minnesota who was not involved in the new study.

The genes of the oldest known Caribbean inhabitants link them to the earliest populations to settle in Central and South America.

“It’s a Native American population, of course, but it’s a very strong, deep lineage,” said David Reich, co-author of the study and a geneticist at Harvard Medical School.

But it is not yet exactly clear from where on the mainland these early Indigenous Americans sailed in dugout canoes to reach the Caribbean islands.

“I don’t think we’re as close to an answer as we thought,” said Dr. Nieves-Colón, co-author of another large-scale genetic study in July.

Part of the problem is that scientists in the Caribbean have yet to find ancient DNA that is more than 3,000 years old. The other problem is that ancient DNA is still scarce on the Caribbean coast of the mainland. “There is a lot we can’t see because we don’t have old DNA,” said Dr. Nieves-Colón.

About 2,500 years ago, according to archaeological records, there was a drastic change in the cultural life of the Caribbean. People began to live in larger settlements and intensively cultivate crops such as corn and sweet potatoes. Their ceramics became more refined and artful. For archaeologists, the change means the end of what they call the Archaic Age and the beginning of a Ceramic Age.

Dr. Nieves-Colón and other researchers have found that the DNA of the Caribbean islanders has also changed at the same time. The ceramic age skeletons largely shared a new genetic signature. Their DNA connects them to small tribes that still live in Colombia and Venezuela today.

It is possible that the migrants from the Caribbean coast of South America brought with them the languages ​​that were still spoken when Columbus arrived 2,000 years later. We don’t know much about these languages, although some words have survived. Hurricane, for example, comes from Hurakán, the Taino name for the god of storms.

These words bear a striking resemblance to words from a language family in South America called Arawak. The Ceramic Age Caribbean DNA most closely resembles the living Arawak speakers.

In the ceramic age records, it becomes difficult to find people with many archaic ancestors. They seem to have survived in some places, like western Cuba, until they disappeared about 1,000 years ago. People with ancestors from the Ceramic Age dominated the Caribbean, with the two groups almost never crossing each other.

“It seems like the archaics were simply overwhelmed by the ceramics,” said William Keegan, archaeologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History and co-author of the new study.

Dr. Keegan, who has studied Caribbean archeology for over three decades, said the new DNA results surprised him in many ways and raised a myriad of new questions.

In the course of the ceramic age, strikingly new styles of pottery emerged every few centuries. Researchers have long suspected that these shifts reflected the arrival of new populations on the islands. However, the old DNA doesn’t support this idea. There is genetic continuity through these drastic cultural changes. It appears that the same group of people in the Caribbean went through a number of important social changes that archaeologists have yet to explain.

Dr. Reich and his fellow geneticists also discovered family ties that stretched across the Caribbean during the Ceramic Age. They found 19 pairs of people on different islands sharing identical segments of DNA – a sign that they were pretty close relatives. In one case, they found distant cousins ​​from the Bahamas and Puerto Rico over 800 miles apart.

This finding contradicts influential theories in archeology.

“The original idea was that people would start in one place, set up a colony elsewhere, and then just cut all ties with their place of origin,” said Dr. Keegan. “But the genetic evidence suggests these connections were sustained over a long period of time.”

In other words, the Caribbean was not made up of isolated communities, but was a busy long-distance network that people dug touring on a regular basis. “The water is like a highway,” said Dr. Nieves-Colón.

The genetic variations made it possible for Dr. Reich and his colleague also wanted to assess the size of Caribbean society before making contact with Europe. Christopher Columbus’ brother, Bartholomew, sent letters back to Spain in which the number was in the millions. The DNA suggests this was overdone: the genetic variations suggest the total population was only tens of thousands.

Colonization shocked the Caribbean world and drastically changed its genetic profile. Nevertheless, the people of the ceramic era managed to pass their genes on to future generations. And now, with a population of roughly 44 million people, the Caribbean could contain more Taino DNA than it did in 1,491.

“Now we have this evidence that shows that we weren’t extinct, we just mixed up and are still there,” said Dr. Aviles.

His fascination with researching Caribbean DNA recently led him to co-found the Council of Native Caribbean Heritage. The organization helps people find their own connections to the Caribbean’s distant past. Dr. Aviles and his colleagues met with Dr. Reich and other researchers advise to discuss the direction of the research and use it to understand their own history.

Dr. Aviles and his colleagues uploaded the ancient Caribbean genomes to a genealogical database called GEDMatch. With the help of genealogists, people can compare their own DNA with the ancient genomes. You can see the matching sections of genetic material that reveal their relatedness.

Sometimes Dr. Aviles proposed to explain all of this to his late grandmother. “But first I would apologize for not believing her,” he said, “because she was spot on.”