The genes of the "extinct" Caribbean islanders are found in living people

    Abdulaziz Sobh


    Jorge Estévez grew up in the Dominican Republic and in New York City when he heard stories of his native Caribbean ancestors from his mother and grandmother. But when he told his teachers that he is Taino, an indigenous Caribbean, they said that was impossible. "According to the Spanish accounts, we became extinct 30 years after [European] contact," says Estevez, an expert on Taino cultures at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.Many scientists and historians still believe that the Taínos were annihilated by diseases, slavery and other brutal consequences of European colonization without transmitting any gene to people in the Caribbean today. But a new genetic study of a 1000-year-old skeleton from the Bahamas shows that at least one modern Caribbean population is related to precontact indigenous peoples of the region, offering direct molecular evidence against the idea of Taino "extinction."These indigenous communities were taken out of history," says Jada Benn Torres, a genetic anthropologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who studies the history of the Caribbean population and has worked with native groups on several islands. "They are inflexible about their continued existence, that they have always been [on these islands]," she says. "So to see it reflected in the old DNA, it's great."The skeletal remains come from a place called Preacher's Cave on Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas. Archaeologists began digging there in the early 2000s to probe the first European arrivals of the Bahamas: Puritans who took refuge in the cave after a shipwreck. While digging, they also found older artifacts associated with the island's indigenous precontact culture, including a handful of well-preserved burials.At that time, Hannes Schroeder, a former DNA researcher at the University of Copenhagen, was looking for skeletons from the Caribbean that could test DNA, although he knew that success was a remote possibility. DNA deteriorates faster in hot, humid environments than in cold, dry ones. Searching for ancient DNA in the Caribbean "were unexplored waters," he says. He tested the teeth of five burials in the preacher's cave, and in the end, only one had DNA intact enough to sequence. But when it comes to the ancient DNA of the tropics, that tooth was a bonanza.
    The tooth belonged to a woman who lived about 1000 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating. Schroeder's team sequenced each nucleotide base of its genome an average of 12.4 times, providing the most complete genetic picture of a Taino individual precontact to date, they report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "It's a feat to work with tropical samples," says María Nieves-Colón, a geneticist who studies ancient and modern Caribbean populations at the National Genomics for Biodiversity Laboratory in Irapuato, Mexico, and at Arizona State University in Tempe. .
    The DNA of the Taino woman rescues archaeological evidence about her ancestors and their culture. When Schroeder's team compared its genome with those of other groups of Native Americans, they discovered that it was more closely related to speakers of Arawak languages in northern South America. The first tools and ceramics of the Caribbean are surprisingly similar to those found in the excavations there, archaeologists have argued for a long time.
    The two lines of evidence suggest that about 2500 years ago, the woman's ancestors migrated from the northern coast of South America to the Caribbean, instead of reaching the islands through the Yucatan Peninsula or Florida. It seems that once the people arrived, they did not stay. Archaeologists know that ceramics and other products were exchanged between islands, indicating frequent trips. In addition, the genome of the Taino woman does not contain long repetitive sequences characteristic of inbred populations. His community, therefore, probably spread over many islands and was not limited to Eleuthera of 500 square kilometers. "It looks like an interconnected network of people who exchange goods, services, and genes," says William Schaffer, a bioarchaeologist at Phoenix College in Arizona who helped dig the remains in Preacher's Cave.
    Genetic studies of modern populations have found that many people from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and several other Caribbean islands have significant indigenous ancestry, in addition to genes inherited from European and African populations. Even so, it is possible that these people do not descend from Taíno, but from other Native Americans who, like many Africans, were forcibly taken to the islands as slaves. But when Schroeder compared the genomes of modern Puerto Ricans with the genome of the ancient Taíno woman, he concluded that they descend in part from an indigenous population closely related to hers. "It's almost as if the ancient Taíno individual they see is the cousin of the ancestors of Puerto Rican people," says Nieves-Colón. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she, like Estevez, was always told that the Taíno became extinct. "You know what, these people did not disappear, in fact, they're still here, they're in us."
    Estevez, who founded the cultural organization Higuayagua Taíno del Caribe, did not need an old DNA study to tell him who he is. Thanks to his family's oral history and cultural practices, he says, he has always had a strong connection to his indigenous ancestry. But he hopes the new study will convince skeptics that the Taínos are alive and kicking. "It's another nail in the extinction coffin," he says.


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