Ancient DNA Reveals Untold Story Of Caribbean's First Islanders

A new study sheds light on the Caribbean's first islanders and pieced together the story of how this archipelago became inhabited long before European colonizers arrived in the Americas. Umomos/Shutterstock.com

Using the largest study of ancient Caribbean DNA to date, researchers have shed light on the Caribbean's first islanders and pieced together the story of how the archipelago became inhabited thousands of years ago. Like many other ancient DNA studies, it's upended some old assumptions about the past and brought new questions to the table.

As reported in the journal Nature, a multi-national team of geneticists, archaeologists, and anthropologists, including Caribbean-based researchers, have analyzed the genomes of 174 new and 89 previously sequenced people who lived in the Bahamas, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Curaçao, and Venezuela, between 400 and 3,100 years ago. They received special permission to carry out the study from local governments and cultural institutions who act as caretakers of the remains, involving representatives of Caribbean Indigenous communities in the discussion of their findings.

Combined with archaeological discoveries, they found that the first human settlers in the Caribbean appear to be a group of stone tool-users who sailed to Cuba about 6,000 years ago at the start of the area’s Archaic Age. The precise identity of these first inhabitants remains unclear. While they appear to bear some genetic resemblance to people in Central and South America, not North America, their DNA could not be matched to any known Indigenous group. 

However, archaeological evidence does hint at some connection to other parts of the Americas. The researchers note that artifacts in Cuba are strikingly similar to those found in Belize, a Caribbean nation in mainland Central America, suggesting there could be some link to other parts of Central America, as opposed to South America. 

Some archaeologists pointed to dramatic shifts in Caribbean pottery styles as evidence of new migrations, but genetics show all of the styles were created by one group of people over time. Corinne Hofman and Menno Hoogland

A second major wave of migration appeared to usher in the Ceramic Age when more sea-farers from the northeastern coast of South America voyaged to the Caribbean islands some 2,500 years ago, likely first settling in Puerto Rico before moving westward. During this time, the Caribbean islands were home to highly mobile people, with distant relatives often living on different islands. 

Among their key findings, the team also discovered that the population found in the Caribbean's largest islands, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, appeared to be surprisingly small during this time, likely no more than a few tens of thousands of people. This stands in stark contrast to the reports of 16th-century European historians who argued that millions of people inhabited the islands at the time of their arrival. However, the researchers were quick to stress that this smaller population should not downplay the catastrophic impact of European colonization on Indigenous Caribbean culture.

"This was a systematic program of cultural erasure. The fact that the number was not 1 million or millions of people, but rather tens of thousands, does not make that erasure any less significant," David Reich, professor of genetics at the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.

The genetic legacy of these migratory waves can still be found in the region today. Sifting through this genetic data, it was found that people living in some parts of Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rica still carry genetic sequences that come from Ceramic Age people, as well as DNA inherited from colonizing Europeans and people of African descent who were unwillingly brought to this part of the world during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Unusually, however, there was barely any genetic trace of Archaic Age ancestry in modern-day people.

"That's a big mystery," William Keegan, study co-author and curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "For Cuba, it's especially curious that we don't see more Archaic ancestry."

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