According to the history books, the indigenous population of the Caribbean felt the full force of the first Spanish invasion in the 15th century. Within just 30 years – or so it has long been said – the Taíno people were wiped out by disease, slavery, and the brutal practices of the occupying Europeans.
But new molecular evidence is rewriting this history. While many Caribbean communities have long insisted that they are in fact descended from the “extinct” Taíno, science can now finally back them up. Researchers have sequenced the first full ancient genome of a pre-European Caribbean, and found that the genes of these “extinct” people still persist to this day within many native islanders.
“It's a fascinating finding,” said Dr Hannes Schroeder, who led the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “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.”
The genetic analysis of the early inhabitants of the Caribbean was only made possible through the discovery of skeletal remains in a cave on Eleuthera, which is part of the Bahamas. Archaeologists were actually searching for evidence of the first European settlers, but as they dug through the layers of the cave, they came across objects dating to the first indigenous communities to have lived on the land, including a few burials.
Considering the hot, humid nature of the Caribbean, researchers initially thought it unlikely that any meaningful amount of DNA might survive in the bones. But to their amazement, they managed to fully extract and then sequence the genome of a woman who lived on Eleuthera some 1,000 years ago, at least half a millennium before the Spanish turned up.
The team then compared this genome from the Bahamas to that of people living on Puerto Rico, revealing that they were actually more closely related to this ancient woman than to any other indigenous South American group. While this initial study only looked at one modern-day group of people, the researchers are fairly confident that the same will be true of other Caribbean communities.
What is more, the ancient genome can also shed light on how people first came to inhabit the archipelago, which is thought to have been the last part of the Americas to have been settled some 8,000 years ago. The genetics show that the indigenous Caribbean islanders are most closely related to other groups from northern South America, and can potentially trace their origins as far back as the Amazon and Orinoco Basins.