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Traces of indigenous "Taíno" found in present-day Caribbean populations

A thousand-year-old tooth has provided genetic evidence that the so-called "Taíno", the first indigenous Americans to feel the full impact of European colonisation after Columbus arrived in the New World, still have living descendants in the Caribbean today.

Concrete proof of indigenous ancestry

Researchers from an international team, working within the framework of the Leiden ERC Synergy project NEXUS1492, were able to use 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.

The results provide unprecedented insights into the genetic makeup of the Taíno – a label commonly used to describe the indigenous people of that region. This 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, despite the devastating effects of European colonization.

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.

Prof.dr. Corinne Hofman

New possibilities for research

Prof.dr. Corinne Hofman from Leiden University and Principal Investigator of the NEXUS1492 project, reflects on the proof: "Archaeological evidence has always suggested that large numbers of people who settled the Caribbean originated in South America, and that they maintained social networks that extended far beyond the local scale. Historically, it has been difficult to back this up with ancient DNA because of poor preservation, but this study demonstrates that it is possible to get ancient genome data from the Caribbean and that opens up fascinating new possibilities for research!"

Countering traditional historical narratives

Crucially, researchers found that the Native American component in the genomes of contemporary Puerto Ricans corresponds more closely to the ancient Taíno genome than that of 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 findings are likely to be especially significant for people in the Caribbean and elsewhere who have long claimed indigenous Taíno heritage, despite some historical narratives that inaccurately brand them "extinct". Such misrepresentations have been heavily criticised by historians and archaeologists, as well as by descendant communities in the Caribbean and elsewhere, but until now they lacked clear genetic evidence to support their case.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The research 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.

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