When Dr. Juan Aviles went to school in Puerto Rico, the teachers taught him that the original inhabitants of the island, the Taino, disappeared shortly after the colonization by Spain. Violence, disease and forced labor have wiped them out and destroyed their culture and language, the teachers said, and the colonizers populated the island with enslaved people, including indigenous people 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 used also descended 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 graduate school, actively uses them 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 after something.
For example, a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature shows that around 14 percent of people in Puerto Rico can trace their ancestors back to the Taino. Fewer numbers of people in Cuba (4 percent) and the Dominican Republic (6 percent) can say the same thing.
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 smaller than previously 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 seem to have lived primarily as hunters and gatherers, catching game on the islands, fishing at sea and at the same time tending small gardens with crops.
Archaeologists have discovered some burials of these ancient people. From the early 2000s, geneticists managed to fish out a few tiny pieces of preserved DNA in their bones. Significant advances in recent years have made it possible to extract entire genomes from ancient skeletons.
“We went from zero full genomes two years ago to over 200 now,” 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 residents 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 distinctive deep line,” 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 set sail 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, which is more than 3,000 years old, have not yet found ancient DNA. The other problem is that ancient DNA is still scarce on the mainland Caribbean coast. “There’s a lot that we can’t see because we don’t have ancient 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. The people lived in larger settlements and intensively cultivated crops such as corn and sweet potatoes. Their ceramics became more sophisticated and elaborate. For archaeologists, the change means the end of the so-called 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 skeletons from the Ceramic Age 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 remarkable resemblance to words from a South American language family called Arawak. The DNA of the Caribbean from the Ceramic Age most closely resembles that of living Arawak speakers.
In the ceramic age 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. The people of ceramic ancestry dominated the Caribbean without the two groups crossing.
“It seems like the archaics have been overwhelmed by the pottery,” 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 findings surprised him in many ways and asked him a number of new questions to investigate.
In the course of the ceramic age, for example, strikingly new styles of pottery emerged every few centuries. Researchers have long suspected that these shifts reflected the arrival of new groups of people 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 Pottery Age. They found 19 pairs of people on different islands sharing identical pieces of DNA – a sign that they were pretty close relatives. In one case, they found cousins from afar from the Bahamas and Puerto Rico that were over 800 miles apart.
This finding contradicts influential theories in archeology.
“The original idea was that people start in one place, set up a colony in another, and then just cut ties with their origins,” said Dr. Keegan. “But the genetic evidence suggests that these ties 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 regularly toured in dugout canoes. “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 European contact. Christopher Columbus’ brother Bartholomew sent letters back to Spain in which the number was in the millions. The DNA suggests this was overkill: the genetic variations suggest the total population was only tens of thousands.
Colonization shocked the Caribbean world and changed its genetic profile drastically. Nevertheless, people from the ceramic era managed to pass their genes on to future generations. And now, with a population of roughly 44 million people, the Caribbean may contain more Taino DNA than it does in 1,491.
“Now we have this evidence to show that we weren’t extinct, we just mixed up and we’re still here,” said Dr. Aviles.
His fascination with researching Caribbean DNA recently led him to 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 advised 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 to the ancient genomes. You can see the appropriate sections of genetic material that reveal their relationships.
Sometimes Dr. Aviles plans to explain this to his late grandmother. “But first I would apologize for not believing her,” he said, “because she was exactly right.”