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Christopher Columbus landing on the island of Guanahane (San Salvador) on October 12, 1492, chromolithograph from painting by Dioscoro Puebla, 1892. Photo: Everett Historical

The Taino peoples were the natives of the New World to feel perhaps the bluntest impact of the arrival of Europeans. Within decades of the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his crew, the tribes dotting the Caribbean had been essentially killed off by ravaging disease and intermittent wars of conquest and a burgeoning slave trade, as well as widespread rape of the native women.

But now a single woman’s tooth, secreted away in a cave in the Bahamas from centuries before the arrival of Europeans, shows Taino genes live on in the modern-day peoples of Puerto Rico, according to a new paper in the journal Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

The new link is the complete ancient genome – the first of its kind – from the Caribbean, dated somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries, report the scientists from the University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen.

“Many history books will tell you that the indigenous population of the Caribbean was all but wiped out, but people who self-identify as Taino have always argued for continuity,” said Hannes Schroeder, the lead author, from Copenhagen. “Now we know they were right all along: there has been some form of genetic continuity in the Caribbean.”

The Caribbean was settled by humans around 8,000 years ago, according to the scientists.

By the time of the arrival of the first European ships, the Taino tribes had come to hold sway over the islands of Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba, and Trinidad.

The tooth was found on the Eleuthera, in the Bahamian archipelago. The full genome was sequenced as part of the NEXUS1492 project, an interdisciplinary academic research project that aims to understand the first fateful meetings between native Americans and European colonizers.

That DNA was then compared against datasets containing the genes of 40 indigenous groups currently alive in the Americas. In addition, it was compared against more than 100 current-day Puerto Ricans who had taken part in the 1000 Genomes Project.

The result: some 10 to 15 percent of the Native American ancestry in the modern Puerto Ricans was closely related to the ancient DNA from the woman’s tooth on Eleuthera.

“It has always been clear that people in the Caribbean have Native American ancestry, but because the region has such a complex history of migration, it was difficult to prove whether this was specifically indigenous to the Caribbean, until now,” said Eske Willerslev, another of the authors, of both Cambridge and Copenhagen.

Advanced DNA sequencing and computer reconstruction of thousands of years of lineage have been rewriting the history of the natives in America. Just last month, a team reported they had found the first common ancestor of all the peoples of the New World – in Alaska.

 

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