An ancient tooth has proven Taíno indigenous Americans are not extinct, as long believed, but have living descendants in the Caribbean today.
Researchers made the discovery when they used the 1,000-year-old tooth to sequence the first complete ancient human genome from the Caribbean. The tooth was found in a cave on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas and belonged to a woman who lived at least 500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot in the region.
The research is published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Taíno were one of the biggest indigenous groups in the Caribbean and were the first to bear the brunt of European colonization after the arrival of Columbus. As a result, many historians had believed the group was extinct.
The tooth-derived genome is the first concrete genetic evidence that Taíno ancestry survives to this day. Scientists compared the ancient Bahamian genome to those of contemporary Puerto Ricans and discovered they were more closely related to the Taíno than to any other indigenous group in the Americas. This is likely to also be true of other Caribbean communities, the researchers said.
Lead author Eske Willerslev, who has posts at both the University of Cambridge, U.K., and the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement: "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."
The research also revealed genetic links between the Taíno and contemporary residents of northern South America. Arawakan languages, like the one spoken by the Taíno, developed in the Amazon and Orinoco Basins.
Confirms long-held beliefs of descendants
The news will come as no surprise to descendants who have been telling their children about their Taíno ancestors for years.
The study’s other lead author, Hannes Schroeder from the University of Copenhagen, called the finding fascinating.
"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," he said in a statement. "Now we know they were right all along: there has been some form of genetic continuity in the Caribbean."
Jorge Estevez, a Taíno descendent working at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, assisted the project team. “I wish my grandmother were alive today so that I could confirm to her what she already knew," he said. "It shows that the true story is one of assimilation, certainly, but not total extinction.”
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