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|SUBJECT ||Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Native Populations in the Caribian before
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Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Native Populations in the Caribian before
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Invaders nearly wiped out Caribbean=92s first people long before Spanish
came, DNA reveals
By Andrew Lawler
Painting by Merald Clark, Stone Interchanges in the Bahama Archipelago
Caribbean traders approach an island in the Bahamas, part of an ancient
exchange network that knit the islands together before the arrival of
Painting by Merald Clark, Stone Interchanges in the Bahama Archipelago
New genetic data from ancient bones suggests a wave of South American
seafarers wreaked havoc on Caribbean islanders.
PUBLISHED December 23, 2020
Spanning a million square miles and dotted with more than 700 islands,
the Caribbean Sea was one of the last places colonized by Native
Americans as they explored and settled North and South America.
Archaeologists have long struggled to pinpoint the origins and movements
of those intrepid seafarers. Now, thanks to genetic material gleaned
from the bones of ancient Caribbean residents, the invisible history of
this tropical archipelago is coming to light.
Among the surprising findings is that most of the Caribbean=92s original
inhabitants may have been wiped out by South American newcomers a
thousand years before the Spanish invasion that began in 1492. Moreover,
indigenous populations of islands like Puerto Rico and Hispaniola were
likely far smaller at the time of the Spanish arrival than previously
Extracting DNA from bones in warm, wet places like the Caribbean was
impossible until a few years ago. But thanks to recent advances in
genetic technology, a Harvard University lab run by geneticist David
Reich was able to recover DNA from 174 individuals excavated at sites
from Venezuela to the Bahamas.
The results, published December 23 in the journal Nature, follow on the
heels of a July paper in Science that analyzed the genomes of 93 ancient
Caribbean individuals at a University of Copenhagen lab. Because of the
breakthrough, =93we are able to paint a very detailed picture of the early
migration history of the Caribbean,=94 said Johannes Krause, director of
the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and a
co-author of the Science paper.
Both studies confirm that a wave of pottery-making farmers=97known as
Ceramic Age people=97set out in canoes from the northeastern coast of
South America starting some 2,500 years ago and island-hopped across the
Caribbean. They were not, however, the first colonizers. On many islands
they encountered a foraging people who arrived some 6,000 or 7,000 years
ago from the coasts of Central America and northern South America.
The foragers=97known as Archaic Age people=97seem to have largely vanished
soon after the newcomers appeared. There are only limited genetic traces
of Archaic individuals in the Ceramic Age people, a sign that the two
groups rarely mixed. The ceramicists, who are related to today=92s
Arawak-speaking peoples, supplanted the earlier foraging
inhabitants=97presumably through disease or violence=97as they settled new
But there are intriguing exceptions that paint a more complex picture of
the interactions between these two distinct peoples.
=93The remarkable thing is that the Archaic way of life seems to survive
in western Cuba until about 900 C.E.,=94 said William Keegan, an
archaeologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History and a co-author
of the Nature study. =93They apparently lived unmolested and with little
One of the most provocative findings of the Harvard study is that the
indigenous populations of large islands like Puerto Rico and Hispaniola
were far smaller at the time of the Spanish arrival than Spanish records
A decade after Columbus arrived, a Spanish friar estimated that there
were as many as 3.5 million people on Hispaniola, today=92s Haiti and
Dominican Republic. But extrapolations from the genetic data, based on
new mathematical models, point to only tens of thousands of inhabitants.
That calls into question the old assumption that hundreds of thousands,
if not millions, of indigenous people died from disease and other
impacts of the European invasion.
The Harvard study was based on DNA recovered from the skeletal remains
of 174 individuals, including this Lucayan woman who lived in the
Bahamas in the 1300s. The Lucayan people practiced cranial flattening,
as indicated by the shape of her skull.
Photograph courtesy William F. Keegan, Florida Museum
=93This new approach of estimating past population sizes has the potential
to revolutionize our view of past migration and cultural changes,=94 said
While large numbers of indigenous people died after the arrival of the
Spanish, genetic studies show that their DNA survives in modern-day
islanders, mixed with genes from later European colonizers and enslaved
Many indigenous groups have alleged that geneticists=97often white
Europeans and Americans=97don=92t consult with them, or show proper respect
for their traditions, while investigating their origins. In this case,
however, the Nature authors said they collaborated with descendant
communities as well as local Caribbean scholars in gathering and
analyzing their data. The research was supported in part by a grant from
the National Geographic Society.
One mystery yet to be resolved is how relatively small island
populations avoided inbreeding over so many centuries. There is no sign
of any subsequent major migrations from the mainland. But archaeologists
say the new evidence points to extensive island-to-island contacts that
likely helped ensure genetic diversity.
Archaeologist Michael Pateman and local resident Anthony Maillis begin
excavating a dune on Long Island in the Bahamas. A 2015 hurricane eroded
the dune and exposed human bones
=85 Read More Photograph courtesy William F. Keegan, Florida Museum
The research published in Nature =93highlighted the connectivity of
peoples in the region,=94 said Jada Benn Torres, a Vanderbilt University
genetic anthropologist who was not directly involved in the study.
Torres and her colleagues say a next step is to understand the links
among islands in what remained a relatively closed system until the
Spanish arrived in 1492.
=93This was a dynamic and interconnected region of the world,=94 said Miguel
Vilar, a University of Maryland anthropologist. The history of the
Caribbean, he said, =93is finally being understood through DNA in ways
that archaeology alone hasn't been able to do before.=94
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