An illustration shows Christopher Columbus encountering a group of native people in the Bahamas. Photo by the Library of Congress
Feb. 21 (UPI) -- The discovery and analysis of an ancient tooth has offered scientists new insights into the genetic makeup of the Taíno people, one of the largest indigenous groups occupying the Caribbean at the time of Columbus' arrival.
Their research suggests the genetic legacy of the Taíno people continues today among the people of the modern Caribbean.
The tooth was discovered in a cave on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. It belonged to a woman living sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, 500 years before the Santa María brought Columbus and the first Europeans to the Caribbean.
The newly discovered tooth allowed scientists to sequence the first human genome of the indigenous people of the Caribbean, revealing the group's genetic history in new detail.
The findings suggest many modern Caribbean inhabitants can trace their lineage to the Taíno people. Groups throughout the Caribbean claim Taíno heritage, but some historical narratives have described the indigenous people as "extinct." The latest results -- published this week in the journal PNAS -- suggest otherwise.
"It's a fascinating finding. 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," Hannes Schroeder, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, said in a news release. "Now we know they were right all along: there has been some form of genetic continuity in the Caribbean."
"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, a professor with posts at both Copenhagen and Cambridge University in England.
Thanks to the ancient tooth, scientists were also able to trace the roots of the Taíno people. Analysis showed the Taíno were most closely related to Arawakan-speaking groups living in northern South America.
Native American groups only began populating the Caribbean some 8,000 years ago, and the
Taíno people were just one of several groups that carried the cultural and genetic signatures of their South American ancestors to the islands.
Despite their new life on the islands, the genomic data suggests the indigenous people of the Caribbean were not isolated. The newly sequenced genome revealed little evidence of inbreeding, suggesting the Caribbean has been a dynamic place for much of its human history.
"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," said Corinne Hofman, a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. "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 obtain ancient genomes from the Caribbean and that opens up fascinating new possibilities for research."