A new study finds close genetic links between ancient Taino and modern Puerto Ricans, calling into question old assumptions that Taino people – who once populated what is now the U.S. Virgin Islands and the wider Caribbean – ever really went away.
The study released last month by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences puts in place another piece of the Taino puzzle.
Science Magazine recently wrote about a team of researchers led by Hannes Schroeder, DNA researcher for the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen, who examined ancient skeletal samples located in the Preacher’s Cave of the Bahamas. In their search, they found a tooth from a Lucayan Taino woman containing DNA that denoted a close link not only to native groups who migrated from northern South America to the Caribbean about 2,500 years ago, but also to the genetic makeup of populations currently living in Puerto Rico.
The Science Magazine article cites researchers and experts in Taino culture saying many scholars doubted the continued heritage of the Taino people. Spanish accounts of colonization in the Caribbean asserted that they had been undoubtedly wiped out only a few decades after making contact with the Europeans.
One expert cited a conversation with a teacher in which he had to insist upon his Taino heritage, and one anthropologist even went as far as saying that the Taino had been “wiped from history.”
David Brewer, the senior archaeologist at the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office, disagrees with that sentiment.
“We are still fascinated by them as a people and want to know as much as we can about how they met the challenges of living in the Caribbean, as well as how they got here in the first place. So, no, they haven’t been written out of history … we anthropologists and archaeologists are writing more and more about them all the time, and the learning curve has been tremendous over the last – say – 50 years, when virtually no one knew about the Taino other than a few academics,” Brewer said in a recent interview.
Brewer did acknowledge fervent attempts made to preserve pieces of Taino culture that may have otherwise been lost to the effects of colonization.
“It is true that the Taino culture has been lost in the historical process of conquest, the spread of European disease and hegemony, enslavement, and even intermarriage,” he said.
“I should make it clear as well, that there are many groups, both those with a vested family interest and those who are just interested, who are attempting to restore and even recreate that culture, and the more we know from the evidence (usually archaeological, but some early written historical accounts as well), the better those efforts will bear fruition. In the end however, the recreation of the Taino culture would be the province of a special interest group,” Brewer continued.
The findings of the study are also an archaeological marvel, experts say. The heat and humidity of the Caribbean presents a challenge for the preservation of DNA and artifacts, as Brewer explained.
“DNA is difficult to extract intact even under the best circumstances in the Caribbean, but this tooth was found under ideal conditions (an underwater cave), and is only about 1,300 years old. Concerning artifacts, it depends on the material it is composed of, and conditions at the site from which it is recovered. Obviously, paper, cordage, hair, wood, and small bones deteriorate quickly, when exposed to intermittent wet and dry environments,” Brewer said.
“Ceramics hold up exceptionally well because of the alchemical process of firing the clay – for which it ought to be noted, was the technology developed generally by the women and taught to the daughters. It is an archaeological rule of thumb that if an artifact is kept continually dry (in a cave, a desert, even an old attic), or continually wet (under water, wet mud – and little oxygen), they will be best preserved. It’s the variation in temperature and humidity that usually causes the deterioration,” he said.
Brewer said there are special interest groups that preserve some of the more historical parts of Taino culture. Maekiaphan Phillips, president of the native interests group Opi’a Taino said the study gave her considerable satisfaction. She also said DNA tests showed she had Native American ancestry and ties to Puerto Rico, where the study found links between modern residents and ancient DNA.
“I am happy that it has all come full circle, and proven to many that we are not extinct. We are very much a part of the Caribbean, and it is great that we have this study to prove it to those outside of here,” Phillips said in a recent interview.
She spoke of her efforts to learn her heritage, and teach it to others.
“When I first had a DNA test done to determine my heritage, they told me the results showed that I was Native American, but it did not say much else. Since then, I have fought for the recognition of the native people of the Caribbean. Opi’a Taino teaches children about the heritage and keeps the culture alive. Though much of my work has been lost in the hurricanes, I won’t start over without recognition of the people,” she said.
“Later on I had mitochondrial sequencing done, and the results showed that I had ties to people living in Puerto Rico. In my research I found that I have many relatives living throughout St. Croix, and many of the natives in St. Croix have ancestors from Vieques, Puerto Rico,” Phillips continued.
Phillips maintained the importance of understanding heritage.
“It is my goal to have a similar study done in the V.I. Mixing in the Caribbean is so prevalent and many people do not know the history. We must learn who we are in order to teach the children who they are,” she said.
“Studies like this have the power to bring families closer together, I was born and raised in St. Thomas, and until I did the research I had no idea that my neighbors were my family. I will continue to push for recognition of my people in the Virgin Islands so that my grandchildren and their grandchildren can know their history,” Phillips added.
Questions of heritage continue to be a puzzle for scientists, historians, and people longing to learn of their history. Through the use of written records and genetic testing, researchers aim to learn more about ancient cultures, and to also introduce people to unknown parts of their identity.
Those interested can donate to Opi’a Taino and the group’s hurricane relief efforts online at https://opiataino.com/.