The seafarers who colonized the Caribbean islands in two great waves thousands of years ago were close relatives of the indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon. This shows the most comprehensive analysis ever made on the DNA of the Caribbean indigenous people. Although almost all of these peoples disappeared after the arrival of European invaders on the islands, the genome of the Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans still shows traces of their presence today.
Genomic data suggests that Palicures, an ethnic group from Northern Amapá, and piapocos, found in Venezuela and Colombia, are among the most closely related groups to the ancient Caribbean. Both speak languages of the Arawak language family, one of the most important in South America, which includes, for example, the natives of the Upper Xingu and the Pantanal.
One of the co-authors of the study, the Portuguese researcher Daniel Fernandes, who is associated with the University of Vienna and the University of Coimbra, still cannot be sure about the path of these prehistoric Argonauts. “The simplest explanation at this point is to point out the wider region in northeastern South America as the center of origin,” he says.
Fernandes signs the study, which was published this week in the journal Nature, along with the team of the American David Reich of Harvard University, who leads one of the most important centers for the study of ancient DNA in the world. The group was able to obtain genome data from 174 people who lived in the Caribbean from 3,200 to 400 years ago. In addition, he compared this information with what was already available on the DNA of 89 other people who lived in the Americas before turning to Europeans.
The first major conclusion of the study is that the settlement of the Central American islands occurred in two phases. In the first case, groups that used stone instruments and did not yet dominate the manufacture of ceramics came to the Caribbean – about 6,000 years ago, according to archeology. This initial migration probably preceded the formation of the current indigenous ethnic groups, as they were also closely related to tribes of various language families in South America, such as Tupi, Arawak, Caribbean (despite their name, also present in the Amazon region) and Guaicurus.
However, from 2,500 years on, this original wave of settlement was replaced by a new group of seafarers who dominated agriculture and the manufacture of ceramics, almost completely replacing the original inhabitants of the Caribbean. The exception appears to have been Cuba, where the archaic population, as researchers call it, survived in significant numbers until Christopher Columbus and his Spanish sailors first landed on the island around 1492.
It is the second wave to take over virtually the entire Caribbean and has close genomic ties to the Brazilian Amazon and the Arawak-speaking peoples. Although the region got its name due to the presence of ethnicities associated with the Caribbean language family, which is very different, the researchers failed to identify this differentiation in the DNA. Changes in the style of pottery over time naturally appear to have resulted from subdivisions of the same original population. “It is possible that both Arauques and Caribbean are from the same genetic set. Future studies will certainly allow researchers to revisit this topic, ”says Fernandes.
In any case, the apparent supremacy of the Arawak makes sense considering that these peoples were the Amazonian equivalent of the ancient Middle Eastern Phoenicians: a society that previously focused on long-distance transport by water (originally in canoes on the great rivers) by sea), accomplished merchants and diplomats who have formed alliances in large parts of South America.
DNA also testifies to this: in several cases, researchers found distant cousins buried on various Caribbean islands. The most extreme example is that of a man who was buried in the Bahamas while his relative died in the Dominican Republic, almost 1,000 km away. Long-distance travel by sea therefore seems to have been an important part of their culture.
The group estimates that approximately 4% of the DNA of today’s Cubans and 14% of today’s Puerto Ricans come from these populations. We are a family business.