History suggests that the Taino, the indigenous tribe that had once made up a significant chunk of several Caribbean countries’ populations, might have gone “extinct” shortly after Christopher Columbus made his way to the Bahamas in 1492. But recent analysis of a 1,000-year-old tooth suggests that these natives might not have vanished completely, as their DNA reportedly can be found in today’s Puerto Ricans.
The team of researchers led by University of Copenhagen archaeologist Hannes Schroeder made their discovery at Preacher’s Cave in the northern part of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas. According to Ars Technica, the researchers found three “relatively complete” skeletons, as well as a single tooth that did not match those from any of the three skeletons. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the tooth was over a thousand years old, which placed it at least 500 years before Europeans first made contact with Caribbean natives.
The researchers believe that the tooth belonged to a woman from the Lucayan Taino tribe, which are the people who first settled in the Bahamas about 1,500 years ago. The woman is thought to have lived about 500 to 700 years before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, and as Schroeder and his team noted, she might have been part of a large “effective population” of about 1,600 people in a 320-square-mile island capable of reproducing.
After analyzing the DNA from the tooth, the researchers compared the woman’s genes to those of modern Puerto Ricans. Based on their findings, the unmasked Native American parts of these present-day Puerto Rican genomes, which make up a share of about 10 to 15 percent, are similar to those found in the Taino woman’s tooth. This suggests that the Taino tribe could, in a way, live on up to the present. The researchers, however, believe that the genetic similarities today’s Puerto Ricans have with the ancient Taino are not unusual among modern-day Caribbeans.
The new findings could challenge old theories on how and why the Taino had suddenly disappeared in the early 16th century. While most experts believe that slavery and diseases such as smallpox contributed to their dying out before they could pass down their genes to modern-day Caribbean people, many people insistently claim to have descended from the ancient Taino tribe, as observed by Vanderbilt University genetic anthropologist Jada Benn Torres. Speaking to Science magazine, she said that it isn’t unusual for indigenous Caribbeans to maintain that they are part of the Taino tribe, even if they are often told that their purported ancestors had long died out.
“They are adamant about their continuous existence, that they’ve always been [on these islands]. So to see it reflected in the ancient DNA, it’s great.”
Apart from possibly finding genetic proof to suggest that the Taino tribe might not have gone extinct after all, the researchers also discovered some interesting insights on the ancient population’s origins. According to the Daily Mail, Schroeder and his team found that the Taino could trace their origins to Arawakan-speaking populations who still can be found in the northern part of South America in modern times. This could point to at least a small percentage of the tribe’s ancestors having come from the Amazon and Orinoco Basins.