New Study Finds Taíno DNA Is Still Present Despite Paper Genocide Perpetrated By European Colonizers

The island now named Puerto Rico was once home to between 30 and 70 thousand people collectively known as Taíno. They all descended from various ethnic groups that settled on the island as far back in history as 3,000 B.C. In the 15th century, after the colonizers arrived, the official story was that a century of conquistadores wiped any trace of these indigenous peoples. They were thought to be extinct —or so said the official recordings.

A DNA study last year found that 61 percent of all Puerto Ricans and roughly a third of Cubans and Dominicans have Native American mitochondrial DNA.

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It was a common belief —until now— that Puerto Rico’s indigenous Taíno people were exterminated shortly after the Spanish conquista took place in 1511. “[The indigenous people] show the most singular loving behavior… and are gentle and always laughing,” Columbus recorded. Conquistador Diego Velázquez’s arrival in 1511 would change that forever. Those Taíno who had never before been put to the sword or worked to death fell victim to smallpox, influenza, and measles. The diseases from Europe presented a biological attack the native people could not survive. Within 100 years of Columbus’ landfall, virtually the entire indigenous population – heavily concentrated in the fertile lowlands of eastern Cuba – had perished. Yet contrary to popular belief, Taíno bloodlines, identity, and customs were never completely extinguished.

The overall population of the Taíno people fell dramatically after being submitted to forced relocations, starvation, disease, and slavery. Colonizers killed off the population during the savage and brutal conquest of the New World. They even removed them from censuses. “Christian converts”, “Wives of colonists” and “other” were some of the categories they were put into. These official records and other colonial documents have reinforced the narrative that the indigenous peoples were completely extinguished. 

The tribe’s supposed extinction was a ‘paper genocide,’ according to experts.

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Recently, people from all over the Caribbean have spoken out to National Geographic, declaring that they identify as Taíno and that their people survive to this day. Chief Jorge Baracutei Estevez, the head of the Taíno organization Huguayagua, describes the historical wipe-out of the tribe’s existence as a ‘paper genocide.’

According to Estevez, people were made to disappear on paper: “The 1787 census in Puerto Rico lists 2,300 pure Indians in the population, but on the next census, in 1802, not a single Indian is listed,” Estevez writes. “Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Spaniards who were reluctant to free their Indian slaves simply reclassified them as African on the census, Estevez writes.”

“We’re told our past is a thing that went extinct,” says Maria Nieves-Colón, an anthropological geneticist at Arizona State University, told The Atlantic.

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Growing up in Puerto Rico, the story was different. Her friends and neighbors would share oral histories about traditions that were passed down to them from Native ancestors, who must somehow have survived to share these customs. Over the past 10 years, Nieves-Colón has been working to collect tiny fragments of DNA from ancient remains. From three archaeological sites on the island, she and her colleagues acquired 124 skeletal remains, which all dated between A.D. 500 and 1300. They then searched teeth, bones, and dental plaque for genetic fragments—a difficult task, since DNA breaks down quickly and readily in tropical conditions.

Nieves-Colón was able to confirm through genetic research, that pre-Columbian populations share DNA sequences with modern-day Puerto Ricans. 

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Her team managed to completely decipher the mitochondrial genomes from 45 precontact people, and partial nuclear genomes from two of them. These sequences confirmed that indigenous Puerto Ricans were strongly connected to Amazonian groups from Venezuela and Colombia, and likely originated from that region. They also contained genetic evidence connecting pre-colonial populations with modern ones.

Modern-day Taínos have fought to correct the historical record and claim their identity.

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“Through marriage certificates, baptismal records and a scant few census reports, I was able to identify a few family members (in the mid-1700s) who were officially ‘identified’ as Negro one year, but categorized as ‘Indio’ just a few years prior,” Maritza Luz Feliciano Potter told National Geographic. “While I don’t deny my European or African ancestry, I deeply feel it’s long due that my family relearns, remembers, and reclaims our birthrights as Indigenous Boricuas [Puerto Ricans]. We Are Taíno! We are still here!,” she continued. The modern-day Taino have fought to correct the historical record by lobbying for accurate census categories that allow them to be counted.

This research provides the first concrete proof that indigenous ancestry in the Caribbean has survived to the present day.   

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“This shows that there really are ties to populations that are indigenous to the island, and survived through colonization, and are present in modern peoples,” researcher Benn Torres told National Geographic. “This is something that some people have said all along, based on their oral histories and other ways of knowing.”

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