30th Sunday OT (A)
October 28, 2017
Six exciting years
October 28, 2017

Answers in the DNA

The diverse faces of the indigenous in the Caribbean during the water ritual at Moruga during the First Peoples’ week preceding the one-off public holiday, October 13. Photo: Elmo Griffith

By Simone Delochan, sdelochan.camsel@rcpos.org

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, for the Spanish Crown. In 1498, Trinidad was ‘discovered’. Jump forward to 1511 to another island under Spanish colonisation. A young Dominican friar, Antonio Montesinos delivers a fiery sermon to motley Spaniards in a church in Santo Domingo. New to the island of Hispaniola, he utters words which impact on Bartolome de las Casas, also a Dominican friar, landowner and owner of indigenous slaves under the encomienda system.

Montesinos demanded, “With what right and with what justice do you keep these poor Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? By what authority have you made such detestable wars against these people who lived peacefully and gently on their own lands? Are these not men?” Bartolome de las Casas reflected, and opened his eyes to the atrocities being committed. He is recorded in history as the ‘Protector of the Indians’.

The story of genocide and the cruelties experienced is a story retold along with the decimation of certain indigenous groups by the Spanish and other colonisers. But what does this history of genocide mean for the group in Santa Rosa and their claim to continuity with indigenous ancestry? Can they ascertain, beyond cultural and ritual identification, that theirs is a true and direct lineage?

The answers to these questions emerged on October 6 in a lecture hosted by the Department of Arts, Culture and Public Affairs, University of Trinidad and Tobago at NAPA.

The lecture, ‘Genetic Ancestry of Trinidad’s First Peoples’ Community’ was given by academic and geneticist in the Department of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, Jada Benn Torres. She revealed her interest in African and indigenous lineages in the anglophone islands.

Her research is part of National Geographic’s Genographic Project which seeks to trace the migratory paths of the earliest ancestors out of Africa. She stated, “from genetic tests done, humans are 99.9 per cent similar but it is in that last 0.1 per cent that there is interest”. It is in that 0.1 per cent that the genetic differences lie.

Her research questions were manifold: What does DNA suggest about where indigenous Caribbean people came from? How similar are the indigenous groups throughout the anglo-islands? What impact did other groups have on the First Peoples?

Focus on the results

There are two main theories on the origins of the indigenous populace, both of which begin at the Orinoco Delta, in South America, according to Dr Benn Torres. The first is that they migrated via the Orinoco to the Lesser Antilles, and island-hopped north along the chain of islands. The second, is they had both the technology and knowledge to make boats, and sailed from the Orinoco to the Greater Antilles, then headed south.

Her sample of the First Peoples’ community in Trinidad was 23 initially, and later, on a second trip, 25. The results are based on the first sample.

In one genetic ‘family’ group, Haplogroup A2, which is found in the Americas, there are many members of the First Peoples’ community whose maternal ancestors trace right back to the Americas.

“Looking at the particular network, there are some lineages actually shared between members of the First Peoples’ community [and] indigenous people in Puerto Rico, in Brazil, in Venezuela, and Columbia.”

In Haplogroup C, also out of the Americas, “There are some which contain this lineage. Some of these lineages are also present in other parts of the Caribbean: Puerto Rico, South America, Mexico.” More was revealed: there were lineages that were native to Trinidad, suggesting that groups came, and stayed.

With regard to her second question, on similarities between the indigenous groups cross-island, in one ‘map’ showing clusters by language or geography, the First Peoples’ were not outliers, “they blend right in with the rest of the native communities in South America”.

In spite of the geographic proximity, the First Peoples and the Garifuna also show genetic patterns which are different. In the general populace in the islands, both the First Peoples and Garifuna are outliers. Their DNA does not look like the rest of the population in the islands. “Despite the idea of mixing, the native groups are still pretty unique.”

DNA also suggests that the First Peoples reflect the coming of other groups. There is evidence along maternal lineage (mitochondrial DNA) of both African and Eurasian DNA. In the Y chromosome, there was the expected African and European lineage.

Another haplogroup QM3 which is out of the Americas but was not found in any of the other islands emerged: “the men sampled had direct ancestry to the peoples in the Americas… The theory then, that all native men died as a result of invasion, genocide, and the lineages were extinct, has been disproven”.

Overall the data supports:

Multiple waves of migration into the Caribbean.

Lineages which are unique.

Variety and diversity. Erase the idea of homogeneity among indigenous communities throughout the islands.

Despite of the impact of mixing, genetic ancestry of indigenous people actually remains strong and is ongoing.  “Native peoples are still here.”