Talking Taino


Exploring the origins and interactions of the ancient Lucayans with ancient DNA.

By Kendra Sirak, Bill Keegan, Betsy Carlson, and Michael Pateman

About ten years ago, Tellis Bethel, retired commodore of the Bahamas Defense Force, started a campaign to name the waters surrounding The Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) the “Lucayan Sea.” Covering 180,000 square miles of the southern North Atlantic Ocean, this is the largest recognized but unnamed body of water in the world. Commodore Bethel felt compelled to recognize the pivotal role of the Indigenous inhabitants of these islands — known as “Lucayans” — in the history of the Americas. First and foremost, they discovered and rescued a lost Italian explorer by the name of Christopher Columbus (certainly not the other way around). And as we know, they were the first to suffer the severe consequences of this encounter.

The name Lucayan is traced to the Arawak words lukku cairi, literally “people of the islands.” The Spanish called The Bahamas and TCI “Las Islas de los Lucayos” (Islands of the Lucayos), and “Lucayan” is the English version of their name. Referring to this archipelago as the “Lucayan Islands” is one important step in acknowledging the vibrant history of the lukku cairi.

This original painting by artist Theodore Morris represents the fact that female Tanío Caciques traced their ancestors through the female line to a common ancestress.

So, who were the Lucayans? Until recently, our answer came primarily from the study of artifacts preserved at archaeological sites. Radiocarbon dating of carbon-based materials from these sites indicates there were no people living in the Lucayan Islands until about 1,300 years ago. Based solely on geographical proximity, it was first proposed that the Lucayans came from Florida. However, no material evidence has ever been found that establishes a definitive connection, so Florida is no longer considered as a likely source for the origin of this population.

In fact, all of the cultural practices known for the Lucayans reflect a more southern origin. The nearest possible source islands are Hispaniola and Cuba, and archaeologists have debated for decades which was their homeland. It has even been argued that there were separate migrations from both. However, because only one type of pottery was ever made in the Lucayan Islands, this unique ceramic tradition is attributed to a single migration. Until recently, it seemed the question would never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction.

Fortunately, advances in ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis have given us new tools for investigating Lucayan ancestry. Most people are today familiar with direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies, such as and 23&Me. They offer a way to trace a person’s ancestry, providing millions of people worldwide with insight into where their ancestors once lived. These at-home test kits rely on the study of DNA that is extracted from saliva.

Ancient DNA is extracted from ancient bone samples (the petrous part of the temporal bone) in David Reich’s lab at Harvard.

However, saliva cannot be used for aDNA because it does not preserve in the archaeological record. Instead, DNA must be recovered from human bones and teeth. Extracting DNA from ancient bone proved especially challenging until researchers determined that a particular part of the skeleton, known as the petrous part of the temporal bone, preserves a high concentration of DNA. “Petrous” means “stone-like” in Latin, and it is one of the densest bones in the human body, located behind your ear. In 2020, two separate studies of Caribbean genetic history were published by teams of geneticists and archaeologists from the Max Plank Institute (Germany) and Harvard/University of Vienna who studied the DNA preserved in the petrous to provide a new lens into the past. We are members of the Harvard team.

To fully understand Lucayan ancestry, we need to know something about the genetic landscape in the wider Caribbean region millennia before the Lucayan Islands were settled. The study of aDNA identified two migrations of genetically distinct peoples from the American mainland into the Caribbean islands that occurred at different points in time. Not only were the people who were part of each migration genetically distinct, but they had distinct cultures as well. The first group moved into the Caribbean during the Archaic Age, while the movement of the second group began the region’s Ceramic Age.

The first migration — that of the Archaic Age —began about 6,000 years ago and is characterized by the use of stone tools, the relative absence of ceramics, and an economy based on fishing, gathering, and simple farming. Known as “Ciboney,” these first people to enter the Caribbean settled first in Cuba and expanded eastward over the next 3,000 years to eventually inhabit Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and finally, the northern Lesser Antilles (but not Jamaica or the Lucayan Islands). They came from somewhere in South or Central America, although their precise origins could not be determined genetically. Because the Ciboney were living on the Jardines del Rey islands off the north coast of Cuba 4,000 years ago, it is possible they crossed the 10-mile-wide Old Bahama Channel to reach the most remote of the Bahamian islands, and then continued eastward to the larger Lucayan Islands. However, there is no archaeological or genetic evidence that they did. In sum, this first migration provides no insight into Lucayan ancestry.

The second migration — that which began the Ceramic Age — started about 2,500 years ago and was accomplished by people who made abundant use of ceramics and had an economy based on intensive farming and fishing. The genetic evidence connects this migration to northeastern South America, and specifically to the Arawak-speaking societies who live there at present. In deeper time, the Arawak sojourn began from Northwest Amazonia where they developed the farming practices that allowed them to spread rapidly along the rich floodplain soils of the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers. When they reached the Orinoco Delta at the eastern terminus of the continent in modern-day Venezuela, some groups crossed the narrow channel to Trinidad and then traveled north into the Lesser Antilles, while others turned south into the Guianas. They northward expansion continued all the way to Puerto Rico, which they settled at an early date (around 200 BC). For a reason that is still unknown, their migration paused here for almost 1,000 years. 

The groups who resumed the expansion process had the same genetic ancestry as those who participated in the earlier migration. In quick order they occupied Hispaniola (AD 600), Jamaica (AD 700), Turks & Caicos (AD 700), and finally, eastern Cuba (AD 900). Although archaeologists have interpreted changes in ceramic styles through time as evidence for additional waves of migration into the Caribbean from South America, these are not reflected in the genetic evidence. Genetically, Arawak communities in the Caribbean are remarkably homogeneous across space and time, reflecting a high degree of mobility and interconnectedness of people across islands.

Furthermore, there is very little genetic evidence of intermarriage with the Ciboney who were already living in Hispaniola and Cuba. Only a very small number of the individuals studied had both Ciboney- and Arawak-related ancestries. All traces of Ciboney culture disappeared soon after the Arawak arrived. The one exception is western Cuba where the Ciboney survived in independent communities, possibly until Spanish contact. 

Within the Caribbean Arawak gene pool there are also subtle differences, called “genetic substructure.” These result from some barriers — natural, social, or culturally-imposed — that give some groups a slightly unique genetic signature relative to others. The Lucayans share their slightly unique genetic signature with the ceramic-using people living in Cuba (but not the Ciboney), which suggests that these communities shared common ancestors or possibly intermarried. Thus, in terms of regional relationships, DNA shows that the Lucayans were not genetically related to the Ciboney; that Lucayans share a direct ancestral link to the Arawak peoples of South America who settled the Antilles; and that the Lucayans and ceramic-using Cubans share some genetic similarities, possibly because of recent common ancestors. 

We’re not done yet! It also is possible to obtain very specific information about genetic relatedness (think paternity test). The degree to which particular individuals are related to others can be estimated by identifying segments of the genome that are inherited from a common ancestor, referred to as “Identity by Descent” (IBD).

This Lucayan man was buried in an Atlantic Ocean-facing sand dune on Long Island, The Bahamas. This individual has a distant cousin buried in Cueva de los Esqueletos 1, Camagüey, Cuba.

Comparing the IBD segments on the X chromosomes from pairs of males (who only have one X chromosome, while females have two), the Harvard team identified 19 pairs of distant “cousins” who were buried on different islands. In this sense, cousin is determined by the quantity of shared genetic material, and not the particular family relationship for which we use the term. Of the 29 Lucayans included in this study, there were 14 distant cousin pairs which involved a Lucayan male and another individual buried on other islands in The Bahamas or at multiple sites in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and in one case Cuba. These “cousin” pairs document ancestral connections to people living throughout the Greater Antilles, and attest to the remarkable speed with which the Arawak expansion took place. 

A final question concerns the size of the Lucayan population. How many Lucayans were living in these islands when the Spanish arrived? The one available Spanish accounting says that 40,000 Lucayans were enslaved and shipped to Hispaniola in the early 1500s. But how reliable is this testimony? We know that early Spanish accounts were given to grand exaggerations, especially when potential wealth and local labor was concerned. We need an independent and objective method for estimating the size of the population. 

Once again, genetics can help. The size of a group’s effective population (that is, the number of individuals who are potential reproductive partners) is reflected in the amount and length of “Runs of Homozygosity” (ROH), which are segments of DNA where both parents passed down the exact same genetic code. Large sums of long ROH suggest parental relatedness within a few generations, while an abundance of short ROH reflects small mating pools. We can estimate effective population size based on the amount and size of shared segments of the genome, and after estimating effective population size, we can extrapolate to estimate census population size.

Confusing? Think of this in terms of a dating app. Based on your profile, a number of people are recommended as potentially compatible dates — this is your effective “dating pool.” Yet the size of your personal dating pool is only a percentage of everyone registered on the app. By knowing the number of people identified for you, you can then estimate the total number of people looking for a date. 

For the Lucayans, the mating pool is estimated as between 500 to 900. For humans, the effective population size is about 1/3 to 1/10 of the census population size, which gives us a total Lucayan population of between 1,500 and 9,000 people. These numbers are consistent with values calculated for the rest of the Caribbean. On the whole, the precontact Caribbean population was substantially smaller than hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, proposed from Spanish accounts. Yet, recognizing smaller population numbers for the Indigenous Caribbean does not diminish the genocidal consequences of the Spanish invasion, which forever changed the cultural and biological landscape of the Caribbean. 

Commodore Bethel is right to recognize the significance of Lucayan ancestry for these islands. While we may not be able to change the name of the sea, we can use new technologies to better appreciate the ancient Lucayan people who once called these islands home.

Dr. Kendra Sirak is a Biological Anthropologist and Research Associate in the Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School and Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University; Dr. Bill Keegan is Emeritus Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History (University of Florida); Dr. Betsy Carlson is Senior Archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH, Inc.) in Jonesville, FL; and Dr. Michael Pateman is former Director of the Turks & Caicos National Museum and currently Curator/Lab Director of the AEX Maritime Museum on Grand Bahama.

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Tellis Bethel
Nov 7, 2022 11:18

I enjoyed reading the fresh insights Drs. Sirak, Keegan, Carlson, and Pateman provided in the article. And thank you for your support in naming our waters, the Lucayan Sea. All the best, Tellis.

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