Planet Earth

The perils of human genomics

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanOct 25, 2011 5:45 PM

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A friend pointed me to the heated comment section of this article in Nature, Rebuilding the genome of a hidden ethnicity. The issue is that Nature originally stated that the Taino, the native people of Puerto Rico, were extinct. That resulted in an avalanche of angry comments, which one of the researchers, Carlos Bustamante, felt he had to address. Eventually Nature updated their text:

CORRECTED: This article originally stated that the Taíno were extinct, which is incorrect. Nature apologizes for the offence caused, and has corrected the text to better explain the research project described.

Here's Wikipedia on the Taino today:

Heritage groups, such as the Jatibonicu Taíno Tribal Nation of Boriken, Puerto Rico (1970), the Taíno Nation of the Antilles (1993), the United Confederation of Taíno People (1998) and El Pueblo Guatu Ma-Cu A Boriken Puerto Rico (2000), have been established to foster Taíno culture. However, it is controversial as to whether these Heritage Groups represent Taíno Culture accurately as some Taino groups are known to 'adopt' other native traditions (mainly North American Indian). Many aspects of Taino culture has been lost to time and or blended with Spaniard and African culture on the Caribbean Islands. Peoples who claim to be of native descent in the islands of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Eastern Cuba attempt to maintain some form of cultural connection with their historic identities. Antonio de Moya, a Dominican educator, wrote in 1993, "the [Indian] genocide is the big lie of our history... the Dominican Taínos continue to live, 500 years after European contact." One of the ways that Taino activists now use to strengthen interest and identity is by the creation of two unique scripts. The scripts are used to write Spanish, not a retained language from pre-Columbian ancestors. The organization Guaka-kú teaches and uses their script among their own members, but the LGTK (Liga Guakía Taína-ké) has promoted their script among elementary and middle school students to strengthen their interest in Taino identity.

It is undeniable that the Amerindian ancestry found in the Caribbean probably derives from that pre-Columbian population. And it may be that there are cultural forms which exhibit unbroken continuity. But it seems that the modern Taino are a

re-precipitation out of a cultural milieu whose Amerindian self-identity had gone extinct.

By analogy, Argentines have about the same proportion of Amerindian ancestry as Puerto Ricans on a population-wide basis. In fact, over 90% of the Amerindian distinctive ancestry in Argentina is not found in self-identified Amerindians (who do continue to exist as a minority, especially in the South). But to my knowledge for various cultural reasons there has not been a groundswell to shift the Argentine self-conception from being a European settler nation to a mestizo nation, let alone individuals declaring themselves Amerindian. In comparison to the possibilities which are opened up in this case, the issue of Aboriginal genomics looks rather cut & dried. I suppose we would laugh if some people decided to "reclaim" their Neandertal heritage, but there's a huge corpus of paleoanthropological scholarship which these individuals could draw upon to reconstruct their identities as Neandertals. It might sound ludicrous, but this is a world where a lot happens that you wouldn't expect.

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