Nov 132011
 

Members of the New York-based Cacibahagua Taino Cultural Society performing at the “Drums Along the Hudson Festival,” May 2009. (Photo credit: M. Sague.)


The end of October saw Nature News subjected to the electronic rage of dozens of self-proclaimed latter-day Taínos — modern Puerto Ricans who, long after the extinction of the Taíno language, and long after the slave trade and trans-Atlantic European migrations had reduced Taíno ancestry on that island to a relatively thin substrate, decided to assert an Amerindian identity.

The casus belli? Susan Young, reporting on Carlos Bustamante’s efforts to genomically “reconstruct” the Taíno from the fragmentary inheritance of some of their substantially admixed descendants (Puerto Rican participants in the 1,000 Genomes Project), had spoken of this people as “extinct.” Instantly, the comment section was flooded with remarks like that of one Cheyenne Velazquez (contemporary “Taíno” self-conception’s debt to various North American Indian iconographies is wondrous indeed):

How Dare You. I think you have violated several your own guidelines by publishing this article: It is offensive, presents misinformation, it discriminates against 20,000 plus Taino People and Families the list goes on and on. […] Apologize. I stand here arm in arm with my Sisters and Brothers and I say I AM ALIVE, WE ARE ALIVE,WE ARE STRONG, WE BREATH, WE ARE TAINO.


Won over, no doubt, by the inarguable eloquence of these critiques, Nature News reworded and retitled the article — from Breathing life into an extinct ethnicity to Rebuilding the genome of a hidden ethnicity (not extinct, just in occultation, like the Twelfth Imam, you see) — and appended an apology to the end:

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.)


Bustamante stepped in with his own heart-felt clarification:

I am writing to thank the members of the Taino community who wrote here for their response and to apologize for any offense our work and the media coverage has caused. It was a mistake to refer to the Taino people as “extinct” given the large number of people who self-identify as Taino. We, too, are committed to the message you state loud and clear: El Taino Vive / The Taino Live On.


One wonders how all this could have conceivably slipped his mind while he was preparing his presentation for the 2011 International Congress of Human Genetics. Perhaps his epiphany came just after the abstract revision deadline.

Genomic Reconstruction of an Extinct Population from Next-Generation Sequence Data – Insights from the Taìno [sic] Genome Project.

J.K. Byrnes1, J.L. Rodríguez-Flores2, A. Moreno-Estrada1, C.R. Gignoux3, S. Gravel1, W. Guiblet4, F. Zakharia1, J. Dutil5, E.G. Buchard3, T.K. Oleksyk4, J.C. Martínez-Cruzado4, C.D. Bustamante1, The 1000 Genomes Project Consortium. 1) Department of Genetics, School of Medicine, Stanford University, California 94305, USA; 2) Department of Biological Statistics and Computer Science, Cornell Univeristy, New York 14853, USA; 3) Institute for Human Genetics, University of California San Francisco, California, USA; 4) Department of Biology, University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, Puerto Rico 00680; 5) Ponce School of Medicine, Puerto Rico 00732.


The first Native American people encountered by Europeans across the Caribbean were given the collective name “Taìnos” by the arriving Spaniards. One hundred years after this initial contact, the Taìnos were effectively extinct due to war, slavery, suicide, hunger, and disease. Today, the ancestral legacy of the Taìnos is found in traces of their genomes still present in the inhabitants of the islands. […] Although the Taìno admixture proportion is small (0.09 ± 0.01 S.E.) relative to the African (0.13 ± 0.03 S.E.) and European (0.77 ± 0.03 S.E.) proportions, greater than 85% of the genome is covered by five or more chromosomes of Taìno origin. Looking at the ancestry tract length distribution, we can infer various aspects of the demographic history. For example, Taìno ancestry tracts follow an exponential distribution suggesting a single pulse of indigenous Taìno ancestry incorporation consistent with historical records of rapid extinction of the Taìnos. Given our ancestry inference, we can use the high-throughput sequencing data to measure heterozygosity, estimate time to most recent common ancestor between maternal and paternal lineages, and construct the site frequency spectrum in an ancestry-specific way. This provides further information on demographic history including effective population size estimates of the source populations contributing to the admixture event. Finally, we identify Taìno specific genomic variation cataloging what remains of this lost ancestral lineage. […] This is the first known reconstruction of the genomic variation of an extinct human population using modern data.

I was planning a more extensive post, but Dienekes (The Taíno are extinct) and Razib (The perils of human genomics) rather took the wind out of my sails. However, I’ve recently noticed that versions of the original Nature News report mirrored on other sites were being altered, too — at the gentle suggestion (one assumes) of levelheaded Caribbean Indigenes like Cheyenne — and I’m accordingly revisiting the matter.

For posterity’s sake, I’ll present the major points of discrepancy. At left, selections from a facsimile of the original that was hosted at Caribbean Business — itself subsequently bowdlerized — and, at right, the corresponding portions of the Nature News article as it presently stands:

The Taínos were the first Native Americans to meet European explorers in the Caribbean. They soon fell victim to the diseases and violence brought by the outsiders, and today no Taínos remain.




But the footprints of this extinct ethnicity are scattered throughout the genomes of modern Puerto Ricans, according to geneticist Carlos Bustamante at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California. On average, the genomes of Puerto Ricans contain 10 percent to 15 percent Native American DNA, which is largely Taíno, says Bustamante.

The small size of the ancestral segments fits with our understanding of the history of Puerto Rico, says Marc Via, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Barcelona, Spain, who was not involved in the study. “The admixture took place suddenly, so most of the population mixed with the African slaves and European settlers in the very early colonization of Puerto Rico.” But the Taínos quickly died out, so with every generation, the segments of Taíno genome would become smaller and smaller, he says.

The Taínos were the first Native Americans to meet European explorers in the Caribbean — and they soon fell victim to the diseases and violence brought by the outsiders. Today, the genomes of most if not all descend[a]nts of Taínos now contain few of the unique markers that characterized their ancestors.

But the genetic footprints of these ancestors are scattered throughout the genomes of modern Puerto Ricans, according to geneticist Carlos Bustamante at the Stanford University School of Medicine in Stanford, California. On average, the genomes of Puerto Ricans contain 10–15% Native American DNA, which is largely Taíno, says Bustamante.

The small size of the ancestral segments fits with our understanding of the history of Puerto Rico, says Marc Via, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Barcelona, Spain, who was not involved in the study. “The admixture took place suddenly, so most of the population mixed with the African slaves and European settlers in the very early colonization of Puerto Rico.” With every generation, the segments of Taíno genome would become smaller and smaller, he says.