A new study offers unprecedented insight into the early inhabitants of the Caribbean. Researchers analyzed ancient DNA samples and came to the conclusion that the Caribbean region was settled through numerous successive migration events that originated on the American mainland.
The Caribbean was one of the latest regions of America to be colonized by humans. Now, a new study published in the journal ‘Science’ sheds light on how early people settled on the islands thousands of years ago, and where they came from.
Using ancient DNA samples, an international team of researchers found indications of at least three population dispersions that brought people to that region.
“Our results provide insight into the early history of Caribbean migration and connect the region to the rest of the Americas,” said Hannes Schroeder, associate professor at the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, and one of the lead authors of the research paper.
This DNA evidence adds to archaeological data and allows us to test specific hypotheses about how the Caribbean was first inhabited.
The researchers analyzed the genomes of 93 ancient Caribbean islanders who lived between 400 and 3,200 years ago using bone fragments excavated from 16 different archaeological sites across the Caribbean. Due to the warm climate of the region, some of the DNA samples are not very well preserved. However, suing distinct enrichment techniques, the researchers managed to extract information from the entire genome of the ancient remains and use them in their study.
“These methods allowed us to increase the number of ancient genome sequences from the Caribbean by almost two orders of magnitude and with all that data we are able to paint a very detailed picture of the early migration history of the Caribbean,” revealed Johannes Krause, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and another senior author of the study.
The research found that the Caribbean islands were populated from people through three distinct population dispersions: two previous ones in the western Caribbean, one of which appears to be linked to previous population dispersions in North America, and a more recent third wave, which originated in South America.
Although it is still not completely obvious how the first settlers landed on the islands, there is increasing archaeological data that, far from being a barrier, the Caribbean Sea served as a kind of “waterway” uniting the islands with the continent.
Researchers revealed in the new study that larger bodies of water are ordinarily deemed barriers for early humans, and ancient societies of hunter-gatherers and fishermen are commonly not perceived as great sailors, but our results continue to challenge that view, suggesting that there was repeated interaction between the islands and the continent.
This tells us, contrary to popular belief, that already thousands of years ago, ancient people had the ability to cross vast distances across the ocean.
“The new data support our previous observations that the early settlers of the Caribbean were biologically and culturally diverse, adding resolution to this ancient period of our history, “explained Yadira Chinique de Armas, Assistant Professor in Bioanthropology at the University of Winnipeg.