Why There Is Such A High Percentage Of Amerindian mtDNA And European Y-Chromosome Signatures In The Caribbean

I have family living in the Caribbean, they specifically reside on the island of Grenada. And I regularly go down to visit them. Given that the many islands in Caribbean functioned as pit stops for the slave trade, I’ve been curious about the demographics, history, and genetics of Grenada. Based off of cursory observations, the majority of the population is of African decent — but there are people from Europe, India, the Middle East and East Asia living there as well. I’ve seen very few mix, marry and reproduce. Instead, most choose to live in their respective groups.

An illustration of a Carib Indian family by John Gabriel Stedman
An illustration of a Carib Indian family by John Gabriel Stedman

Prior to European contact in 1498 by Christopher Columbus, Grenada was inhabited by Carib and Arawak peoples, both originating from Central/South America. The Arawak preceded the Caribs. It is believed they first occupied the Caribbean islands somewhere around 100-200 A.D. The Caribs came around much later — about 100 to 150 years before Columbus. They were very hostile compared to the Arawak and killed many Arawak. Those who were spared were enslaved. The Caribs also prevented settlement of Grenada by Europeans for 150 or so years.

The English tried and failed in 1609. The French first gave it a shot in 1638 and biffed it. It was not until 1650 that another French attempt, this time from a nearby island, Martinique, established a permanent presence in Grenada. Not surprisingly, the Carib did not welcome the French colony. They launched a series of battles and lost. They were determined not to submit to French rule and ultimately the last surviving Caribs jumped to their death off a precipice in the north of the island.

Some of the other islands in the Caribbean, like Puerto Rico and Cuba, share a similar history. A primary population, of Arawaks/Taínos displaced by another indigenous population — ultimately to be eradicated by European contact and pathogens. One would suspect that there was not much admixture because of the rapid mortality.

Today, Dienekes shared a paper investigating the genetic diversity of modern Cuba — an island that originally had Arawak people, then Ciboney people, and ultimately African and European slaves and colonists. There are some pretty surprising results.

The paper, “Genetic origin, admixture, and asymmetry in maternal and paternal human lineages in Cuba,” is published in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology. The authors of the paper sequenced and analyzed the HSV I and 5 SNPs in the mitochondrial genome of 245 Cuban individuals. They also seuqenced and analyzed 40 SNPs on the Y-Chromosome of of 132 Cuban males. Their results indicate that the,

“Native American contribution to present-day Cubans accounted for 33% of the maternal lineages, whereas Africa and Eurasia contributed 45% and 22% of the lineages, respectively. This Native American substrate in Cuba cannot be traced back to a single origin within the American continent, as previously suggested by ancient DNA analyses. Strikingly, no Native American lineages were found for the Y-chromosome, for which the Eurasian and African contributions were around 80% and 20%, respectively.”

Razib thinks that the the high percentage of Native American footprint in the modern day Cuban mitochondrial gene pool is because admixture occurred very early on. Makes sense, early European conquistadors and colonists that inhabited Cuba, were most likely straight males interested in the triumph of new land, riches, and flesh.

But, does this genetic analysis of Cubuan populations have any tangents to other Caribbean islands? Razib linked up another paper, published in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, which investigated Puerto Rican mitochondrial diversity. The authors of the paper, “Reconstructing the population history of Puerto Rico by means of mtDNA phylogeographic analysis,” sequenced and analyzed only the mitochondrial genome of 800 individuals. They were able to fish out that 61.3% of Puerto Rican mtDNA comes is of  Amerindian ancestry. Sub-Saharan African and West Eurasian mitochondrial signatures were found in much less degrees, 27.2% and 11.5% respectively.

Both studies show that on these two islands, there is a substantial mitochondrial contribution from indigenous pre-Columbian populations in modern day populations. Dienekes suggests that the reason why there isn’t a substantial Y-chromosome contribution is that Y chromosome diversity within an already settled territory was wiped out, citing that, “new pathogens or a technological differential between colonists and natives,” are two possibilities.

I disagree with the first half of his statement, new pathogens are for the most part indiscriminate of sex. Technological differences, however, could have manifested in less indigenous males, especially after battles. That, coupled with the accounts of rape and pillage by European settlers, it seems like a more understandable reason to why we see such high Amerindian mitochondrial and European Y-chromosome signatures.

    Mendizabal, I., Sandoval, K., Berniell-Lee, G., Calafell, F., Salas, A., Martinez-Fuentes, A., Comas, D. (2008). Genetic origin, admixture, and asymmetry in maternal and paternal human lineages in Cuba. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 8(1), 213. DOI: 10.1186/1471-2148-8-213
    Martínez-Cruzado, J.C., Toro-Labrador, G., Viera-Vera, J., Rivera-Vega, M.Y., Startek, J., Latorre-Esteves, M., Román-Colón, A., Rivera-Torres, R., Navarro-Millán, I.Y., Gómez-Sánchez, E., Caro-González, H.Y., Valencia-Rivera, P. (2005). Reconstructing the population history of Puerto Rico by means of mtDNA phylogeographic analysis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 128(1), 131-155. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20108

16 thoughts on “Why There Is Such A High Percentage Of Amerindian mtDNA And European Y-Chromosome Signatures In The Caribbean

  1. I think it has to do with one thing primarily: the process of mestization in Spanish America (guess it can be extended to other European colonies somewhat). Mestization was widespread (often via rape but also marriage or more or less voluntary concubinage) since the very beginning of the Spanish (more properly Castilian) conquest but it was always thought that the few European women that may have migrated could not have relations, much less children with the natives. The “honor” standards for European women were very high, while these did not need to apply for other ethnicities. Additionally there were very few female colonists in Spanish America.

    The mixed offspring became “mestizos”, an intermediate caste between the Spanish and the natives (and later the African slaves). These, who would be very succesful in the new colonies (in contrast with the groups that remained native in most cases) already started with a native mtDNA but European Y-DNA and a mostly European (creole if yu wish) culture as well.

    I think that what these studies on Spanish American DNA (this is not the first one) are saying is that: mestizos became if not the dominant class (often the highest class was purely European or almost so), the most succesful one in terms of numbers. They constituted the backbone of the empire, filling all kind of jobs: from peasant to soldier, from priest to bureaucrat. There was still more immigration from Europe but it was always made up of males almost exclusively.

    Still other studies (like the one published in PLOS genetics some months ago) show that some mestizo populations of the mainland have much greater native Y-DNA than would be expected under the above explanation. These are surely mostly native communities that became “mestizos” by aculturation rather than by just mestizage. The process was not the same in all places and circumstances.

    Aditionally I’m not really surprised that the percent of native blood is higher in Puerto Rico than in Cuba. Puerto Rico was never a major colony, while Cuba was, attracting much larger immigation since the very beginning (and maybe increasing in the 19th century, after the loss of other colonies and also after the abolition of slavery in the metropolis). The importance of Cuba in the Spanish historico-cultural imaginary is very strong and clear, while the other colonies lost with it (Puerto Rico, Philippines) are seldom remembered. The saying “más se perdió en Cuba” (“more was lost in Cuba”, meaning that your loss is not so important anyhow) says it all.

  2. I have seen FTDNA’ s Cuba Group and observed that the percentage of Cubans having a NA Mtdna is even greater than the one reported for Cuba. But so is the percentage of Cubans having a European Mtdna, much greater than the one reported here. Of course, the FTDNA group is only made up of Cubans outside the island. From reading the details contained in this study, I infer that those with an NA Mtdna, as well as those with a Euro. Mtdna, also have a European Ydna, while many of those whose mitochondrial hg. is Sub-Saharan, have also Euro. Ydna. On the other hand, almost everyone who has a Sub-Saharan Ydna, also has a Sub-Saharan Mtdna. That means that in Cuba, those whose had a mixed Euro/NA origin are grouped together with those whose origin was Euro. on both sides, since there was never an officially recognized mestizo segment, a situation unlike other Latin American nations. On the other hand, the rest is grouped as mulattoes and blacks, or Afrodescendants.

  3. What you say makes sense, Sergio. I guess there are not many black or mulatto Cubans in Florida, or at least many less (in proportion) than in the island.

    It also makes sense that the white and mestizo eventually became undifferentiated while the black/mulatto remained a group somewhat apart, specially considering the importance that plantation economy (based on slaves of African ascendancy) had in the island.

  4. I’ve suddenly realised the dates for expansion into the islands is quite recent. Are the dates quoted above (“around 100-200 A.D”) generally accepted? Could be more evidence that Polynesians introduced efficient open water voyaging when they arrived in America around the time of the last bit of their expansion. Admittedly the technology would have had to cross the Panama isthmus.

  5. Terry, a recent paper has shown that there is not a detectable lasting Polynesian genetic signature in Amerindians — I forgot if it was in the three-wave colonization of the Americas or some other study. I can track it down for you, if you want.


  6. It’s alright thanks Kambiz. I know there’s no human genetic evidence but there is a smattering of other evidence. I remember something about chickens in South America and something in California (can’t remember what) suggestive of Polynesian arrival. It would sort of make sense that once the Polynesians began believing Maui was fishing up islands for them they’d just keep going. They didn’t get to the Galapagos although those islands would be pretty easy to miss.

  7. Now that’s a coincidence isn’t it. Thanks for the links. seems the only evidence now is the dating, but we all know how inacurrate that can be.

  8. One comment that’s rarely made about miscegenation in Latin America is that many Native women deliberately CHOSE to pair up with European men. In fact, chronicles from that region are full of accounts of Native women who left husbands of their own race to go with White men. And one chronicle says that if these women had already had children with their Native husbands, they treated their later-born half-White offspring much better. That’s probably why Native Y chromosomes have virtually disappeared from many Latin American mixed-race populations.

  9. I remember something about chickens in South America and something in California (can’t remember what) suggestive of Polynesian arrival.

    Quote above from terryt.

    The California paper concerned plank wood canoes. But that paper has also been shown to be flawed.

  10. I’m not surprised it’s shown to be flawed. Polynesians used dugout canoes. They did sometimes use planks to raise the sides however.

  11. I am reading “The Seven Daughters of Eve” that tells of the canoes being 30 meters long and “double-hulled” which kept the canoe from capsizing much like the “outrigger” does on a catamaran.
    The item that trails the Polynesians was the sweet potato. The precence of the sweet potato showed the Polynesians had been there.

  12. Yes. The Ocean going canoes were huge double-hulled jobs.

    The sweet potato is an extremely interesting vegetable. As you say, the Polynesians had it, apparently when the first Europeans entered the Pacific. Yet its origin lies in South America. I believe it’s possible it came into the Pacific with the first Spaniards, but unlikely.

  13. I tested myself with Genographic project and as a female…resulted with the Haplogroup A result.

    So, obviously my maternal lineage is Taino or Native American. I really do not have to “prove” myself to
    anyone. Just be a decent..human being in this planet called ‘Earth’. Anyone who would second guess me
    should “second guess themselves”. I have nothing to prove to anyone other than being a decent, contributing member of society…

    Yes, I’m angry at reading other websites which try to undermine me as a contributing member to society.

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