DNA analysis reveals the ‘extinct’ Taino people never died out

DNA analysis reveals the Taino people who welcomed Columbus to the New World were not eradicated after all.

Columbus lands
There goes the neighborhood.

When Columbus arrived, the Caribbean islands were populated by people known now as the “Taino." Most likely they were descendants of the Arawaks of South America, and Taino was actually just their language — at the time, they were known as Lucayans locally in the Bahamas, Greater Antilles, and the northern Lesser Antilles areas they dominated. They courteously greeted Christopher Columbus when he landed in the New World, but within 30 years, according to Spanish accounts, the Taino were all gone, victims of European pathogens — smallpox in particular — and the brutality of the newcomers. Locals have long insisted that this isn't true, that they were simply written out of history. Now a DNA analysis reveals the locals were right, and at least one modern Caribbean population includes Lucayan Taino descendants.


DNA was extracted from a Lucayan Taino woman who lived about 1,000 years ago according to radiocarbon dating, or about 500 years before Columbus appeared. (Researchers believe her people arrived in the area some 2,500 years ago.) As can happen when serendipity's at play, she was found by researchers looking for something else entirely.

After a shipwreck at Devil Backbone off the Bahamian island of Eleuthera in the 1600s, Captain Willam Styles and his crew and passengers found shelter in a cave Bahamians call “Preacher's Cave."


Preacher's Cave on EleutheraWilly Volk

In the early 2000s, archeologists began digging there to learn more about these seafarers and were surprised to unearth artifacts and intact burial sites from long before Sayles. With low expectations due to the fragile nature of DNA in hot, humid environments, DNA researcher Hannes Schroeder examined five teeth from the cave and found a single tooth from a female that had sufficient DNA for sequencing. Schroeders' team was able to sequence each of the tooth's nucleotide bases to an average depth of 12.4-fold, giving them an unprecedented view of the “long-lost" Taino population.

The researchers found evidence that the Lucayan Tainos had likely originated with the Arawaks of northern South America. They also saw none of the telltale signs of inbreeding, suggesting she belonged to a large population that that wasn't constrained to tiny Eleuthera but instead extended across the larger Caribbean region.

Most exciting was that researchers were able to document components of the woman's genome in modern Caribbean populations. Puerto Rico became an area of special significance. “Due to the high levels of African and European ancestry in modern Puerto Ricans, the native components are difficult to discern; however, when we compare only the estimated ancestry clusters that reflect non-African/European ancestries, there are clear similarities between Puerto Ricans, Arawakan speakers, and the ancient Taino," says the research. The analysis also finds that their DNA diverged from modern Puerto Ricans “only recently."

On the left, a “heat map" of areas with Taino-like genomes. On the right, the Taino and modern Puerto Ricans have their own branch. (Schroeder, et al)

This may be a heartening case of scientific evidence being able to defeat the spoils of war — “History is written by the victors," goes the saying — and revealing hidden truth: The Lucayan Taino were not eradicated after all. The conclusion at which Schroeder and his team arrive is clear: “Lastly, we find that the native component in present-day Puerto Rican genomes is closely related to the ancient Taino, demonstrating an element of continuity between precontact populations and present-day Latino populations in the Caribbean despite the disruptive effects of European colonization."

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This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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