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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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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