The Myth of Taíno Survival in the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean

by Gabriel Haslip-Viera (December 6, 2011)

In recent years, a small but growing number of Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans have adopted an exclusive indigenous or Taíno ethnicity. They have done so despite evidence showing that pure blooded Native Americans became extinct in the western Caribbean by the early decades of the seventeenth century, if not earlier.

These individuals have also played fast and loose with concepts of race and ethnicity. They have done so with words and phrases such as “extinction” and “indigenous survival” to justify their claims.

In the early part of the last decade, Puerto Rico’s news media made a big deal of studies that showed that 61% of Puerto Ricans had a trace or a small amount of indigenous DNA dating back to the sixteenth century, passed exclusively through a single female line of ancestry in an individual’s family tree (the mother’s line). This finding was used and abused in an exaggerated, self-serving manner by would-be later day Taínos and their advocates as evidence supporting their claims for an exclusive indigenous pedigree.

However, another study was largely ignored at the time (and since). It that showed that 70% of Puerto Ricans had European DNA, along with 20% who had African DNA and only 10% who had Amerindian DA – this time passed through a single male line in the individual’s family tree (the father’s line).

As it turned out, these studies, when considered together in a sober manner, provide actual evidence for what had been concluded all along by scientists, social scientists and historians – Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans have been and are persons of genetically mixed backgrounds. Eventually, these studies were also criticized for their very limited utility because of two characteristics. First is their focus on distant ancestry. Second, their focus on single male and female lineages that ignore thousands of other males and females who contributed genetic material to an individual’s family tree during the past 500 years.

Ongoing research since the last decade undercuts claims for an exclusive indigenous pedigree by would-be later day Taínos and their supporters. So called “autosomal” or “admixture tests” show that Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans are persons of mixed ethnic background – mostly European and African. with significantly smaller percentages of the indigenous and others. These studies have also been criticized for their limited utility, but they have also been judged to be more reliable than studies that focus on distant ancestry and on single male and female lines of ancestry (See table and sources below).

Claims have been made by would-be Taínos and their supporters that substantial numbers of Taínos fled into the mountainous interior regions of Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo and Cuba in the sixteenth century and remained biologically pure in isolation of Spanish colonial society in the centuries that followed. These claims have not been demonstrated. On the contrary, the genetic and historical evidence shows that surviving Taínos were joined by impoverished Europeans, runaway African slaves and others to form the mixed Jibaro, Guajiro, and Cibaeño peasant populations of rural interior Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo and Cuba in the centuries after 1550 or 1600. The claim by Anthony Castanha (as reported in a previous NiLP Network posting) that the Puerto Rican Jibaro is Native American is, therefore, patently absurd.

It also needs to be said that the genetic make-up of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans has little or no connection to the way race and ethnicity are socially constructed at the present time in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and its Diaspora. The traditionally crude and simplistic Eurocentric concepts of race and ethnicity and their connected patterns of prejudice and discrimination, aimed mostly at persons defined as black or mulatto, continue to prevail among Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans. This has occurred despite efforts to promote a “rainbow” model of race mixture.

These concepts have also been adopted by the later day Taínos to justify their claims for a pure indigenous pedigree. This is, in part, an attempt to separate them from persons of African background and from Europeans – especially Spaniards – who they see as colonial oppressors whose contributions to society and culture is to be ignored or rejected in the articulation of their identity.

Table Sources

Bonilla, Carolina, Mark D. Shriver, Esteban J. Parra, Alfredo Jones, José R. Fernández, “Ancestral proportions and their association with skin pigmentation and bone mineral density in Puerto Rican women from New York city,” Human Genetics (2004) 115: 57-68. (Data: = 35 genetic markers (AIMS*), 64 Puerto Rican women age 60-75 from New York City in Manhattan hospitals.)

Chao-Qiang Lai, Katherine L. Tucker, Shweta Choudhry, Laurence D. Parnell, Josiemer Mattei, Bibiana García-Bailo, Kenny Beckman, Esteban González Burchard, José M. Ordovás, “Population admixture associated with disease prevalence in the Boston Puerto Rican health study,” Human Genetics (2009) 125: 199-209. (Data = 100 genetic markers (AIMS*), 1129 individuals-337 males, 792 females from the cited health study in the Boston area.)

Choudhry, Shweta, Esteban González Burchard, Luisa N. Borrell, Hua Tang, Ivan Gomez, Mariam Naqvi, Sylvette Nazario, Alphonso Torres, Jesus Casal, Juan Carlos Martinez-Cruzado, Elad Ziv, Pedro C. Avila, William Rodriguez-Cintron, and Neil J. Risch, “Ancestry-Environment Interactions and Asthma Risk among Puerto Ricans,” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (2006)a 174: 1088-1093. (Data: 44 genetic markers (AIMS*), 135 individuals (cases) with asthma from “six primary care clinics”-in Barceloneta, Bayamón, Carolina,
Cataño, Mayaguez, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.)

Choudhry, Shweta, Margaret Taub, Rui Mei, José Rodriguez-Santana, William Rodriguez-Cintrón, Mark D. Shriver, Elad Ziv, Neil J. Risch, and Esteban, González Burchard, “Genome-wide Screen for Asthma in Puerto Ricans: Evidence for Association with 5q23 Region,” Human Genetics (2008) 123: 455-468. (Data = 2,730 genetic markers (AIMS*), 380 individuals (cases), 96 with asthma.)

Choudhry, Shweta, Natasha E. Coyle, Hua Tang, Keyan Salari, Denise Lind, Suzanne L. Clark, Hui-Ju Tsai, Mariam Naqvi, Angie Phong, Ngim Ung, Henry Matallana, Pedro C. Avila, Jesus Casal, Alfonso Torres, Sylvette Nazario, Richard Castro, Natalie C. Battle, Eliseo J. Perez-Stable, Pui-Yan Kwok, Dean Sheppard, Mark D. Shriver, William Rodriguez-Cintron, Neil Risch, Elad Ziv, Esteban Gonzaález Burchard, “Population stratification confounds genetic association studies among Latinos,” Human Genetics (2006)b 118: 652-664. (Data: 44 genetic markers (AIMS*), 181 individuals (cases) from “primary care clinics” on the island.)

González Burchard, E., Avila, P.C., Nazario, S., Casal, J., Torres, A., Rodríguez-Santana, J.R., Sylvia, J.S., Fagan, J.K., Salas, J., Lilly, C.M., et al., “Lower Bronchodilator Responsiveness in Puerto Ricans than in Mexican Asthmatic Subjects,” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (2004), 169: 386-392. (Data: Not specified, figures cited in Tang, et al (2007: 627)

K.Bryc, C. Velez, M. Hammer, R. Hernandez, A. Reynolds, A. Auton, T. Karafet, H. Ostrer, C. D.Bustamante, “Genome-wide patterns of population structure and admixture among Hispanic/Latino populations,” Presentation at the meeting of The American Society of Human Genetics. Oct 21, 2009. (Data = Specific breakdown not stated in available summary.)

Risch, Neil, Shweta Choudhry, Marc Via, Analabha Basu, Ronnie Sebro, Celeste Eng, Kenneth Beckman, Shannon Thyne, Rocio Chapela, Jose R Rodriguez-Santana, William Rodriguez-Cintron, Pedro C Avila, Elad Ziv and Esteban Gonzalez Burchard, “Ancestry-related assortative mating in Latino populations,” Genome Biology(2009, open access on the internet). (Data = 104 genetic markers (AIMS), 223 individuals from Puerto Rico, 154 from New York.)

Salari, Keyan, Shweta Choudhry, Hua Tang, Mariam Naqvi, Denise Lind, Pedro C. Avila, Natasha E. Coyle, Ngim Ung, Sylvette Nazario, Jesus Casal, Alfonso Torres-Palacios, Suzanne Clark, Angie Phong, Ivan Gomez, Henry Matallana, Eliseo J. Pe´rez-Stable, Mark D. Shriver, Pui-Yan Kwok, Dean Sheppard, William Rodriguez-Cintron, Neil J. Risch, Esteban González Burchard, and Elad Ziv, “Genetic Admixture and Asthma-Related Phenotypes in Mexican American and Puerto Rican Asthmatics,” Genetic Epidemiology (2005) 29: 76-86. (Data: 44 genetic markers (AIMS*), 181 individuals from clinics and hospitals on the island.)

Santiago, W., “Análisis del mestizaje en Puerto Rico,” Prensa RUM (University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, 10-23-2009). (Data = 93 genetic markers (AIMS)* from 642 individuals resident in 28 island “municipios.”)

Tang, Hua, Shweta Choudhry, Rui Mei, Martin Morgan, William Rodriguez-Cintron, Esteban Gonza´lez Burchard, and Neil J. Risch, “Recent Genetic Selection in the Ancestral Admixture of Puerto Ricans,” The American Journal of Human Genetics (2007) 81: 626-633. (Data: 112,584 genetic markers (SNPs**), 192 unspecified Puerto Ricans from an earlier study.)

Zuniga, J., Ilzarbe, M., Acunha-Alonzo, V., Rosetti, F., Herbert, Z., Romero, V., Almeciga, I., Clavigo O., Stern, J.N., Granados, J., et al., “Allele Frequencies for 15 Autosomal STR Loci and Admixture Estimates in Puerto Rican Americans,” Forensic Science International (2006) 164: 266-270. (Data: Not specified as cited in Tang, et al. (2007: appendix.)

*AIMS = ancestry informative markers
**SNPs = single-nucleotide polymorphisms

Gabriel Haslip-Viera is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at City College and past Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. A specialist in the social history of colonial Mexico and the evolution of Latino communities in New York City, Dr. Haslip-Viera has lectured extensively on these subjects and on the relationship between invented racial identities and pseudo-scholarship. He is the editor of Taino Revival: Critical Perspectives on Puerto Rican Identity and Cultural Politics (2001) and author of “Amerindian mtDNA does not matter: A reply to Jorge Estevez and the privileging of Taíno identity in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean,” Centro: The Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Fall 2008). He can be contacted at


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