Thanks to the Speaker of House of Assembly, the term “indigenous Bahamian” has recently trended in public discourse. But. What is “indigenous” anyway?
It seems the Speaker was using the term somewhat loosely — i.e. someone who was born in The Bahamas during the 20th century, and probably to parents who, presumably, were also born in The Bahamas during the 20 century. But very few of us are demonstrably “indigenous” — i.e. descended from the Lucayan Taino people, whom the Europeans met here when Columbus got so famously lost.
So to fill in the picture just a little, here’s an excerpt from a really interesting story about some even more interesting research that’s being done on indigenous people in our part of the world. Turns out that most of us really aren’t as “indigenous” or “native” as we believe.
And it also turns out that some of us might just be more “indigenous” than we think…
The Bahamas weren’t settled until 1,500 years ago. The people who settled there are known as the Lucayan Taino, and they and the other Taino communities of the Caribbean were the natives who met the first Spanish colonists in 1492. At the time, the Taino were thriving; Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas estimated that about 600,000 people each lived on Jamaica and Puerto Rico, with as many as a million on Hispaniola. That didn’t last long; by the mid-16th century, smallpox and slavery had driven the Taino to the brink of extinction.
Their presence still lingers throughout the islands, in the form of words that run through the heart of Caribbean life, like hurricane and canoe. There are also archaeological remains such as rock art that tell us something of the Taino’s spiritual life beyond what comes down to us from the reports of Spanish priests. But the bustling communities and widely-flung trade networks that pre-dated European colonization are no more.
It’s long been suspected, however, that the Taino didn’t die out altogether. Spanish colonists reportedly married Taino wives, and other records say that Taino and escaped African slaves also intermarried and formed communities. Some people in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and even the mainland US still proudly claim Taino heritage and practice traditions handed down from pre-Columbian times, from cooking to crafting. There’s been a larger effort to revive Taino culture and identity in the last century and a half or so, but it has never been clear how directly genetically related modern Caribbean residents are to their vanished ancestors.
… the story, it turns out, is more complicated than simple extinction, and new DNA evidence helps fill in some of the gaps. Archaeologists found three relatively complete skeletons in Preacher’s Cave, a site on the northern end of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas. Alongside the skeletons, they also found a single tooth, which didn’t clearly belong with any of the three skeletons. Schroeder and his colleagues got permission to sequence DNA from the tooth, which radiocarbon dating showed was more than 1,000 years old. That’s at least 500 years before European contact, meaning the tooth must have belonged to a Lucayan Taino woman who lived on the island between 776 and 992 CE.