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Exploring Caribbean settlement using ancient DNA

Scientific research on ancient DNA has provided new insights into the early peopling of the Caribbean.

The new study, published in the journal Science, has shed light on how the islands were settled thousands of years ago.

The international team of researchers from the Caribbean, Europe and North America, have discovered that the Caribbean was settled by several successive population dispersals that originated on the American mainland.

The team of archaeologists and geneticists found evidence of at least three population dispersals that brought people to the Caribbean. Early migration patterns indicate the islands were settled and resettled several times from different parts of the American mainland.

Image credit: Hayes and Jarvis Ireland

Achieving these findings, the researchers analysed the genomes of 93 ancient Caribbean islanders who lived between 400 and 3200 years ago using bone fragments excavated by Caribbean archaeologists from 16 archaeological sites across the region.

The region's warm climate meant the DNA samples were not particularly well preserved, but using 'targeted enrichment techniques', the researchers were able to extract enough information from the remains.

There are thought to have been two earlier dispersals into the western Caribbean, one of which appears to be linked to earlier dispersals in North America, and a third, more recent "wave", which originated in South America.

Interestingly, the researchers also found genetic differences between the early settlers and the 'newcomers' from South America who, according to archaeological evidence, entered the region around 2800 years ago.

The new data serves to support previous observations that the early settlers of the Caribbean were biologically and culturally diverse, providing some clarity and resolution to an ancient part of the region's history.

According to Corrine Hofman, Professor of Archeology at Leiden University, "The results of this study provide yet another layer of data that highlights the diverse and complex nature of pre-Columbian Caribbean societies and their connections to the American mainland prior to colonial invasion".

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