A Scientific Focus on Indigenous Ancestry in Jamaica - Havard University, UWI, Mona, JNHT, IOJ

DNA strand

Tina Mowatt Reece (aka Xayla Trinity)

Release Date

Wednesday, June 5, 2024


It is becoming more crucial to identify ancient DNA in the current Jamaican population, especially as the Jamaican Government faces mounting pressure to recognize various self-identified Indigenous groups. Recently, the Minority Rights Group, a leading human rights organization, has registered the Yamaye/Jamaican Taíno population as “... descendants of Ceramic Age people, as well as European immigrants and enslaved Africans”. Rastafari and several Maroon Communities are also registered with the human rights organization.

The study of the ancient Caribbean population has become the focus of extensive historical and scientific research to unravel the complexities of the ancestry of the Americas. A research project on the genetic history of the Caribbean, led by Harvard University scientists, delved into the ancient human genome in the Americas, making it the largest study of its kind. Nations including the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Curacao contributed genetic samples to this study, published in Nature on December 23, 2020. The study unveiled two distinct waves of human populations in the Caribbean: one group of stone tool users dating back around 6,000 years, closely linked to Central and South America, and another group of farmer potters from 2,500 to 3,000 years ago, with strong connections to the Arawak speakers of northeast South America. However, the initial study did not include an examination of Jamaica's ancient DNA - a separate analysis had been proposed and presented to the Archaeological Society of Jamaica in March 2021.

The Department of History and Archaeology at the University of the West Indies, Mona launched the international collaboration and partnership with scientists at Harvard University in February 2022, to study “migration patterns, social ties, and dietary habits, among other things, of Jamaica’s First Peoples”. Ancient DNA (aDNA), collected from pre-columbian human skeletal samples located at various archaeological sites such as White Marl, St. Catherine and Cambridge Hill, St. Thomas, and Chancery Hall, St. Andrew were exported to Harvard University's Reich Laboratory, in the care of Dr. Kendra Sirak, a senior staff scientist in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. Stakeholders, such as the Institute of Jamaica, Jamaica National Heritage Trust, University of the West Indies, Mona, and Jamaica-based project coordinator, Dr. Zachary Beier, collaborated and signed off on the project proposal after numerous meetings, site visits, and training sessions. The recently concluded research findings will be presented in academic journals in early 2025 and shared with communities across Jamaica. Arrangements will be made with all relevant authorities and stakeholders to return unused samples from the ancient remains, understanding the importance of returning the Ancestors home.

Dr Kendra Sirak

Dr. Sirak was a keynote speaker at the Yamaye (Jamaica) Taino New Year and Rainy Season Celebrations' inaugural virtual launch on May 24, 2024. She explained the process of the testing conducted on the human remains exported to her research lab and how the findings contributed to the rich historical and archaeological information already available. Concerning the complete genocide of any Indigenous groups, Dr. Sirak stated that:

“...what we know about the Caribbean is that there was an amazing and vibrant and dynamic population and at some point hundreds of years ago there was European colonization and large-scale genocide caused by Europeans. After that, there was the beginning and saturation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. So all of these different demographic processes introduced new types of ancestry into this (Caribbean) region. It certainly does not mean that any sort of ancestry went extinct at all, but it just meant that new types of ancestry came in and mixed...”.

Skeletal remains

Indigenous communities in various Caribbean and Latin American regions are actively demanding respect, acknowledgment, and the full rights and benefits enjoyed by indigenous peoples worldwide. Jamaicans have mainly observed local groups' efforts with interest, but the growing global movement towards reparative justice should alert policymakers and academia to tangibly acknowledge and support the evolving landscape.

Upon being asked if she agreed with the stance of the government that Jamaica has Indigenous Cultures and not necessarily Indigenous Peoples, Dr. Sirak stated:

I think that the Jamaican people know who they are and I fully respect anyone who identifies as having Indigenous ancestry. I hope that work such as our project can contribute to the celebration of the Indigenous People of Jamaica.


Note: Tina Mowatt Reece ( aka Xayla Trinity) is a Freelance Writer



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