An Unprecedented DNA Study Confirms and Recovers Indigenous Identity in Cuba

A minority sector of Cuba’s Tainos continued to partially and syncretically transmit their own traditions. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio/EFE, Havana, 16 December 2022 — At 87 years of age, the Cuban Francisco Ramírez Rojas began to cry before they gave him the genetic certificate that said exactly what his grandfather had repeated so many times: that they, despite everything that was said, were descendants of indigenous people.

The document accredits that he, chief of the community of La Ranchería, in Guantánamo, is one of the few living descendants of the Tainos, one of the large groups of pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Island that, according to historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals, “disappeared as a society, drowned biologically and culturally” by the European and African ethnic component.

Despite the story of the “massive extermination” of the indigenous people attributed to the Spanish conquerors — the well-known “black legend” — and although it is true that there were multiple violent encounters on the Island between the two groups during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the vast majority of Cuban Indians mixed in the new villages, died from “undeliberate attacks of pathogens from Europe and Africa, while a minority sector continued to partially and syncretically transmit its own traditions.”

Francisco is not alone. Members of 27 families in 23 communities in eastern Cuba have a proportion of Amerindian indigenous genes that on average doubles the Cuban average, according to an unprecedented study presented this Thursday by a multidisciplinary team in Havana.

The research, five years of fieldwork on the back of decades of previous investigations, adds to ethnographic, historical and even photographic studies, for the first time on a relevant scale, the scientific certainty of DNA tests.

The study “is a milestone,” says the historian of Baracoa, Alejandro Hartmann, one of the promoters of research in these communities.

The analysis of Francisco, for example, says that 37.5% of his genes are of Amerindian origin, 35.5% European, 15.9% African and 11% Asian. In the country as a whole, by contrast, the Amerindian component on average is 8%, compared to 71% for the European component.

One more detail is that all the DNA tests in this study — 91 people, 74 with conclusive results — refer to female Amerindian ancestors. All male ancestors were European and, to a lesser extent, African.

Specifically, as Cuban geneticist Beatriz Marcheco, from the National Center for Medical Genetics, explains to EFE, from these DNA studies it can be estimated that all these people analyzed descended from “between 900 and 1,000 female” Amerindians who lived in the 16th century.

They survived, hidden in the remote areas that their descendants still inhabit, the “demographic debacle of unimaginable dimensions” that, Marcheco explains, followed the emergence of the Spaniards and Africans in Cuba. There is no trace of male Amerindians.

“It’s not unusual that our own books, even the most recent ones, have discussed for years the total extermination of the Amerindian component of our population. Indeed, we do not have closed communities, but we do have these people who have retained those physical characteristics, who have that footprint on their DNA,” says Marcheco.

DNA studies have been the finishing touch on the project, which emerged five years ago as an initiative to portray descendants of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Island.

But as Spanish photographer Héctor Garrido, coordinator of the Cuba Indígena project, explains to EFE, the initiative was evolving towards a “more comprehensive” approach that ended up including historical documentation, portraits, ethnographic studies, anthropological research and, as a cornerstone, genetic analysis.

All these perspectives underline the thesis that the DNA tests confirm. Physical features show the Amerindian component on the faces portrayed, and ethnographic studies collect indigenous traditions such as making cassava (yuca bread cakes), using the “coa” (agricultural tool), growing cimarrón tobacco and celebrating their own religious rites.

The study, according to its authors, has repercussions in multiple areas, starting with the communities investigated — Francis’s tears are proof of this — and ending with Cuba as a whole.

It has also touched them personally, after an intense coexistence with the communities with “big personal implications,” the project director says.

Garrido emphasizes that these families were “fully aware of being descendants of indigenous people” and felt “proud of what they are.” However, he adds, they had mixed feelings when at school they were taught “that the indigenous people were extinct.”

The editor of the meticulous book on the project, the Cuban Julio Larramendi, is convinced that Cuba will welcome these conclusions as “beneficial” and that now is a “good time” to make them known.

“We have this living root, a root that must be fed, watered, given the opportunity to grow and reproduce, to show what traditions have survived, to show that they are part of our culture,” he says.

Marcheco digs deeper into this idea: “All this will allow us a reflection, a new look, a reunion with our roots, a reinterpretation of our origins. And that will have an influence, not only on Cuban thought, but also on the way in which we assume our culture, our diversity, to the extent that we seek a society that includes all of us.”

Translated by Regina Anavy


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.