October 25, 2020

Genetic research in the Caribbean goes deeper than DNA


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Carib-MapBy Miguel Vilar

Anthropological fieldwork and laboratory analysis have been at the core of the Genographic Project since its launch in 2005.  Working at that core are scientists from eleven regional research centers spread around the globe collaborating with local indigenous populations to gather and analyze genetic data.

In addition to DNA sampling and analysis, learning about the local culture and history is another component of Genographic Project research that compliments the biological data.  The goal is to formulate a more complete picture of the population adding to the larger global picture of human history and migration, and to achieve this goal scientists must research deeper than DNA.

Caribbean_landscape2Some of the most interesting and revealing regions where Genographic Scientists work today are the continental crossroads– places where distinct continental groups meet geographically, making their history and their genetic results very interesting. The Caribbean islands that bridge North, Central and South America are such a place.

“The Caribbean is an excellent region to think and learn about anthropology because of its rich history hallmarked by the convergences of peoples and cultures,” explains Jada Benn-Torres, anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame and collaborator with the Genographic Project’s North American Center, headed by Dr. Theodore Schurr at the University of Pennsylvania.

Last month marked her second Genographic Project visit to the islands to work with the Santa Rosa First People Community of Trinidad.

IMG_00121“In working with this community, we are moving towards understanding more about the genetic history of Trinidad,” added Dr. Benn-Torres. “Specifically, we hope to shed light upon how people began the migration from South America into the Caribbean, as well as how indigenous Caribbean groups are related to peoples from other parts of the Americas. But while I thoroughly enjoy the laboratory and analytical aspects of the research, I also enjoy the part of my fieldwork in which I interact with potential and current participants.”

Away in the Northern Range of Trinidad, where the landscape is lush and dotted with papaya and cacao trees, Dr. Benn-Torres shares a meal at Mariposa Gardens, a local restaurant, with her assistant, her host, and a local community member.  During this short time, she learns more about local life that she could have ever learned from DNA alone.

“I realized that this ‘first hand’ history of the community could not ever be found in a tour book or academic journal.  I can read how people populated Trinidad, but what I could not read or infer from DNA is the personal story of a family leaving behind the land they knew and how they rebuilt their life. While the science behind population migration will always interest me, I revel in the interaction, the stories, and the human connection I make with those I encounter.”

Parade.in_.TrinidadHer experience embodies the message of the Genographic Project.  Language, history and culture shape our hypotheses about genetic ancestry, and help support the theories that we develop through DNA analysis.  Ultimately, our goal is to formulate a more complete anthropological picture of human history, and every participant that joins the project contributes to this goal. For information on the Genographic project visit www.genographic.com

PHOTOS: Map of the Caribbean. Courtesy of National Geographic Maps.

The hills of northern Trinidad. Photo by Jada Benn-Torres.

Picturesque Caribbean islands. Photo by Jada Benn-Torres.

Photo by Winfield Parks/National Geographic Creative



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