A new DNA study has brought the consequences of European colonisation of the Americas into shocking clarity, confirming the impact on indigenous populations.
Orchestrated by the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), the study shows the absence of pre-Colombian genetic lineages in modern indigenous Americans, revealing that these lineages went extinct with the arrival of Spanish colonists.
Published last week in the journal Science Advances, the study marks the first large scale investigation of indigenous DNA and its presence in modern Americans. The researchers analysed directly the DNA of 92 pre-Colombian skeletons, ranging from 500 to 8600 years old.
Maternal genetic lineages were charted for the study by extracting and sequencing whole mitochondrial genomes from the teeth and bones of the 92 pre-Colombian skeletons.
The team’s findings were shocking. “Surprisingly, none of the genetic lineages we found in almost 100 ancient humans were present, or showed evidence of descendants, in today’s Indigenous populations,” explained Dr Bastien Llamas, a Senior Research Associate with ACAD and joint lead author of the study. “This separation appears to have been established as early as 9000 years ago and was completely unexpected, so we examined many demographic scenarios to try and explain the pattern.”
How such an extreme population decline could take place is a mystery, but Llamas suggests it is directly tied in with the pattern of colonization.
“The only scenario that fit our observations was that shortly after the initial colonisation, populations were established that subsequently stayed geographically isolated from one another, and that a major portion of these populations later became extinct following European contact.” he said, in a press release. “This closely matches the historical reports of a major demographic collapse immediately after the Spaniards arrived in the late 1400s.”