A History of Slavery and Genocide Is Hidden in Modern DNA
There are plenty of ways to study history. You can conduct archaeological digs, examining the artifacts and structures buried under the ground to learn about past lifestyles. You can read historical texts, perusing the written record to better understand events that occurred long ago.
But an international group of medical researchers led by Andrés Moreno-Estrada and Carlos Bustamante of Stanford and Eden Martin of the University of Miami are looking instead at a decidedly unconventional historical record: human DNA.
Hidden in the microscopic genetic material of people from the Caribbean, they’ve found, is an indelible record of human history, stretching back centuries to the arrival of Europeans, the decimation of Native American populations and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. By analyzing these genetic samples and comparing them to the genes of people around the world, they’re able to pinpoint not only the geographic origin of various populations but even the timing of when great migrations occurred.
As part of a new project, documented in a study published yesterday in PLOS Genetics, the researchers sampled and studied the DNA of 251 people living in Florida who had ancestry from one of six countries and islands that border the Caribbean—Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Honduras and Colombia—along with 79 residents of Venezuela who belong to one of three Native American groups (the Yukpa, Warao and Bari tribes). Each study participant was part of a triad that included two parents and one of their children who were also surveyed, so the researchers could track which particular genetic markers were passed on from which parents.
The researchers sequenced the DNA of these participants, analyzing their entire genomes in search of particular genetic sequences—called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)—that often differ between unrelated individuals and are passed down from parent to child. To provide context for the SNPs they found in people from these groups and areas, they compared them to existing databases of sequenced DNA from thousands of people globally, such as data from the HapMap Project.