The Myth of Taíno survival in the Spanish speaking Caribbean

In recent years, a small but growing number of Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans have adopted an exclusive indigenous or Taíno ethnicity. They have done so despite evidence showing that pure blooded Native Americans became extinct in the western Caribbean by the early decades of the seventeenth century, if not earlier, Gabriel Haslip-Viera argues in this article from The Venture.

These individuals have also played fast and loose with concepts of race and ethnicity. They have done so with words and phrases such as “extinction” and “indigenous survival” to justify their claims.

In the early part of the last decade, Puerto Rico’s news media made a big deal of studies that showed that 61% of Puerto Ricans had a trace or a small amount of indigenous DNA dating back to the sixteenth century, passed exclusively through a single female line of ancestry in an individual’s family tree (the mother’s line). This finding was used and abused in an exaggerated, self-serving manner by would-be later day Taínos and their advocates as evidence supporting their claims for an exclusive indigenous pedigree.

However, another study was largely ignored at the time (and since). It that showed that 70% of Puerto Ricans had European DNA, along with 20% who had African DNA and only 10% who had Amerindian DA – this time passed through a single male line in the individual’s family tree (the father’s line).

As it turned out, these studies, when considered together in a sober manner, provide actual evidence for what had been concluded all along by scientists, social scientists and historians – Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans have been and are persons of genetically mixed backgrounds. Eventually, these studies were also criticized for their very limited utility because of two characteristics. First is their focus on distant ancestry. Second, their focus on single male and female lineages that ignore thousands of other males and females who contributed genetic material to an individual’s family tree during the past 500 years.

Ongoing research since the last decade undercuts claims for an exclusive indigenous pedigree by would-be later day Taínos and their supporters. So called “autosomal” or “admixture tests” show that Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans are persons of mixed ethnic background – mostly European and African. with significantly smaller percentages of the indigenous and others. These studies have also been criticized for their limited utility, but they have also been judged to be more reliable than studies that focus on distant ancestry and on single male and female lines of ancestry (See table and sources below).

Claims have been made by would-be Taínos and their supporters that substantial numbers of Taínos fled into the mountainous interior regions of Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo and Cuba in the sixteenth century and remained biologically pure in isolation of Spanish colonial society in the centuries that followed. These claims have not been demonstrated. On the contrary, the genetic and historical evidence shows that surviving Taínos were joined by impoverished Europeans, runaway African slaves and others to form the mixed Jibaro, Guajiro, and Cibaeño peasant populations of rural interior Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo and Cuba in the centuries after 1550 or 1600. The claim by Anthony Castanha (as reported in a previous NiLP Network posting) that the Puerto Rican Jibaro is Native American is, therefore, patently absurd.

It also needs to be said that the genetic make-up of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans has little or no connection to the way race and ethnicity are socially constructed at the present time in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and its Diaspora. The traditionally crude and simplistic Eurocentric concepts of race and ethnicity and their connected patterns of prejudice and discrimination, aimed mostly at persons defined as black or mulatto, continue to prevail among Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans. This has occurred despite efforts to promote a “rainbow” model of race mixture.

These concepts have also been adopted by the later day Taínos to justify their claims for a pure indigenous pedigree. This is, in part, an attempt to separate them from persons of African background and from Europeans – especially Spaniards – who they see as colonial oppressors whose contributions to society and culture is to be ignored or rejected in the articulation of their identity.

Commentary from National Institute for Latino Policy

For the original report go to

2 thoughts on “The Myth of Taíno survival in the Spanish speaking Caribbean

  1. Read Sherina Feliciano-Santos’s extremely insightful PhD dissertation (Linguistic Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) for a much more nuanced discussion of what people who claim Taino heritage actually say (which does not coincide with the portrayal in this article).

    An Inconceivable Indigeneity? The Historical, Cultural, and Interactional Dimensions of Puerto Rican Taíno Activism

    This dissertation examines the historical, institutional, and interactional dimensions of Taíno activism in Puerto Rico. Particularly, I consider how the presumed extinction of the Taíno in Puerto Rico has served to limit their claims to indigeneity as well as the role that they can play in public policy debates concerning the management of indigenous human remains and sacred sites. Drawing on two years of ethnographic research in Puerto Rico, I argue that Taíno activists address and reconfigure widespread historical narratives within everyday interactions. I propose that Taíno activists seek to reposition the histories that erase them by focusing particularly on three factors: (1) the incongruity between the life stories and documents that inform prevalent historical narratives premised on the Taíno extinction and the personal and filial trajectories that inform current claims to being Taíno, (2) the ensuing discrepant interpretations of ambiguous terms in historical documents, and (3) the repair of Taíno erasure through the active reclamation of Taíno identity in cultural and linguistic terms. I examine how these incongruities, ambiguities and repairs materialize at various levels of social action: within discursive and interactional realignments, through recruitment encounters, in the socialization of novices, in the course of creating a Taíno script, throughout the manufacture of Taíno speech forms, and in bureaucratic encounters. The dissertation shows how these social dimensions have been involved in the recent public emergence of Taíno as an increasingly visible social identification in Puerto Rico.

    1. I am so glad you brought up SHerina’s dissertation. She is a colleague at Vassar College and her work deserves greater attention.

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