The genocide of Native Americans is considered by many to be the worst of any in history—outstripping the later Jewish and Roma Holocaust by as much as an order of magnitude. Now a study of the maternal genes of skeletal and mummified remains of 92 South Americans dating from 8,600 to 500 years ago shows that all those lineages were wiped out. No living person descended from any the individuals tested is known to be living today.
It is unknown how many people lived in the Americas when Columbus and the other conquistadors arrived. Estimates range from 1 million to 100 million. One middling estimate puts the North American number alone at about 12 million people, who were reduced to 237,000 by 1900.
"The Last Days of Tenochtitlan, Conquest of Mexico by Cortez", a 19th-century painting by William de Leftwich Dodge. (public domain)
Of the 84 genetic lineages among the 92 South American remains, not one lineage survived contact with Europeans, a new study says.
“When Europeans arrived, some of those populations were wiped out completely,” Bastien Llamas, an author of the study who is a geneticist with the University of Adelaide, told Science.
DeSoto claiming the Mississippi, as depicted in the United States Capitol rotunda (public domain)
Mitochondrial DNA provides only part of the picture, the article states—the line of mother to child. You don’t see if male genes survived, or even what happened with women who didn’t have children. (Though if they didn’t have children obviously their genes would not survive in present-day people.)
The Science article tells how the study was conducted. The researchers took DNA from the 92 skeletons and mummies from western South America, from Mexico to Chile. The team sequenced the mitochondrial genome of each person’s remains. Mitochondrial genes descend from mother to child, “so the sequences open a window onto the matrilineal heritage of indigenous Americans extending all the way back to their roots in Siberia,” the article states.
Natives reject the idea that all of their ancestors arrived from Siberia, so this study has an element of controversy. The article states:
By tallying up the random mutations that accumulate in populations that have been separated, geneticists can count backwards and figure out when two groups last had a common ancestor. When the researchers applied that technique to the 92 mummies and skeletons, they found that their ancestors had last been in contact with Siberian populations about 23,000 years ago. After that, a group with about 2000 child-bearing females (perhaps about 10,000 people total) spent 6000 years or so genetically cut off from other groups of humans. That supports the idea that the ancestors of the earliest Americans spent a few millennia stranded in Beringia, the now submerged landmass that once stretched from Siberia to Alaska, before the ice sheets started to melt and open up passages to the New World.
Map showing the location of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (public domain)
About 16,000 years ago there was a population boom. Suddenly, lineages began branching off, a time when, the researchers believe, people began to move from Beringia, which is now submerged, into the Americas. There, with new land and untapped resources, the population spread rapidly to every corner of the New World.
Alan Cooper, an evolutionary biologist who was a lead author of the study, said the only possible route was along the Pacific coast because the ice sheets were so thick and there was no way through farther inland.
“Everybody settled down,” the article states. “Within a few thousand years, many of the ancient lineages had already diverged from one another, meaning that people from one group were not having babies with people from another (or at least, their mothers weren’t moving around, since we’re talking about mitochondrial DNA). The team found 84 separate genetic lineages represented by the 92 samples, they report today in Science Advances.”
So how did all those unfortunate people die? This is another area of controversy among natives of North and South America and the Caribbean. While some say most natives were accidentally wiped out by disease, the fact is, beginning with Columbus in the Caribbean, Cortez in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru, Europeans killed and enslaved natives. And it was no different in later years. Some natives died from being worked to death. Others starved. History books are filled with one attack on and slaughter of innocent native villagers after another. And yes, many died from disease.
16th century Aztec drawing of smallpox victims (public domain)
This writer has often thought that if the Europeans knew they were infecting and killing natives with disease, the only decent thing they could have done would have been to quarantine themselves from these continents. But if you look at American Founding Fathers’ statements and texts, they had a deliberate policy to “remove” Indians, steal their territory and kill them off.
The first U.S. president, George Washington, stated in 1779:
The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.