Watch who you call "extinct"!

5 minute read

Sometimes people wonder why human genetics projects should bother to involve anthropologists.

From now on, this seems like a good example: “Rebuilding the genome of a hidden ethnicity”.

CORRECTED: This article originally stated that the Tano were extinct, which is incorrect. Nature apologizes for the offence caused, and has corrected the text to better explain the research project described.

The news article reports on a conference talk by Carlos Bustamante, who is working on the population genetics of the 1000 Genomes Project samples. The project includes whole-genome sequencing data from 70 research subjects from Puerto Rico, many of whom have a substantial fraction of ancestry from the native peoples of the Caribbean, chiefly Taíno. There are more than 4 million Puerto Ricans today, both on the island and throughout the United States, and their ancestry averages around 15% Native American. Genetically, that works out to 1.2 million copies of a typical gene derived from indigenous peoples, of course scattered in different ways across the genomes of Puerto Rican people today. That’s a lot of information, and Bustamante and colleagues are using the information to test hypotheses about the ancestry and pattern of native ancestry in these people.

The news coverage of the talk ran into trouble by describing the Taíno as an “extinct ethnicity”. What happened next won’t be a surprise to any anthropologist who works in the Caribbean. Over the course of a weekend, the comment section of the Nature news article was filled by people outraged at the description of their ancestors as “extinct”. Many identified themselves as Taíno people, protesting an injustice.

The communication failure here is obvious. A presentation that refers to descendants of an ancient population ought to use terms that are anthropologically valid. Here we have two words that provoked confusion and anger: “extinct” and “Taíno”.

“Extinct” just is not a term that should apply to the ancestors of living people. Whatever the dictionary may say, to an ordinary reader or listener, the closest association of “extinct” is probably “dinosaurs”. Extinction without issue. Even when we refer to cultural practices, the term “extinct” invites confusion. Extinction implies a model of disappearance that is sudden and complete, which in many cultural contexts didn’t happen.

“Taíno” is a contested cultural category. A growing group of people today claim Taíno identity, not merely Taíno ancestry, who live on many Caribbean islands. Some cultural practices derived from pre-Columbian Taíno people are today still widespread, among people who may have no strong belief about their ancestors 500 years ago. The movement toward greater self-identification as Taíno has emerged within an international population. Any discussion of Taíno ancestry ought to be framed in terms of the living people today who have that ancestry. Some of them may have a small fraction of Taíno ancestry but still self-identify in that category; others have never self-identified in that way, a few of whom might even be horrified at the prospect.

Genetic observations themselves have contributed greatly to the revival of the concept of Taíno identity. By demonstrating the high fraction of indigenous ancestry in Caribbean people, genetics has provided something more “real” to people than their cultural ties may seem. Past studies of admixture in the Caribbean were hailed by activists as “scientific proof” that the Taíno still exist. That is one of the anthropological problems: the geneticists are not neutral players in this social milieu, even if they have no commitment to any possible result.

In my opinion, the 1000 Genomes Project participants are the good guys. The scientists directing the project have given a lot of thought to their selection of samples, funded workshops to discuss ethical issues that arise from sampling and analysis, and even came up with boilerplate language so that their hundreds of postdocs have a standard way refer to the different sample groups. The project has created tremendous value for those of us who study the range of human diversity and human origins.

Some of the project scientists have worked to explain why it is important to encompass human diversity within large-scale sequencing projects (for example, a recent paper by Bustamante and colleagues Bustamante:world:2011). Genetic studies of human populations have been strongly biased toward European populations, and secondarily toward populations from other parts of the world that are well-represented by immigrant communities within the United States and Western Europe. The bias means that we don’t understand as much as we should about the relationship between genetics and health in other populations of the world. Rare variations, some of which contributed to disease risk or protection, are missed by our current samples – even though in some cases more samples could be added at minimal cost.

My point is that there are really good intentions behind the project, and from an NIH-centric perspective, the project attempted to be inclusive. But competing ideas of identity make human genetics a difficult area where miscommunication is inevitable. Categories that a human geneticist may think are perfectly clear, an anthropologist will tend to be more wary about.

I saw the story on Gene Expression, where Razib Khan provides good commentary along the lines of my reactions. I would add that cases like this one add a deeper dimension to the usual kind of science miscommunication. People are sometimes very selective about the science they accept to believe. Probably in no cases are people so selective as when the outcome concerns their own identity.

A great power of today’s genetic technology is the opportunity it presents to allow people to discover their ancestry. But that power is easily twisted into a license to impose identity. When different groups have motives to construct genetic identity, then genetics becomes a powerful tool for each group to proselytize its particular version of cultural identity.

Anthropologists are already engaged in this problem, in different parts of the world. Yet they are minor players. As we see in this article, the geneticists have large voices. Those voices are heard rapidly by activists of various kinds, who have extremely high levels of engagement with broader communities. Taíno and Nature are both obscure to most Americans, but within 72 hours one of those groups mobilized and forced a response from the other, in a way that will have a large impact on future scientific and news reporting.